Why it makes perfect sense to revisit David Byrne’s True Stories

The 1986 film from the Talking Heads frontman feels as zesty now as it did on its original release.

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The music of Talking Heads has proven uniquely applicable to our current situation, especially “Once in a Lifetime” with its lockdown-ready mantra of “Same as it ever was”. But when wildlife started regaining a toehold earlier this year – ducks nesting at Venice’s deserted vaporetto stops, birdsong filling the once-gridlocked streets of New York and London – it was “(Nothing But) Flowers”, from the band’s 1988 swansong Naked, that started playing on a loop in my head.

The lyrics imagine nature reclaiming the Earth, though whereas Joni Mitchell lamented the paving of paradise to put up a parking lot, David Byrne sounds almost aghast at the situation being reversed. “This was a Pizza Hut!” he yelps. “Now it’s all covered with daisies.”

Then again, he’s always had a skew-whiff sensibility. Take his 1986 film True Stories, inspired by tall tales from the Weekly World News (typical headline: “Half-Man Half-Dog Baffles Doctors!”) and structured around nine Talking Heads songs, including “Wild Wild Life” and “Radio Head”. And yes, that is where a certain Oxford five-piece got their name.

Byrne cast himself in the movie as the guileless, Stetson-wearing narrator who arrives in the fictional town of Virgil, Texas during its sesquicentennial celebrations. Among those he encounters are the jolly Louis Fyne (John Goodman), so desperate to wed that he has a “Wife Wanted” sign outside his house, and the Lying Woman (Jo Harvey Allen), who claims she was born with a tail. He visits a fashion show where models dress in Astroturf, and he dines with the town’s wealthiest man (played by the late monologuist Spalding Gray), who holds forth on the rise of the microchip while plates of lobster and vegetables light up to illustrate his points. “I forgot what the peppers represent,” bleats Byrne.

Everyone in Virgil is gearing up for a talent show that’s being held on a glowing stage in the middle of a field. It was Jonathan Demme, director of the magnificent Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, who advised Byrne to have that “clock” in the story. “He meant that you know something’s coming,” the singer ­explained, “and that as the film moves on, you know you’re going to get closer to it.”

The mixture of the climactic show, Texan locations and diverse musical palette (country, gospel, rock, Tejano) brought comparisons to Nashville. That picture’s screenwriter, Joan Tewkesbury, gets a “thank you” in the end credits but Byrne’s is the gentler work, its naivety redolent of outsider art.

True Stories also formed part of a trend in US cinema at the time towards the embrace, ironic or otherwise, of postwar Americana. Strange to think that the 1950s were as recent then as the 1990s are to us now; filmmakers in the 1980s were drawing on the aesthetic of that earlier period, whether for purposes sweet, as in Back to the Future and Tim Burton’s glorious debut Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, or unsavoury, such as Blue Velvet and the horror-comedy Parents. Byrne filters 1950s iconography through his affection for the post-modern present of freeways, shopping malls, retail parks. “What time is it?” he asks. “No time to look back.”

A prestigious film career lay ahead for Byrne in tandem with his day job. He won an Oscar for composing with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Cong Su the score to Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic The Last Emperor and provided the music for Demme’s gaudy comedy Married to the Mob as well as the brooding Young Adam, in which Ewan McGregor and Emily Mortimer do unspeakably filthy things to one another in 1950s Scotland. He played himself in Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be the Place, named after the most soothing of all Talking Heads songs, opposite Sean Penn, who wore lipstick and a back-combed Robert Smith-style hairdo as a Nazi-hunting pop star. No, really.

Byrne’s 2018 album American Utopia spawned a celebrated world tour which was set to return for a second Broadway stint this autumn. I was browsing the ticket prices when theatres confirmed they were closing and I swear I heard my wallet breathe a sigh of relief. Fortunately, Spike Lee is making a film version of that show.

What a pity Byrne hasn’t directed another feature, particularly since True Stories, blessed with Ed Lachman’s luminous cinematography, feels as zesty now as it did on its original release. I should know: I was there, aged 15, on opening weekend (and the weekend after that). Though rarely mentioned now, the film’s influence is clear. If Wes Anderson and Michel Gondry aren’t fans then I’ll eat the glossy volume of stills from the movie, which I bought after leaving the cinema. It was my first coffee-table book, years before I owned a coffee table. l

“True Stories” is streaming on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes and other platforms

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 19 June 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The History Wars

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