Second Glance: David Byrne’s Wonderfully Quirky Small-Town Musical, ‘True Stories’

A loving look back at the Talking Heads frontman's odd and criminally underappreciated 1986 comedy/musical.

Welcome to “Second Glance,” a bi-weekly column that spotlights an older film of note (thanks to an anniversary, a connection to a new release, or new disc or streaming availability) that was not as commercially or critically successful as it should’ve been. This week, in celebration of its 25th anniversary, we look at David Byrne’s charmingly odd 1986 feature directorial debut, True Stories.

Here’s what a sensation the Talking Heads concert movie Stop Making Sense was: it allowed David Byrne to talk Warner Brothers into financing and distributing a totally weird, wildly idiosyncratic narrative feature, in a decade during which major studios were, to put it mildly, not doing that. The film in question is True Stories, which per the opening titles is “A FILM ABOUT A BUNCH OF PEOPLE IN VIRGIL, TEXAS”; it was released in fall of 1986, 25 years ago this month, and it’s a movie whose anniversary is worth commemorating, since it’s about one. Specifically, it’s about the sesquicentennial of the Longhorn state, which the small town of Virgil is marking with a “Celebration of Specialness.” Mr. Byrne keeps pronouncing it “special-NESS,” because he’s a weirdo.

Byrne is the director and co-writer of True Stories, as well as its on-camera narrator, and he’s a wonderfully odd-duck presence, cruising through town in his red convertible (against back projection, natch) in a giant black cowboy hat and bolo tie, sharing both the history of the region and odd little non-sequiturs like “Radio reception’s great here!” and “Most people around here have eaten dinner already. Don’t wanna be late. Know what I mean? Or do you?” Some of these riffs play like he decided to bring his “Once in a Lifetime” character to life, but most of the time, he’s merely leaning in to his role of the somewhat out-of-place New Yorker wrapping his head around the heartland.

What he finds there is a exuberant and wonderfully oddball stew of deadpan comedy, character drama, music video, and art installation. Byrne claimed he drew the inspiration for his characters from supermarket tabloids (hence the title), but they play more like small-town gossip, and are sometimes introduced as such. There’s the lying woman, who claims inside knowledge of the entertainment and political world, and countless talents she’s merely chosen not to exploit. There is the woman so rich she hasn’t left her bed in years, because why would you? There’s the rich couple that hasn’t spoken to each other in years, passing along all conversation through their children. And there is Louis Fyne, the big teddy bear of a man who wants nothing more than to get married – he wants it so bad, in fact, that he advertises himself as a husband on local television.

I was only 12 years old when I first saw True Stories, just after its initial VHS release, and it wasn’t because I was an early connoisseur of art films; my stepfather rented it, the first (and, to my memory, only) time he cast a vote on the video store trip, because he was a huge Talking Heads fan. I’d never seen anything quite like it – I still haven’t – and one of my main takeaways was adoration for the actor who played Louis Fyne. I remembered his name, and a year or so later, when he turned up on television as Roseanne’s husband, no one was happier for John Goodman than me. He’s genuinely wonderful in True Stories, sweet and vulnerable, and when he unfurls his pleasing tenor voice at the end of the film, crooning “People Like Us” at the big talent show with total commitment and sincerity, you just fall for him.

It’s the kind of moment that reminds us what movie musicals, so few and far between these days, can do that other films cannot: they allow an openness of emotion that’s harder to convey (successfully, anyway) in dialogue and action. The musical numbers in True Stories, all written by Talking Heads – and, in most cases, re-recorded by them for a companion album – are sometimes source music, sometimes accompaniment, sometimes the result of characters bursting into song. Each iteration works, because Byrne (and his co-writers, beloved character actor Stephen Toblowsky and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Beth Henley) has created such a specific, strange world that it all seems possible. (He’s also aided greatly in the creation of that world by the great cinematographer Ed Lachman, who helps him create compositions with symmetry that’d make Wes Anderson proud.)

The best of those numbers comes early, in a scene set at Virgil’s favorite nightspot, a smash-up of social club, cabaret, karaoke bar. The DJ announces it’s time for some “Wild Wild Life,” and he plays the Talking Heads song, and a line-up of townfolk takes turns running up to the microphone to mime a lyric or two, before peeling off for the next. It’s a scene with the joy of a classic musical and the innovation of, well, a Talking Heads video (and sure enough, it was adapted into one), with more playfulness and verve than a season of Lip Sync Battles.

What’s most striking about the scene is the sense that everybody’s invited – the parade of small-town would-be rock stars features folks of all ages, ethnicities, sizes, and fame (including Byrne in disguise, and Prince and Billy Idol lookalikes). The whole thing is just so… democratic. That same feeling resonates from the big talent show at the end of the film, a sequence where many a snooty New York artist type might take the opportunity to sneer and laugh. But Byrne has a sense of genuine curiosity and love for what’s on that stage, for the Latin band and the stars-and-stripes line dancers and the voodoo man and the pair of auctioneers, dueling while a third man yodels and works his lasso upstage. Byrne sees them, and everyone in True Stories, in the best possible way: as a little odd, a lot fascinating, and most of all, quintessentially American.

True Stories is available for rental via Amazon, iTunes, and the usual platforms.