True Stories (1986) opens with a young girl ambling down a long road; the fields and sky continue out of the shot in every direction, and due to the complete stillness of the camera, there is a feeling of openness and nonchalance.
However, the perfect symmetry of the shot contradicts those feelings, and the result is an opening that purposefully stirs up conflicting emotions in the viewer. For those familiar with director David Byrne’s work as a solo musician and as the frontman of Talking Heads, that sense of spiritual and emotional tension is likely familiar.
Byrne continues that contradictory atmosphere throughout the film. The very premise of the movie is that Byrne took stories he read in tabloids and strung them together into a fictional narrative, although even that might be a fabrication. And yet, the movie is called True Stories. One of the stories is of a husband and wife who haven’t talked to each other in over a decade, yet they are happily married. Louis Fyne is played by John Goodman, who is ultimate contradiction: godlike perfection, yet still flesh and blood.
Most notably, Byrne’s presence in the film itself induces contradictory sentiments in the viewer: he is the narrator of the film, and this monotone, skinny man somehow manages to discuss the stories of Virgil, Texas’ populace in a way that feels both entirely condescending—namely in his attitude toward the commercialization of life and love—and entirely earnest. You get the sense that Byrne is somewhat skeptical of the overt capitalistic nature of this place, but that he’s more so fascinated by the people. He speaks and moves like an alien who accidentally ended up on Earth.
Unfortunately, that system of contradictions does not always serve True Stories well. The delivery of the narrative itself is both free-flowing and strangled by Byrne’s controlling nature (the dude’s brilliant, but the last three albums by Talking Heads sound increasingly closer to solo albums than group efforts), which results from his desperation to make us see the story the way he envisions it. When he narrates, he says sentences that are so disparate from each other, yet so methodically and purposefully delivered, that at times it seems to stop making sense in a way that reflects a weak script rather than the genius of the lyrics he wrote for Talking Heads.
All of this results in a movie that, despite all of its charm, is incredibly challenging to watch. I don’t mean that it’s bad, or poorly made, per se, but rather that it goes out of its way to stir discomfort in the viewer. Discomfort can be a good thing to stir up in the viewer, but none of it feels purposefully or properly developed; it doesn’t make the viewer feel like she is gaining some insight as a result of the challenge. In a way, it’s like a Werner Herzog film—a director with whom True Stories‘ cinematographer, Ed Lachman, worked previously—but you don’t get the sense that Byrne has the understanding or complexity of his narrative in the way Herzog does.
Some interesting ideas do fall through, though. The ways in which people communicate, and how they use language to influence—and at times control—others is explored through several of the characters’ relationships and the songs that they perform. “Radio Head” is all about communication without words, “Love for Sale” waxes cynical about the commercialization of the profound bond between two people, and “People Like Us” explores the difference between our rhetoric and our actual thoughts and desires. For all of the lack of focus mixed with an overly-controlled narrative space, Byrne genuinely wants to see all of the ways we talk to each other and the effects of new means of communication. The songs in particular let Byrne craft words into an effective statement.
Those songs, by the way, are just fantastic. Although the songs would be re-recorded by Talking Heads for an album that most fans and critics have long considered worth little attention, I think that the music here is actually some of Byrne’s most fun and playful. True, few of these tunes are gonna go up against “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” “Heaven,” “Slippery People,” or a bunch of other songs that I won’t bore you by listing (I really, really like Talking Heads), but if “Radio Head” isn’t an infectiously catchy tune, then I don’t know what is.
True Stories might not be a piece of genius on par with Byrne’s musical efforts, but it’s something different and interesting. It’s the type of movie that you remember seeing one time several years ago, really late at night, and—although you can’t really remember anything about it, other than the fact that John Goodman is in it—you remembering thinking it was kinda good. Maybe you’ll watch it again.
And then sing “Radio Head” to yourself a bunch, because that song is great. Listen to that accordion and rejoice, for it reminds us that even in the darkest depths of the world, like Texas, there is beauty.