True Stories is a quiet film. Despite all the great music and the zaniness of the characters, the natural tide it creates is meant to sweep the audience gently along with it. While watching it, I couldn’t help but sit with a bemused grin on my face from start to finish.
The movie is centered on the residents of the fictional town of Virgil, Texas during the week leading up to the state’s sesquicentennial celebration. The off-kilter characters we meet are both hilarious and unforgettable: John Goodman (in one of his first major film roles) portrays Louis Fyne, a man who is looking for love in all the wrong places; the late monologist Spalding Gray plays a city bigwig who hasn’t directly spoken to his wife in years; and Swoosie Kurtz plays Miss Rollings, a woman who is so rich that she never has to leave her bed. This guided tour of Virgil is provided by the on-screen narrator, who is played by none other than the film’s director and co-writer, Talking Heads front man David Byrne.
Fresh off the huge success of the Talking Heads concert film, Stop Making Sense, Warner Bros. gave Byrne free rein to make whatever he wanted. (A decision the studio probably regretted after the movie’s release.) Byrne reportedly wanted to make a fiction film that would follow several stories akin to something you might see on 60 Minutes… “on acid.” From a chance meeting, he loosely collaborated on the script with actor, writer, and Texas native Stephen Tobolowsky (yes, THAT Stephen Tobolowsky, and you can listen to anecdotes of their collaboration in an episode of his podcast, The Tobolowsky Files). The strange trip Byrne and Tobolowsky imagined gives us a sense that, while some of these people are undoubtedly silly with priorities that might be a little out of whack, the filmmakers feel genuine affection for them. After all, Byrne plays the nameless narrator as an eccentric to match the oddness of the townsfolk -- always bedecked in a cowboy hat and western wear, with a demeanor that hints at a worldly outlook.
Along with his performance, Byrne is strong and sure of himself in his direction, and none of the problems appear that you might expect from a popular musician who decides to direct movies. Another possible weakness that the film manages to overcome is that it could have been nothing more than a 90 minute music video, a feature-length advertisement for Talking Heads. The fact that the music is liberally mixed in is a feature, not a bug. There is a real story here, and it’s told with skill and talent, and is smartly entertaining. And giving Latin musician Esteban “Steve” Jordan the opportunity to play on the Heads’ song “Radio Head,” proves that True Stories is no mere vanity project for David Byrne.
Released in 1986, the film died a quiet death at the box office, although critical praise was effusive, and the movie has become a cult classic. Now, True Stories can be seen as a direct precursor and influence on the indie film movement that would explode almost a decade later. It was an indie film before indie was cool. I also can’t help but think of Christopher Guest’s Waiting for Guffman, whose own madcap adventures in the town of Blaine, Missouri must have taken some inspiration from the residents of Virgil and their “Celebration of Special-ness”.
True Stories is a delightful film that you should seek out if you are a little tired of standard Hollywood fare with characters that you just can’t care about.