The Talking Heads and its lead singer, David Byrne, excelled at creating rock art. Their music was strange, catchy, risk taking and fantastic. Before they disbanded, The Talking Heads established themselves as one of the greatest American bands of the late 20th century and their music continues to be radio staples. Here is the cinematic interpretation of their music, as Byrne wrote, directed and stars in a movie as experimental, colorful and bouncy as the “True Stories” album that accompanied the release.
While the story loosely centers around the days leading up to a celebration and how two lonely individuals (played by John Goodman and Swoosie Kurtz) finally meet, the order of scenes could be rearranged and the film would play the same way. While the film doesn’t entirely capture or encapsulate all that is brilliant, exciting and still intoxicatingly different about The Talking Heads, it is a lively work and a worthy extension of the album of the same name.
“True Stories” is self consciously odd and artsy but intriguing in its time capsule of American idealism. The citizens of Virgil, Texas live in excess but are full of longing. Goodman’s first major film role is a beauty- he’s such a sweet, natural and likable performer, it’s no wonder this was the beginning of a long career.
The first musical number, “Wild Wild Life” (the biggest hit single of the soundtrack) is presented as a karaoke performance, long before karaoke was a household word. Oddly enough, it’s a lip-syncing karaoke number, making it even stranger. The scene and the song offer an encapsulation of 80’s pop culture, with visual references to Prince and Billy Idol, people young and old, styles and trends that have come and gone.
Other great songs, like “Radio head” (yes, the song that gave us the name of the band), “Puzzling Evidence,” “People Like Us” and “City of Dreams” surface, though this is hardly a conventional musical in the MTV age. Considering how Byrne, Prince and, much later, Madonna all became filmmakers, its easy to point to Byrne as the one who took the most chances and made the most impressive film. Yet, Byrne’s film has no real center and is as silly as it is sincere.
Self satisfied as it is, “True Stories” is both too hip for the room and a gentle, observant ode to America’s identity as a place of optimism and self-styled oddballs. Byrne’s performance is overly mannered. As the detached but chatty narrator, a black cowboy hat wearing variation of The Stage Manager of “Our Town,” Byrne can hold the frame, though he’s playing “quirky” with a capitol Q.
Byrne’s film is sometimes smug but it does possess an unforced affection for oddballs, living in Texas and elsewhere. Byrne’s use of still photographs, chapter headings and a dopey voice over (his own) to tell the story of Texas and the United States is intriguing, if utterly goofy. His distrust of established institutions was slightly ahead of its time, an affront to President Reagan’s push for old fashioned values and adoration of the U.S. can-do spirit.
It would overstating the film’s reach to suggest it influenced the Coen brothers, David Lynch or Wes Anderson but “True Stories” does have that sort of contained, take-it-or-leave-it weirdness and a one-of-a-kind tone. Imagine “Twin Peaks” minus any murders or supernatural occurrences and it probable plays like this movie.
Those unfamiliar with the Talking Heads or unable to gel with Byrne’s goofball vision may not adapt to the film’s easygoing vibe. Much of this is so surreal, it’s like watching a movie about humans from the perspective of inebriated extraterrestrials (such as the Spalding Grey scene of a dinner that becomes a living illustration of capitalism).
Byrne’s film is dazzling, distinct and contains enough playful filmmaking to suggest he should have continued to make movies. Instead, this is his sole work as a director. To his credit, “True Stories” is strange and unique enough to merit both renewed attention and either be dismissed or embraced for the same thing: unabashed originality. It’s a musical, a satire, a faux documentary, a droll comedy and a tribute to those who proudly stand alone as outsiders.