Film Review -“True Stories” – David Byrne (1986)

Synopsis – David Byrne, half-playing himself, gives you a tour of his imagined Virgil, Texas, as it readies itself for the ‘Sesquicentennial Celebration of Specialness’. No plot as such, just interweaving anecdotes.


– words projected behind the band in “Stop Making Sense

     I wonder most of all how this movie appears to someone not familiar with the particularities of Talking Heads. How does David Byrne come across? And what right does he have to cultivate such a vision of this great country?

I cannot pretend to have no knowledge of Byrne and Talking Heads, but can only suppose this movie to be much the richer for it. For this is not some toe-dipping cross-over experiment for Byrne. This is not Tom Waits being an actor, or Johnny Depp playing guitar. This film is another branch of the art project called Talking Heads, and another arena in which Byrne can perform.

Byrne plays the same character here as he does in his band. Either he isn’t acting or he’s always acting. It really doesn’t matter. He speaks as he does in his songs. He dresses a little more country than usual, but the cut is the same. He talks to the audience about just the same things as he does in his songs. And his purpose is the same – as in Talking Heads, he plays the part of a pedestrian, but an unusually observant one. He likes and fears what he sees. He celebrates everything, but doesn’t commit to loving anything. (Listen to ‘Found A Job’/ ‘Don’t Worry About the Government’/’And She Was’.)

As ever, Byrne concerns himself with the mundane. He’s the same man that released a rock album called ‘More Songs About Buildings and Food’. But the lyrical preoccupations of his songs are now stripped of music, and he addresses them plainly to camera. Like Warhol, Byrne exploits what is constantly present, so that we may always be reminded of him. And, like Warhol, Byrne is able to exist because of two things: Television and Newspaper. “The world crashes into my living-room. Television made me what I am” – a song of Byrne’s called ‘Television Man’. The material for this film (and, by association, for his lyrics) comes directly from newspaper cuttings. The famous black, white and red logo is, I now realise, an imitation of a tabloid header. Byrne the newsreader, Byrne the weatherman.

Ebert wrote that Virgil is populated by ‘everyone who went stir-crazy in Lake Wobegone’, for it has the same deadpan incongruity as Keillor’s world. The strangenesses that go unmentioned in America for fear it’d be mistaken for an affront to the Freedom of the Individual. The American can choose to never get out of bed, to dress as a Greek column, to only speak in lies. The only American kind of wryness, the constitutional right to be as ‘unique’ as possible.

Owen Neve

Music, Comedy | PG | USA, 1986 | Blu-Ray | 28th January 2019 (UK)| Sony Pictures Releasing | Criterion Collection | Dir. David Byrne | David Byrne, John Goodman, Annie McEnroe, Spalding Gray

New, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by director David Byrne and cinematographer Ed Lachman, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, supervised by Byrne
New documentary about the film’s production, featuring members of the cast and crew
CD with 23 songs, containing the film’s complete soundtrack, compiled here for the first time
Real Life (1986), a short documentary by Pamela Yates and Newton Thomas Sigel made on the set of the film
No Time to Look Back, a new homage to Virgil, Texas, the fictional town where True Stories is set
New programme about designer Tibor Kalman and his influence on Byrne and role in the film, featuring Byrne and Kalman’s wife, artist Maira Kalman
Deleted scenes
PLUS: An essay by critic Rebecca Bengal, along with new pieces by journalist and author Joe Nick Patoski and Byrne, a 1986 piece by actor Spalding Gray on the film’s production, some of the tabloid stories that inspired the film, and a selection of Byrne’s pre-production photography and writing about the film’s visual motifs.

UNITED STATES | 1986 | 89 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | ENGLISH