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ON DVD & BLU-RAY

True Stories (1986) Blu Ray (The Criterion Collection)

David Byrne visits the local eccentrics

True Stories is Talking Heads frontman David Byrne’s first and only feature-length film as director. He also pops up in front of the camera as an onscreen narrator who passes through the fictional town of Virgil, Texas, during the run up to a local parade and talent show.

He meets various inhabitants of the town, the most prominent of whom is Louis Fyne (John Goodman), a computer technician and country singer who is looking for a wife. The other eccentrics who live here include a self-absorbed CEO named Earl Culver (Spalding Gray), a woman (played by Jo Harvey Allen) who constantly spouts outlandish lies ranging from having ESP powers to writing half of Elvis’s songs, and another lady (played by Swoosie Kurtz) who is so wealthy that she never leaves her bed and has her every need attended to by robots.

Watch a trailer:

It it too bizarre for its own good?

True Stories is a true 1980s oddity, albeit in a way which is very much a mixed blessing. Stylistically, it is a bizarre mix of pseudo-documentary, indie movie quirkiness and extended Talking Heads music video (indeed, David Byrne also directed a number of videos to promote his band’s singles throughout their career). It is intermittently entertaining but rather unfocused. Needless to say, if you are a big fan of the band then you will probably enjoy it a lot more than someone who is who only has a more casual interest in their idiosyncratic style.

Nonetheless, it is an undeniably great film to look at and listen to. Cinematographer Edward Lachman (who later worked with Todd Haynes and was nominated for two Academy Awards for his work on Far from Heaven and Carol) provides some superb painterly landscape shots right from the opening featuring a little girl dancing down the road towards the camera. Framing and colour coordination are impeccable. There are nine Talking Heads songs here which were also brought together for an album release of the same name. In the film, some of these are sung by the band themselves, whereas others are done so by various cast members. Amongst the most memorable of them are Wild Wild Life (which was a modest chart hit) and Radio Head (which inspired the name of a certain popular British band).

David Byrne meets Texas in True Stories

The trouble is that the film also comes across as being exceedingly self-conscious and determinedly twee. This style really requires the smart wit and snappy pacing of someone like Wes Anderson or the Coen brothers to pull off successfully. By contrast, director David Byrne’s approach is often wayward and self-indulgent. While there seem to be a few satirical nods at the American worker bee/rampant consumerism lifestyle, they aren’t anywhere near as sharp or funny as they think they are. After the success of the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense (1984), Warner Brothers decided to give Byrne a lot of creative control here. Unfortunately, it was clearly too much considering his lack of experience in directing anything other than single promos. He arguably needed someone to rein him in.

Even so, there are occasional moments of greatness which stand out from the excessive eccentricity. The best moment by far is a hilarious dinner scene where Earl Culver conveys his ideas for expanding the local computer manufacturing industry by creating ever-more elaborate diagrams with the food on the table. Another vignette involving a conspiracy theorist preacher (played by John Ingle) delivering a riotous fire-and-brimstone sermon is also a lot of fun. John Goodman got his first big break in cinema here and gives a fine, human performance as an ordinary guy on a quest for love who freely admits that he maintains “a very consistent panda bear shape”.

It is clear from watching True Stories that David Byrne had some potential as a film director but, owing to its lack of success at the box office, he never had a subsequent chance to create a work of true greatness. What we are left with is an interesting but somewhat messy and unstructured view into the mind of a true creative.

Runtime: 89 mins

Dir: David Byrne

Script: Stephen Tobolowsky, Ben Henley, David Byrne

Starring: David Byrne, John Goodman, Annie McEnroe, Jo Harvey Allen, Spalding Gray, Alix Elias, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, Humberto “Tito” Larriva, John Ingle, Matthew Posey, Swoosie Kurtz

Blu Ray Audio-Visual

As you would expect from The Criterion Collection, this is a stunning 4K restoration. Every frame looks so beautiful and rich that you could put it up on your wall. The soundtrack comes to life with sheer vibrancy and freshness courtesy of the 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio.

Extras

The Criterion Collection has assembled an incredible package here. Along with the Blu Ray disc, we get a CD of the film’s soundtrack plus a neat mock tabloid newspaper with a series of journalistic articles about the film plus a few made-up ones related to its various quirky characters.

The article Everybody has Tones by Rebecca Bengal takes a look at the film’s prescience and stylistic influences. The Texas Connection by Joe Nick Patoski examines the making of the film and David Byrne’s fascination with the state of Texas. Every Picture Tells a Story by Byrne himself features a series of photos taken which he took during the production (from the flat Texan landscapes to some quirky yard art) along with some of his thoughts on them. The Obsessions of David Byrne by actor Spalding Gray features him discussing his experiences of working with the man on the film. As with most film shoots, not everything went to plan: at one point, a stage set was destroyed by a cyclone. An Immersive Audio Voyage is another article by Byrne, who talks about the film’s soundtrack.

On the disc itself are the following:

Introduction

A very brief (23 second) archive intro by David Byrne himself.

The Making of True Stories

This superb brand new 64-minute documentary takes a look back at the making of the film. It features interviews with David Byrne, actors Jo Harvey Allen and Spalding Gray, songwriter Terry Allen, cinematographer Edward Lachman, costumer designer Adelle Lutz, producer Karen Murphy, consultant Christina Patoski, producer Edward Pressman, casting director Victoria Thomas and writer Stephen Tobolowsky.

They discuss David Byrne’s unique eye and approach to the filmmaking process. He started the ball rolling by drawing a series of pictures and asking Stephen Tobolowsky to write a story around them. However, the various oddball characters featured in the film were based on the subjects of articles which he found in tabloid newspapers (hence the film’s title). The distinctive visual style was inspired by photographic artists such as William Eggleston as well as the musicals of theatre director Robert Wilson.

Tibor Kalman

Another brand new Criterion-exclusive documentary, this time lasting a rather shorter 12 minutes. Tibor was a graphic designer who ran M & Co., a company who worked on several Talking Heads album covers, their promo video Nothing But Flowers, and the titles, credits and posters for True Stories. His widow Maira reminisces about the man, while David Byrne discusses his appreciation of his aesthetics. An excellently-assembled and affectionate featurette.

Real Life

This 1985 comedic documentary tie-in with True Stories was created by Pamela Yates and Newton Thomas Sigel. It features the fictional inhabitants of Virgil, Texas from the film interacting with some real-life Texan locals. An interesting curiosity even if (like the main feature) it is excessively quirky.

Deleted Scenes

There are seven scenes here which were removed from the released version of the film. These include the funeral sequence which (as David Byrne mentions during the Making Of documentary) was removed because it was deemed to be too sad in tone. There are also some additional bits featuring the Cute Woman, Lying Woman and Mr. Tucker characters, as well as a “stranger danger” style stage lecture about child abduction. The best of these deleted scenes, however, is one where Mr. Tucker (played by Roebuck “Pops” Staples) meets a man who is attempting to contact alien life by using what he terms “universal music”.

No Time to Look Back

Filmmakers Bill and Turner Ross revisit the shooting locations which became the fictional town of Virgil in the film. They even manage to persuade some local children to recreate the Hey Now musical number.

A trailer rounds out this substantial collection of extras.

Overall:

True Stories was a clear labour of love for David Byrne but ends up being more of an interesting mess than a bona fide gem. As per usual, however, there are no complaints to be made about The Criterion Collection’s overall package. The collection of extras here has to be one of the finest of any Blu Ray disc in recent memory.

Movie: ☆☆☆

Video: ☆☆☆☆☆

Audio: ☆☆☆☆☆

Extras: ☆☆☆☆☆

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