If you think of David Byrne films, ‘Stop Making Sense’ would most likely come to mind first. Directed by Jonathan Demme, it is often described as the ultimate concert film. And quite rightly in my opinion. From beginning to end it creates tension and drama, and of course the songs are wonderful.
‘True Stories’ from 1986, is a different beast altogether. This time it’s directed by David Byrne, who also acts as the film’s on-screen narrator, and it is all about the people of the fictional town of Virgil, Texas. It presents a view of them going about their daily lives, looking forward to the town’s sesquicentennial anniversary celebrations. Great word! That’s 150th to you and me. The joy is that all the people involved are slightly eccentric. We have the Lying woman. Elvis loved her. She was born with a tail. She keeps it in a jar now. We have Miss Rollings who is so rich she doesn’t need to get out of bed. So she doesn’t. And, among others, we have Lewis Fyne. Lewis is a big old unit, very fashion conscious!?! and desperately searching for a wife. Lewis is played by John Goodman, and he is a revelation. All eager optimism mixed in with large dollops of pathos. We find out pretty early on that he will be singing at the town’s celebrations, and all film you just find yourself praying he gets it right. Spoiler alert…he smashes it!
There’s Talking Heads songs all over the movie. The ‘Wild Wild Life’ sequence is a madcap rotating karaoke number, set in the town’s nightclub. Virtually everyone has a go at singing a line from the song. Its hilarious and spectacular, and contains one of my favourite lines in a song: ‘Things fall apart. it’s scientific.’ That is so David Byrne. People know what they’re doing. Let them just get on with it. This film is an optimistic vision. David Byrne has come to America and he likes what he sees. Shopping malls, fashion parades. A warehouse is a ‘multi-purpose shape – a box.’ All eccentricities are celebrated. The preacher’s sermon, set to the tune ‘Puzzlin’ Evidence’ is a run through a load of crazy conspiracy theories. The Lying lady naturally has to have her say. It’s all tongue in cheek.
Our narrator is invited to dinner with Earl and Kay Culver, and their children. The set-up here is Earl (who is kind of, the head of the town) and his wife Kay haven’t spoken to each other in years. We aren’t told why. However there is no sign of any bad feeling anywhere. it’s all played as normal behaviour. Kay asks her daughter to ask her father to pass their guest some food. Earl asks another of the kids to ask their mother how the fashion show went that day. It’s a bizarre scene but beautifully created. It ends with Earl using the food on the table to explain how the town’s large corporation, Varicorp, is transforming how the people of Virgil will live and work in the future, ending his presentation by joyously throwing some string beans in the air in celebration of the opportunities that await the town’s people. It’s optimistic, of course it is. And everyone present is in awe of him.
Toward the end of the film, the stage for the town’s celebrations is all but complete. Set in a barren landscape it appears almost alien in contrast to it’s surroundings. And the actual show is the kind of thing you would expect if David Byrne curated ‘Meltdown’ or some similar event. It’s left of centre in places. The sound and vision are mesmerising. And most importantly, the audience love every moment.
Films such as these never get massive releases. They’re more niche in nature I guess. But they are massively worthwhile, and they do have an audience. Apparently this movie was John Goodman’s big screen breakthrough, which has to be a good thing. And I’m willing to bet that five guys in Abingdon, Oxfordshire were taking note of the character in the movie who claims to be able to link into other peoples radio waves. naturally calling himself ‘Radiohead’.