Following the success of the 1984 documentary Stop Making Sense, Talking Heads front man David Byrne was given the chance to expand his creative and idiosyncratic mind from the world of music and into the world of film as a director. The result, True Stories, was a surreal comedy – inspired by the extraordinary real life stories published in the tabloids – with elements of drama and musical mixed in for good measure. A longtime cult staple in the home video era, the movie now arrives on Blu-ray for the first time from the Criterion Collection.
The Production: 4/5
An unnamed visitor dressed in cowboy garb (David Byrne) visits the small Texas town of Virgil on the eve of the state’s sesquicentennial celebration – the “Celebration of Specialness” – being held in the town. During the visit, we’re introduced to a series of extraordinary characters in this seemingly “completely normal” place. There’s Louis Fyne (John Goodman), a worker for the local computer corporation looking for a wife by any means necessary. The Culvers (Spalding Gray and Annie McEnroe) are happily married couple with social standing with one main quirk: they haven’t spoken to each other directly in years. We also encounter a woman (Jo Harvey Allen) who tells tall tales to anyone who has the time to listen. And we would be remiss to not mention Miss Rollings (Swoosie Kurtz), the woman who never leaves her bed – not because she’s sick. For a completely normal place, Virgil has quite a unique personality in the people that occupy it.
Drawing from a series of tabloid clippings that he collected, David Byrne (along with screenwriters Beth Henley and Stephen Tobolowsky) weaves a unique tapestry that stands as an ode to the extraordinary part of ordinary life. As a director, Byrne manages to keep this moving at a decent pace but allows us to take in some of the unique quirks of each character we come across in this cinematic journey; he also utilizes his band’s music to stitch together the myriad of images and events that underscore the specialness of this seemingly normal Texas town. However, despite the ambitious blend of music, drama, comedy, and some pathos in this distinctive brew (it did receive some strong notices from the critics), audiences weren’t really tuned in to some of its eccentric and eclectic charms, essentially dooming it at the box office and putting an end to Byrne’s career behind the camera as a director. In the years that have followed though, it has attracted a cult following on home video, largely due to fans of the Talking Heads and David Byrne. Thirty-two years later, this movie about “a bunch of people in Virgil, Texas” has come to represent the great charm about the extraordinary lurking beneath the seemingly normal façade of everyday life; it may have been Byrne’s only directorial effort, but it’s a good one, provided you just go along with it.
While Byrne serves as our on-screen narrator guiding us on this journey, it’s John Goodman who serves as the film’s heart and soul; as the lovelorn Louis, he gives a charming performance and even sings “People Like Us” at the film’s talent show climax (which he does quite well in my opinion). Annie McEnroe and Spalding Gray are well matched as the Culvers, with Gray showing why he was a popular raconteur with a memorable bit during a dinner sequence and McEnroe singing “Dream Operator” during the mall fashion show sequence. Swoosie Kurtz casts a memorable impression as the bedridden Miss Rollings, who has an interesting idea on how to get to get hot dogs and hot dog buns matched up evenly. R&B and Gospel musician Pops Staples makes a notable appearance as the assistant to Miss Rollings and a kindly voodoo practitioner who helps Louis find love; he even gets a chance to show off his talents, singing “Papa Legba” during the sequence when his character casts his voodoo spell. Other notable appearances include John Ingle as the conspiracy theorist preacher who leads the choir in a rendition of “Puzzling Evidence”, Jo Harvey Allen as the Lying Woman, and Byrne’s fellow Talking Heads band mates Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, and Jerry Harrison during the nightclub sequence when several characters lip-synch the words to the group’s “Wild Wild Life”.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s original 1:85:1 aspect ratio is preserved in a stunning 4K transfer supervised by David Byrne and the film’s director of photography, Ed Lachman. It’s safe to say that this transfer blows the old Warner DVD out of the water, with a sturdy sheen of film grain present and finer details preserved. Colors are strong, with even skin tones and crushed blacks as well as minimal instances of print damage or artifacts present throughout. Another stellar job done by Criterion in the quality department.
The film is presented in a brand new 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio track supervised by David Byrne for this release. Remastered from the original sound mix, dialogue is strong and clear with the music given strong ambiance and direction with nary an instance of age related artifacts present like popping, hissing, or crackling. The mix easily surpasses the Warner DVD in terms of quality.
Special Features: 4.5/5
Introduction by David Byrne (0:23) – A brief intro to the movie, taken from what looks like an analog source.
The Making of True Stories (1:03:48) – A comprehensive look at the “specialness” of the movie from filming to release, featuring new and archival interviews with Byrne, Jo Harvey Allen, Spalding Gray, Terry Allen, Ed Lachman, Adelle Lutz, Karen Murphy, Christina Patoski, Edward Pressman, Victoria Thomas, and Stephen Tobolowsky.
The Complete Soundtrack CD – Exclusive to the Blu-ray release of the movie, the complete music soundtrack to the movie is presented on a CD accompanying the Blu-ray. This isn’t the studio recorded version, if anyone was wondering.
Real Life (32:00) – Filmed during the making of the movie, this 1986 documentary takes us behind the scenes of the project and even looks at the interactions between the cast and the folks on location. This was taken from an analog source.
No Time to Look Back (11:46) – A small tribute to the film by filmmakers and fans of the movie Bill & Turner Ross; they revisit the locations used in the movie, inter-spliced with excerpts from an audio interview with Byrne.
Tibor Kalman documentary (11:49) – A short documentary on the late graphic designer who worked on the movie as well as some albums for the Talking Heads. Byrne and Kalman’s widow share their memories.
Deleted Scenes (14:18) – Seven scenes cut from the movie that can be viewed separately or all together.
Theatrical Trailer (2:28)
Booklet containing essays by Rebecca Bengal, Joe Nick Patoski, and David Byrne, with a reprint of a 1986 piece by Spalding Gray as well as production photos and the tabloid clippings Byrne collected that served as the inspiration for the movie. Note: a couple of these pieces are exclusive to the Blu-ray release.
While True Stories might have gone over the heads of audiences upon initial release, it’s gained a healthy second life as a cult favorite in the home video era. Thanks to the Criterion Collection, the movie has, arguably, the best presentation to date on home video, with a generous wealth of special features related to the movie and its production. Fans of the movie – and of the Talking Heads – will certainly want to pick this up; as a fan of the band myself who – until this review – had missed out on seeing it due to rather lackluster previous editions, I’m glad I finally caught up with this hidden little gem of the 1980’s.
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