What does normalcy look like to a weirdo*? On the surface, that is the basic premise behind David Byrne’s amazing True Stories. Byrne, who already showed an ironic fascination with but also swift dismissal of Middle America in the Talking Heads song “The Big Country,” offers us the chance to look at everyday people (Texans, in this case, who offer a sub-flavor all their own) through his warped perspective. The results are - to use a bit of English people are no longer fond of - extremely quirky.
Of course, this isn’t a documentary about Texas. Byrne fills his movie (a deliberate comedy) with characters based on tabloid stories he read, so they’re weird by pretty much anyone’s standards. You have the seemingly happy husband and wife who only communicate with each other through their children. There’s the rich lady who absolutely never leaves her bed. She has a personal assistant who is also a voodoo practitioner. One fellow has telepathic powers. There’s a lady who claims to have saved Rambo’s life about fifty times (among a million other tall tales, including one in which she has a tail that gives her psychic powers).
But these are the broader strokes of weirdness on display. The real oddity ends up being America itself, which Byrne presents as weird in a much more plain-faced way. Through his eyes, waves of suburban houses suddenly seem alien. A shopping mall, for instance, when introduced by Byrne’s character, becomes a bland artifact of endless wonder - “The stores here are pretty clean. The air’s fresh. There’s plenty of parking.”
Byrne’s character is just so happy to be in Texas. He even dresses up in a cowboy costume for his visit like an overly giddy tourist. He greets everyone with kindness and a wide-eyed curiosity and makes no judgements about what he encounters because he studies from far too removed a place for such opinions to ever present themselves.
He does, however, seem to have real affection for what he sees. The oddities of Virgil, Texas offer him much more fascinating subjects than a million high-minded New York artistic types. And the film isn’t without real emotion, particularly when it comes to John Goodman’s love-hungry character, Louis Fyne. Byrne, both the man and the character he plays in the film, wants to share his amazement with us. It is both sincere and infectious (and also really funny). It makes sense from him. Even “The Big Country’s” main refrain - “I wouldn’t live there if you paid me,” sang like a punchline after beautiful descriptions of flyover country minutia - feels like a judgement that goes both ways.
As a musical, True Story’s best songs (“Love for Sale” and “Wild Wild Life”) are the ones actually performed by The Talking Heads. While the others contain both novelty and narrative value, they can’t compete with a true band we already know and love, though John Goodman’s rendition of “People Like Us” comes close. The only exception to this rule comes from this little side-song sung by a crew of grubby kids:
I could watch that on a loop for hours.
True Stories is usually described as a cult classic, but that’s only when people talk about it at all. Many appear to have forgotten it exists, which is too bad. As a first time director, David Byrne displays a surprising handle on maintaining a very specific tone throughout. The fact that he could just put down his guitar to make such an assured film that perfectly translates his particular sense of artistry and humor into a new medium is the kind of talent display that almost makes you furious.
If you’d like to read more about the film, Meredith wrote a wonderful article on it that you can find here.
* I'm not even sure Byrne is all that weird. In a recent WTF episode, he sounds totally normal whenever Marc Maron lets him finish a sentence.