It’s hard to overstate the impact David Byrne had on me—and, I imagine, every kid who ever grew up feeling like an outcast. Byrne didn’t just make being weird seem okay or acceptable; he made being weird seem like a state of grace. Byrne seemed to occupy a realm beyond that of mere mortals, existing on a plane of pure imagination generally accessible only through the portals of genius, madness, or drugs. And since all evidence suggests that Byrne doesn’t do drugs, that means he attained this rarified state organically, and has managed to sustain it throughout his career. I suspect Byrne didn’t need to do drugs even when he was a rock star in the 1980s, because being David Byrne is its own endless high that no chemical could reproduce.
Part of the reason children respond to Byrne and the music of the Talking Heads is because he seems like one of them. He is guileless, blessed with a sense of wonder and curiosity about the world; there’s more than a touch of Peter Pan in Byrne. It’s not that he doesn’t want to grow up, or is in a state of purposeful regression. It’s more like adulthood seemingly can’t touch him, or corrupt his fundamental wholesomeness.
Before writing this article, I listened to “The Voice From Another Room,” a wonderful episode of the podcast The Tobolowsky Files, where character actor, podcaster, bon vivant, Ned Ryerson, and all-around national treasure Stephen Tobolowsky discusses his experience working with Byrne on the musician’s one—and thus far, only—narrative feature film, True Stories. Tobolowsky was only somewhat familiar with Byrne and his work before Jonathan Demme invited Tobolowsky and playwright/screenwriter Beth Henley, then Tobolowsky’s romantic partner, to a preview screening of his Talking Heads concert film, Stop Making Sense. Tobolowsky, being human, was predictably blown away, and Byrne was impressed enough by Henley’s work to ask her and Tobolowsky if they might be interested in writing the script for a movie he was planning to star in and direct. It was to be inspired by Byrne’s on-tour habit of buying newspaper tabloids and picking out stories that amused him. What if these stories were true, he wondered? So he made a series of drawings containing characters and scenarios, which he put on the wall of his home, thinking they could be the core of his directorial debut.
In the episode, Tobolowsky notes that Byrne didn’t have much furniture or anything else that human beings generally use to fill their homes and lives. Byrne struck Tobolowsky and Henley as being something of an alien. Watching True Stories, this feels accurate on two levels: In the sense that Byrne is a Scottish immigrant who came to America as a boy and sees things differently than the native-born, but also in that he seems to view all humanity from a strange distance. Byrne seems endlessly fascinated by the complexity and perversity of human endeavor, but not entirely a part of it.
Byrne’s collaboration with Tobolowsky, as detailed in “The Voice From Another Room,” offers a fascinating glimpse into the way Byrne’s mind works. Using Byrne’s ideas and drawings, Tobolowsky and Henley wrote a screenplay that used the Texas Sesquicentennial as the anchor for a film-ending celebration that would bring together all its kooky characters, and provide both a built-in climax and ample space for music. The next time Byrne spoke to them, he confided that he had more or less rewritten the entire film, and that Tobolowsky and Henley would probably only recognize a handful of lines from their original script.
It’s a measure of Tobolowsky’s generosity that he can now see the experience of having Byrne discard almost everything Tobolowsky created for him as an almost entirely positive experience, that he can take his ego out of the equation and be happy even for the indirect role he played in the creation of great art. There’s something strangely comforting about the knowledge that while Tobolowsky and Henley are credited as True Stories’ co-writers, the film more or less sprung whole cloth from Byrne’s imagination. Tobolowsky and Henley helped provide an outline, and the tabloids of the mid-1980s provided source material, but what filled that outline could only have emerged organically from Byrne’s brain. In that respect, True Stories is less a film vehicle for Byrne than an extension of his personality.
An opening credit introduces True Stories as “A Film About A Bunch Of People In Virgil, Texas,” followed by an expanse of blue sky and untouched land, and a little girl humming softly to herself. Then the voice of Byrne’s narrator tell us that this is where the town of Virgil, Texas begins, and that it’s been through a lot of changes, and will be through more. It begins at the beginning, not just of Virgil, Texas, but of humankind, when the world was underwater. Then it moves on to the age of the dinosaurs, and then humanity. We start in a state of pure innocence—a little girl among the flowers and endless sky—before Byrne’s brief history of mankind posits civilization as an endless series of wars, genocidal racism, broken treaties, broken bones, and a whole lot of ugliness. Byrne’s narrator explains how cotton gave way to oil, which gave way to microchips, silicone-based transistors, and the world of Texas Instruments.
Byrne recounts the history of the world, the development of Texas, and how the town of Virgil will be holding a special parade and talent show in honor of the sesquicentennial. And he does all this without ever introducing himself, revealing his character’s name, or explaining why he’s so fascinated by the town of Virgil, Texas. Viewers never learn the answers to any of these questions, in part because we assume that the narrator is David Byrne, and that everything we’re about to see is something that fascinates him, and by extension is worthy of being included in his film. Byrne then steps through a screen on which he’s been showing the relevant images, and into a cherry-red convertible. He stares out over the endless expanse of sky, and marvels at the reception he gets on his radio. In True Stories, Byrne’s unnamed narrator regularly expresses open-mouthed awe at things most people would find ugly and even a little soul-crushing, from the boxlike design of a building to the ubiquity of music in malls.
Accordingly, the film finds deep beauty in technology, which it doesn’t view as the enemy of humanity so much as its helper. Throughout the film there are lovely little soliloquies about the overlooked artistry of the circuit-board, as when a poet of the digital age leads the narrator through a Kubrickian computer factory filled with endless white spaces and fluorescent lights and tells him:
Something’s happening here, all right. The world is changing, and this is the center of it right now, or one of many centers. Computers are like that. You can never explain the feelings, or connections, to anyone else. Figuring something out, something that’s never been understood before, is a rhythmic experience. Steve Jobs said that. He used to be the head of Apple.
Inside this Texas computer factory is the other protagonist, Louis Fyne (John Goodman), a self-proclaimed “dancing fool” who manages to convey a down-home, good-ol’-boy vibe even while wearing a contamination suit inside an antiseptic “clean room.” Louis’ primary goal is to find a wife, and in that simple goal, the film finds its primary engine.
True Stories can be as precious as anything Wes Anderson has made. Its production design often suggests a pop-up or coffee-table book, and its characters can resemble cut-outs from a children’s book more than flesh-and-blood human beings. Every detail bears Byrne’s thumbprint; if he had the time and ability, he probably would have hand-sewn every costume and painted all the sets himself. True Stories establishes Byrne as an instant auteur with the remarkable ability to transfer his aesthetic from one medium to another.
But while True Stories is unabashedly what detractors might call twee, Goodman’s ingratiating lead performance lends it a warm, beating heart. True Stories is fundamentally about the necessity of connection and finding beauty in the everyday and grotesque. Cynics might find True Stories condescending, the work of a hipster sneering at small-town rubes and pretending to admire ugliness, but it has the ability to be simultaneously satirical and genuinely loving. When Kay, the emcee at a mall fashion show where children pose in grown-up garb, guilelessly enthuses, “Shopping is a feeling,” it’s ridiculous, but also weirdly moving.
Part of what makes True Stories so willfully perverse is that it’s the product of a man who was, at the time, one of the most commercially and creatively successful singers in the world, yet the film’s songs are generally sung not by its writer-director-star, but by non-singers in the cast, including a group of children and Goodman. Just as Prince boldly decided to follow up Purple Rain with Under The Cherry Moon, a black-and-white movie where he didn’t really sing (because who’d want to see that?), and then released a companion album with a different name, Byrne, at the pinnacle of his career, wrote a bunch of great songs for non-singers to sing in a movie where people frequently talk over some of his most brilliant lyrics.
So while Talking Heads released an album called True Stories, it does not feature versions of the songs from the movie itself, but rather songs from the movie that the band re-recorded. And the album that does have some (but not all) of the songs as featured in the movie, Sounds From True Stories, never made the leap to MP3 or CD.
This only adds to the film’s dreamlike feeling, a sense that in this singularly strange small town, everyone has a whole lot of David Byrne deep down in their souls, and it comes out every time they open their mouths to sing. In that respect, True Stories sometimes suggests a Twilight Zone episode: “The Curious Town Where Everyone Is David Byrne.”
Spalding Gray co-stars as one of the town’s blessed Byrne-ian weirdoes, the head of a large technology corporation that employs much of the town. He’s also a poet and prophet of technology, who explains the embryonic beginnings of what would become known as the “new economy” in terms that border on spiritual. He’s manic with delight as he describes a world enthralled by innovation and advancement, one that’s liberating creators in ways that herald a bold new stage in human evolution. It’s child’s play elevated to the level of prophecy, the new economy as magic. It’s absurd, but like so much of the rest of the film, also strangely beautiful.
When Byrne made True Stories, he was a massive star: He was on the cover of Time, and Talking Heads was big money. But the film is shot through with a profound ambivalence about the role of money in society, and art in particular. This is expressed most directly, and irreverently, in the production number for “Love For Sale,” during which Miss Rollings (Swoozie Kurtz), a woman so rich she never leaves her bed because she never needs to, watches and heckles the song on the television like she’s in an early incarnation of Beavis & Butt-head. The sequence takes the form of a music video that, with small alterations, was a big hit on MTV. The video combines footage from actual commercials with images of the Talking Heads’ members designed to make them look indistinguishable from other consumer goods.
True Stories climaxes with the Celebration Of Specialness it’s been building toward for its duration, specifically Goodman’s performance of “People Like Us.” He’s an old-fashioned man, a dancing fool, and a matrimony-minded gentleman in love with classic country, and in his moment of glory, he reaches deep down and delivers a version of the song that’s all the more heartbreaking for its raw edges and desperate yearning. It’s the perfect synthesis of small-town longing and Byrne’s otherworldly genius.
Does True Stories hold together as a film? I honestly don’t care. It’s a film with next to no plot, and only slightly more characterization, a curious movie about a narrator who never introduces himself or evolves in any way. True Stories doesn’t suggest a movie so much as a 90-minute transmission from Byrne’s imagination, and as much as I love movies, that might be an even better, and certainly a more beatific, alternative. True Stories’ tremendous power is of the subconscious variety, but to access it, viewers have to give in to Byrne, to trust that wherever he takes them will be worthwhile, even if it doesn’t seem to make much sense, or serve much purpose.
Byrne’s narrator ends True Stories with this offhandedly touching monologue:
I really enjoy forgetting. When I first come to a place, I notice all the little details. I notice the way the sky looks, the color of white paper, the way people walk, doorknobs, everything. Then I get used to the place, and I don’t notice those things anymore. So only by forgetting can I see the place again, as it really is.
By that reasoning, part of my enjoyment of True Stories has to do with how long it had been since I’d seen it. Decades later, I may watch it again with new eyes, and fall in love with Byrne’s strange, beautiful world all over again. It’s a shame he never made another feature film after True Stories. But when you pack as much into a movie as Byrne does here, sometimes one movie is enough.
Next: Private Parts, starring Howard Stern