Blu-ray Review: Criterion Tells TRUE STORIES
David Byrne's esoteric 1986 comedy/musical stars John Goodman, Spalding Grey, and Talking Heads songs.
The dream has come true...
In the prophetic past of 1986, Talking Heads frontman emeritus David Byrne veered off the promising road of his successful art/rock band long enough to make a movie. Warner Brothers was good enough to provide the necessary bunch of money for it, and well, here we are. Byrne’s finished product is a movie unlike most any other; about all of us, and The Way We Live Now. Its stories may not be strictly true, but they nevertheless constitute True Stories.
This is a film about a bunch of people in Virgil, Texas, a place that’s completely normal. Of course, if Texas, in the film, is a state all its own, then fictional small-town Virgil, celebrating its 150th anniversary of statehood with a “Celebration of Specialness,” is purely a state of mind. Hope, fear, excitement, satisfaction: it’s expanding in pure 1980s style.
Every night the sun goes down/and the people are staying at home.
Peace of mind? It’s a piece of cake!
Alas, True Stories is David Byrne’s only feature length film as director. (He‘d previously helmed a few really swell Talking Heads videos, as great a calling card as any for this, a music video movie with a big brain.) He never lets his inexperience in this sector stand in the way of his confidence or his symmetrically outside-the-box creativity.
Byrne also stars as the idiosyncratic Narrator, an obtuse if approachable fella in a large stetson and a bolo tie. A visitor to the area, he awkwardly addresses the camera as he details his take on what’s what in the surrounding area. He’s known to drop in his own unique pronunciations and syllable stressings, particularly when he says "A Celebration of Special-ness." And he says that a lot. He drives around town and on lyrical desert highways of fire in a nice, shiny, red con-vert-a-bull! (Although that particular unique pronunciation isn’t his).
Love and money/Gettin' all/Mixed up
And now love is here/C’mon and try it.
I got love for sale!
Ballooning consumerism, mall culture, American isolationism, and how rugged individualism has given way to increasingly soulless corporate consolidation are readily explored throughout, but with an infectious heartbeat and playful quirk. Amid the unspoken dire nature of the observations of Virgil As Western Civilization, Byrne goes the extremely rare extra steps to uncover the human beauty in the intents, however misfired and ridiculous they may be. Thus, True Stories emerges as the musical missing link between Wes Anderson and John Carpenter’s They Live, a bright forerunner if there ever was one.
Check out Mr. Businessman, Oh oh oh! /He got some wild, wild life.
You get on board
Anytime you like
Written sharply by Stephen Tobolowsky, Beth Henley, and David Byrne, the screenplay precisely sends up and pays tribute to the denizens of Anytown, USA. There’s The Lying Woman, played by esoteric performer Jo Harvey Allen. Roebuck 'Pops' Staples turns up as a neighborly shaman of sorts with a most curious media alter. It might be impossible to peg his character’s beliefs, but breaking the local monotony of time singing these words: “Rompiendo la monotonia del tiempo” (“Breaking the monotony of time”). And there are plenty of others, including a wandering, singing, clanging, gang of kids, goat on a rope in tow.
True to the stories (told by the film’s casting agent on Criterion’s enlightening, newly-produced, one-hour “Making of True Stories” bonus feature), Byrne pooled the film’s talent from all corners. Amid the conforming individuality/individual conformists, there are over 50 sets of twins in the movie. Because, maybe people aren’t all that different. Also, to quote my perennial favorite song from the film, “They wanna go, where they go, where they go/Oh oh oh/doin' wild, wild life.”
In his songs for the film, most every one of them freely sampled throughout this review, Byrne asks the questions we didn’t know we had. “How long must we live in the heat of the sun?” The songs, by the way, were all new for this project, often sung on screen by the actors. There is a separate album of Talking Heads performing the tunes, also called “True Stories.”
The songs, with their sublime lyrics, are the real star of the show, even when performed by someone who, unlike Byrne, doesn’t list singing as their day job. However, for the first time ever, all the tracks, as heard in the film, plus the score, is made available here on a special bonus CD. (And for those interested, special vinyl editions are now out there, as well. Sold seperately). The music… The sound...of a brand-new world. It’s cool. And like the song says, it’s scientific!
What time is it? No time to look back.
Famed monologuist Spalding Gray and actress Annie McEnroe play Virgil’s version of a power couple, the Culvers. Instilled in the corporate side of the booming tech field and forward fashions (respectively), they nudge their world into the future: Suburban expansion. Mall culture. Track housing. Connectivity. They’re the Dream Operators, reminding us to “Be sexy in business. Be successful at night.” They’re a happily married couple who haven’t spoken directly to one another in years.
John Goodman, in one of his earliest major roles, plays Louis Fyne. He’s 6'3", and maintains a very consistent panda bear shape. He calls himself “the Bear,” sometimes raising his arms in a sudden, playful growl. Don’t worry, it’s just Louis doing his own thing in a changing world of rigid technology, microprocessors, and instruments of Texas circa 1986. But still, people are understandably taken aback by his antics.
He’s in cities at night with time on his hands. He’s got a keen fashion sense and a charged energy about him. Check him out at karaoke night: he’s got some wild, wild life, indeed! But, mostly, he’s a big fluffy teddy bear, as advertised. He’s a natural guy, and since matrimony is a natural state, he’s looking for a wife. He’s bought TV ad time with a local phone number to vet his possibilities. He can be more than a video for you. Serious inquiries only.
Anyone who knows me long enough will be made to watch True Stories sooner or later. For decades, all we had were so-so pan and scan transfers on VHS, then a barebones DVD from Warner Brothers. The notion of a package such as this one, so beautiful, so perfect, so thorough, so lovingly wrought, had always -- for years -- seemed like a truly impossible dream.
The news not just of this Blu-ray, but of its myriad details, induced a rapturous vertigo sensation not experienced in recent memory. My 10-year-old daughter can attest to the fact that my knees involuntarily gave out and I almost fell down right in the middle of a local pizza place as I read the news on my phone. Now, disc in house, she too is a big True Stories fan. So yes, this Criterion edition, created with the full participation of David Byrne, more than lives up to my initial reaction.
And so, yes, Criterion’s new Blu-ray is definitely something good to be picking up. But, carefully: it’s a hot potato! Adorned with the large upside-down smiling head of John Goodman (by artist Tibor Kalman, a favorite collaborator of Byrne, profiled in a new bonus feature on the disc), his face is a book, but it's not what it seems. Actually, maybe it’s more of a newspaper tabloid. There’s one of those included, as well. Which is perfect, considering that real tabloid tales went a long way in inspiring True Stories.
Do we know who we are?
What is it besides greed that got us to where we are? Because surely humanity, in all its complexities, is not truly dictated by solely by something so boring. Our priorities, both individual and collective, both surface and deep down, may not always be in step with with the long romanticized ideal. As Mr. Fine tells us, we don’t want freedom; we don’t want justice. We just want someone to love. True Stories, in its humble kinda way, get at all of this, and leaves one smiling.
Mr. Byrne, I hope you're happy with what you've made/In the land of the free and the home of the brave. There are so many stories in Virgil, Texas. This Blu-ray has some of them. And who can say it isn't beautiful?
And this a film for people like us.