Placing True Stories into Context
By Jack Dorfman
Although David Byrne is most widely known for his leadership of the band Talking Heads, he has also been a prominent artist in many other formats. His portfolio ranges from books to presentations to city installations to stage shows, all stemming from his astounding ability to morph his influences into a uniquely David Byrne product. One of his earliest forays into other art forms was the 1986 film True Stories, a Talking Heads musical based on clippings from various newspaper articles. Like most of his other works, this is a pristine example of how he can bring his influences into new contexts in order to blend the eccentric and the ordinary to create a work of a true auteur. By incorporating the pre-established public image of Talking Heads, maintaining a consistent vision throughout production, and putting tropes of the classical musicals into new contexts, he successfully created a true outlier of the musical genre.
True Stories, although being a product of David Byrne’s singular vision, was very much designed to fit within the context of the public image Talking Heads had already created. From the start of their career, they were acknowledged as part of the ‘punk-rock’ movement as a result from their start at the club CBGB in the mid 70’s, the starting place for many important groups of the punk rock movement, such as Television, The Beastie Boys, and The Ramones (for whom Talking Heads opened the first time they performed there). This classification, however, is reductive and misleading, as they incorporated many more influences that distinguished them from the punk scene, especially later in their career. While the punk scene was for the outcasts, Talking Heads were the outcasts of the punk scene. Thus, the band broke from this classification, incorporating more avant garde and widespread influences such as African rhythm sections and the fusion of electric and acoustic beats. One of the most distinctive traits of the band was their iconic music videos. Most of these were conceived and directed by Byrne himself, and embody his self-proclaimed niche of the ‘anxious white guy.’ These videos show impressive technical proficiency and visual literacy, thus being vital in Byrne’s transition from one art medium to another. Of course, he couldn’t do these without a talented team behind him. He had a knack for finding extremely talented artists to help bring his vision to life, such as experimental filmmaker Jim Blashfield for the video of “And She Was.”
Perhaps one of the most important collaborations of Talking Heads’ career was with director Jonathan Demme on their concert documentary Stop Making Sense (1984). This was the most important foray into feature filmmaking, and fundamentally shaped Byrne’s approach to directing True Stories. This project, like most of Byrne’s work, combines specific influences with his own personality to create something unique. Stop Making Sense is widely considered the best concert documentary of all time, rivaled only by Scorsese’s The Last Waltz or the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter. This is because it is not simply a recorded concert, but actually utilizes the cinematic medium in order to enhance the viewer’s experience. The conceptualization of the film followed a similar process to adapting a stage show to a feature film by dealing with the issue of how to effectively translate a live performance to the cinematic medium. For example, there is never a shot of the audience until the last song. Demme and Byrne intended to make the viewer feel as though they were actually at the concert, and did this by showing only what the audience would see onstage. They felt that showing the audience cheering and dancing would tell the viewers too explicitly what to feel, and instead wanted them to come to their own conclusions, and if they enjoyed the movie, the shots of the audience at the end would confirm their feelings, ultimately be more rewarding. Another interesting trait of the movie is that the
camera does not always linger on the musician that is doing the most interesting or exhibitionist performance. Instead, the camera almost treats each musician as a separate character, showing how they react to the others, or highlight other members of the band who aren’t always noticed first. This is very different from a stage show, where the attention is almost always directed at either the lead singer or whoever is doing the solo. Byrne also creates a narrative with the show that was intended to make the movie more streamlined and less random. The stage starts completely bare, with only David Byrne, an acoustic guitar, and a small beatbox providing a strange electric rhythm. With each song, more and more musicians and props enter the stage, providing a self-reflexive narrative that highlights the process of creating a show. David Byrne also creates a character for himself, a man who is nervous and high-strung at first, but throughout the show becomes looser and more involved with the music. Thus, each song is almost treated as a musical number that further develops the narrative of the show, rather than a collection of the bands greatest hits. These narrative arcs are what distinguish the film from other concert documentaries. The production of Stop Making Sense was an important introduction to cinematic structures and techniques that informed the production and style of True Stories two years later.
True Stories is, like Talking Heads themselves, largely unclassifiable. It could be considered a visual accompaniment to an album, a “band” movie, a mockumentary, an avant garde film, or even an ironic take on the classical hollywood musical. One thing that can’t be argued is that it is a singular product of Byrne’s imagination, being conceptualized, directed, and starring himself. Although the writing credit goes to Byrne along with Stephen Tobolowsky and Beth Henley, the other two wrote only an initial draft (based on Byrne’s idea), and Byrne completely rewrote it afterwards, leaving very little of their original work. However, Byrne still credits their names before his own, as he did not want the film to seem like a vanity project. This is a testament not only his complete control over the production, but also his humble nature. This brings up a necessary comparison to Stanley Kubrick, another auteur of the time (though Kubrick was notorious for not giving credit where credit was due). Kubrick had an identifiable influence over Byrne, and informed his filmmaking style to an extent. In the commentary for Stop Making Sense, David Byrne professes that the title design was taken directly from that of Dr. Strangelove. In fact, he even used the same titles designer, Pablo Ferro. This is strong evidence of the influence Kubrick provided for Byrne’s visual style. You can even see traces of it in the shot compositions of True Stories, as there are many uncannily symmetrical shots, a trademark of Kubrick (the elevated rectangular stage at the end of True Stories is especially reminiscent of a Kubrick-esque production design). However, perhaps the most important element of Kubrick’s directorial style that was incorporated into True Stories is the complete control and attention to detail. Every element of the film, from the cinematography to the editing to the casting to the production design exudes Byrne’s unique personality. This is accomplished through the excessively bizarre details that Byrne sprinkles throughout the film. The most prominent example of this is his inclusion of over fifty sets of twins in the background. None of them are actually a plot device, they are simply there. This artistic choice might not seem worth the effort, but it is one of those touches that only Byrne would think of. As Roger Ebert argues in his review for the film, although this choice might not even be noticed by the average audience member, it serves a function to subcounsciously alter one’s experience when watching the film. Also, when the crew and actors are aware that the director made the seemingly arbitrary choice to hire an absurd number of twins to appear in the film, it will affect their performance, knowing that they are working under a truly eccentric individual. Byrne knew that directing also means providing the atmosphere for the actors in order to sculpt their performances. This is similar to Kubrick’s approach, who would overwork actors, mistreat them on occasion, and manipulate the social atmosphere of the set to get exactly what he wanted.
One of David Byrne’s strengths has always been collaboration-he has a knack for choosing just the right people to work with. This was never more important than in the production of True Stories, as film is inherently one of the most collaborative art forms in existence. Due to the nature of the indie budget, it was hard for Byrne to hire big names, although this film did mark the beginnings of some prolific careers. John Goodman, an unknown actor at the time, lends a unique warmth to character that is a sharp contrast to the cold, detached demeanor of Byrne’s character. This was also an early mark in the career of cinematographer Ed Lachman, who would go on to have a prolific career, working on films both wildly popular (Selena, 1997) and critically acclaimed (Carol, 2015). Lachman’s cinematography in True Stories is intentionally banal. One of the most prominent motifs in the film is the fascination with the mundane, and the somewhat bland, square cinematography enhances this effect. This style is a common thread throughout David Byrne’s body of work, as he is widely considered to have an objectively bad singing voice. In an interview promoting Stop Making Sense, D avid Byrne said, “The better a singer’s voice, the harder it is to believe what they’re saying. So I use my faults to an advantage.” He employs this same logic with True Stories, as the bland, non-exhibitionist cinematography allows the ‘specialness’ of the characters, dialogue, and mise-en-scene to shine. Frankly, an extremely colorful, aesthetically-pleasing, gorgeously shot version of True Stories would rob it of its unique charm. This is contradictory to the common conception of musicals, which usually make use of fantastical colors, sets, and cinematography in order to distance the film world from the real one. However, there is a specific brand of musicals that embrace the “anti-aesthetic aesthetic,” where they purposely employ a banal, bare-bones style in order to ground the story in reality. True Stories uses this technique in order to present the strange as completely normal. Throughout the film, the eccentricities of the characters are rarely acknowledged by others, which in a way, makes them seem even stranger. None of this could be accomplished without the bare aesthetic that is accomplished through the cinematography.
Although at times it might not seem like it, True Stories is a traditional musical, as the narrative and the music are intertwined. Byrne, not only being a Kubrick fan, was also knowledgeable about the classical Hollywood musical. In fact, he named Fred Astaire’s “I Left My Hat in Haiti” number from the 1951 film Royal Wedding as his inspiration for the erratic dance moves during “Psycho Killer” in Stop Making Sense. True Stories is, in a way, his response to classical musical structure, as he takes its common tropes in order to put them into new contexts and use them in interesting ways. The closest thing to a conventional plotline True Stories has is John Goodman’s character’s quest for a wife. It is not coincidental that this is the most consistent trope of classical musicals: the “relentless pursuit of heterosexual coupling.” This is probably the most “normal” thing that a character does in the film, therefore, by including it at all, Byrne is making a tongue-in-cheek statement about how this insistence on finding a wife is as ridiculous as what all the other characters are doing. Another common trope is the “personality dissolve,” where one character gives up part of their personality, usually in order to compromise with a romantic partner. Almost all the characters remain more or less the same throughout the runtime of the film, but there is an important shift in David Byrne’s unnamed
main character that constructs the thematic essence of the movie. When he is leaving the town of Virgil near the final scene, he says, “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.” This is one of the most interesting ideas in the whole film, as it implies that Byrne’s personality has begun to fuse with the people of Virgil’s. He is actively rejecting the personality dissolve by leaving and retaining his autonomy. This is one of the most insightful rejections of a classical musical trope in the film, as it strengthens the film’s central theme: the importance of observing and taking pleasure in the little, usually unnoticed things (something Byrne did all his career, such as giving the backup musicians more screen time in Stop Making Sense). Along with the narrative trope of the personality dissolve, there is also the technical trope of the sound dissolve. This was a technique where the music would play a bit before singing started in order to create a clear distinction between the song and narrative of the film. Byrne uses this trope to a disorienting effect, as the musical numbers in True Stories have instrumental preludes that usually last from forty five seconds to over a minute. Along with this, there are many musical tidbits sprinkled throughout the film that are extremely similar to the preludes to the real numbers. This is to create seamless transitions between the narrative and the music. The combination of its constant presence and the extended sound dissolves make the audience feel as though the characters could burst into song at any moment. This is designed to highlight the integration of music with the community, emphasizing the importance of music to society. By showing music as a method of uniting the people of Virgil, Byrne plays with yet another classical musical trope: the “communal” song.
Along with the “I want,” the “courtship,” and the “consummation” songs, it is one of the most common classifications of musical numbers. It is intended to show the environment and unite characters through music, some of the most notable being the opening numbers of Meet Me in St. Louis and La La Land or the “America” number of West Side Story. In these numbers, the characters bond over their commonalities, whether is strife or happiness. Usually the vocals are transferred from one character to another in order to portray the idea of community. In True Stories, almost every single number could be considered a communal song. Each one is designed to highlight a distinct aspect of the town through music. The most obvious example is the “Wild Wild Life” number which has each character lip-sync to the song in a bar. This is the first number of the film, and sets the tone for using music as a connector of people with the same eccentricities. The next number, “Dream Operator” is kind of a pseudo “I want” song. When just listening to the lyrics, you’d think it was an “I want” song, however it is presented in such a way that it takes a melancholy approach to dreams. In the film, one character is singing it about other characters as they partake in a bizarre fashion show. Instead of celebrating aspirations, it details how they come to define you. This is probably the saddest song in the film, but it is an aspect of the characters that Byrne is telling us is important and needs to be addressed. The last important trope Byrne addresses with the film is that of the homosocial environment. Usually in classical musicals, the characters exist in social groups consisting of people of the same gender, ethnicity, and even personality (think Fred Astaire’s dancing group in Swing Time or the division of gender and race in West Side Story) . Instead of subverting this trope like he does with most of the others, Byrne completely rejects it. The town is made of an incredibly diverse cast, and while the speaking parts lean a little too heavily towards the white male demographic, the effort to create a dynamic representation of America is obvious.
True Stories has been all but forgotten in the three decades since its release. It was not a large commercial hit due to its difficult marketability, and has since become nearly unavailable except for one DVD edition. However, its contribution to and subversion of the musical genre should not be overlooked. David Byrne will always be known for his involvement with Talking Heads despite having a prominent solo career and worthy endeavors into alternative art forms. However, the influence of True Stories is not invisible, as many bands have been widely influenced by the film, from Widespread Panic’s cover of “Papa Legba” to Radiohead naming their band after the song of the same name featured in the film. Whereas most American musicals are reflective of American society and values at the time, True Stories actively uses these tropes to almost create a new perception of a country that has never had its own identifiable culture.
"Audio Commentary: Jonathan Demme and Talking Heads." Stop Making Sense. Narr. Jonathan Demme, David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, and Jerry Harrison. Dir. Jonathan Demme. 1986. Blu-ray release. Palm Pictures, 2012.
"David Byrne Interview". YouTube. 19 February 2007. Retrieved 28 April 2018. Ebert, Roger. “True Stories Movie Review and Film Summary.” Review of True
Stories.Rogerebert.com, www.rogerebert.com/reviews/true-stories-1986. "The Tobolowsky Files, Episode 44: The Voice from Another Room". /Film.