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Film / True Stories

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It's A Completely Cool, Multi-Purpose Movie

True Stories is a 1986 mockumentary musical co-written and directed by and starring Talking Heads frontman David Byrne.

Byrne plays a Wide-Eyed Idealist who visits the fictional town of Virgil, Texas, where the sesquicentennial of the founding of the town and the state of Texas is about to take place. He becomes acquainted with many of Virgil's quirky inhabitants, including a man obsessed with finding a potential bride (John Goodman), a married couple who live together but haven't spoken directly to one another in years, a woman who always lies, and a rich woman who never gets out of bed. The film's plot is rather minimal, consisting of a series of offbeat, mildly interconnected vignettes covering the lives and personalities of Virgil's residents, leading up to the celebration and its Grand Finale, a talent show.

The film is considered by many to be a successor of sorts to Nashville, or an off-kilter reimagining of works like Our Town or Dandelion Wine.

Talking Heads recorded a tie-in album for the film, despite Byrne's protest (according to him, Warner Bros. didn't understand that the film was a musical). A separate soundtrack for the film's incidental score was also released but quickly went out of print. A complete, proper soundtrack was eventually released to coincide with the film's re-release on The Criterion Collection in 2018.

This film provides examples of:

  • AcCENT upon the Wrong SylLABle: The Narrator calls the talent show a "Celebration of Special-NESS".
  • Actor Allusion: Spalding Gray launches into one of his monologues during the dinner scene, in exactly the same cadence as his usual monologues at The Performing Garage in New York City, which would later be adapted into films including Swimming To Cambodia.
  • And Then What?: The general mood of the end of the parade, as the last of the floats just continue down the street, leaving everyone in the town square staring after it.
  • Anti-Magic: Mr. Tucker feels metal obstructs magic and emotions.
    Mr. Tucker: (on a TV ad) They have too much metal on. They're a reflecting people.
  • Author Appeal:
    • The film features 50 sets of twins. Why? David Byrne wanted them.
    • The Conspiracy Kitchen Sink is right out of Church Of The SubGenius. Guess who's a member?
  • Award-Bait Song: "Dream Operator" is like a Deconstruction of one. The lyrics are wistful, but they're sung in a breathy, childlike voice by the Stepford Smiler-ish Kay Culver at a fashion show featuring Impossibly Tacky Clothes, which adds a more creepy, surreal edge to the whole thing.
    And you dreamed it all
    And this is your story
    Do your move all you want
    You're the dream operator
  • The Bear: Louis Fyne (John Goodman) often refers to himself as such. In his dating ad, he describes himself as maintaining "a very consistent panda bear shape."
    Miss Rollings: The bear is staying with me!
  • Blatant Lies: Signature trope of the aptly-named Lying Woman. For example, she claims to have dated the real Rambo, wrote "Billie Jean" as well as half of Elvis Presley's songs and that she was born with a tail which was amputated and sold to Lyndon Johnson.
  • Book Ends: The movie begins and ends on the same stretch of road with a little girl humming a tune.
  • Brain Bleach: Perhaps the nicest, most idealistic example of the Trope, in which the Narrator says near the end of the film that he wants to forget everything he saw - because it's so nice to experience Virgil again as if for the first time.
  • Call-Back: Louis telling the narrator "Like the song says, it's a scientific lifestyle" could be him mangling a line from "Wild Wild Life" ("things fall apart, it's scientific"), which had been performed earlier in the film. Which would make David Byrne's response ("Hmmm, I don't know that one") a Creator In-Joke.
  • The Cameo: the other members of Talking Heads have cameos during the "Wild Wild Life" segment, and again during the "Love for Sale" music video.
  • Central Theme: Living out your dreams in real life. Several songs revolve around dreams, The Lying Woman invents her own Multiple-Choice Past, one character never gets out of bed, Louis strives for nothing but matrimony, and the final line of the movie states that anything you can think of exists somewhere.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Oh, a few candidates.
    • The Lying Woman's lies are downright artistic. Such as on her date with Louis:
    Louis, darlin', listen, I'll tell you somethin' if you promise not to tell another livin' soul. Now, I'd never tell this to anybody else, but I believe that part of my extra-psychic ability's connected up with the fact that I was born with a tail. Little ol' bitty hairy thing about that long - had it surgically removed when I was just five years old. My Momma kept it in a fruit jar, up in the medicine cabinet, right between the 4-Way Cold Tablets and the monkey blood. I'd get up every morning - first thing I'd go in there in the bathroom brush my teeth and stare at my own tail at the same time. Now, somethin' like that can give you power - and that's the truth. Then Momma got a wild hair one Sunday and she decided to go make a lot of money off of it, you know. Took it out to a big ol' swap meet and sold it to Lyndon Johnson's top Secret Service agent. And he told a good personal friend of mine that he was gonna sell it for even more money to the Smithsonian Institution. Shoot, he might as well, it wouldn't do him any good. It wasn't HIS tail!
    • Byrne's character alternates between this and being simply innocent.
    • Louis hovers somewhere between this and Only Sane Man.
  • Conspiracy Kitchen Sink: The Preacher who sings, "Puzzling Evidence".
    Preacher: You know how the Governor campaigned to get the FCC here? Do you know what their goal is? Well, Elvis did! Artificial intelligence! Robots! They'd like that, wouldn't they? Yes, sir! Sleep! Sleep!
  • Cool Old Guy: Mr. Tucker, who works as both the patient, understanding assistant to Miss Rollings and as a folk magic practitioner who helps Louis with his love life. Bonus points for being played by a Real Life example, Roebuck "Pops" Staples, singer/guitarist of the legendary Soul/Gospel Music group The Staple Singers, who was in his 70s at the time.
  • Cuteness Proximity: The Cute Woman just loses her mind over cute and fluffy things; during the parade, she bolts excitedly out of the crowd to coo at the babies in the carriage group. When Louis describes his song on a date with her, she remarks the song is "kinda sad", and it ruins the date.
  • Desperately Seeking A Purpose In Life: Related to the Central Theme, everyone in Virgil seems to be looking for something they just can't quite put their finger on. Even Louis is a little off with his goal; while he states he wants matrimony, the spiritual healer remarks Louis has so much love inside him, he has the need to share it with someone else.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Played with. Louis is persistent in finding a wife, but not getting a particular woman to like him. He also emphasizes that he wants someone to like him for who he is, but accepts rejection without any qualms. As such, some of his tactics that would otherwise seem malevolent and disturbing in real life (such as the sign in his front yard reading "Wife Wanted") come off as sincere and wholesome in the context of the movie.
  • Driving a Desk: The Narrator is seen driving a lot against what is obviously a green screen. He sometimes makes it pretty obvious by vigorously moving the steering wheel back and forth. In one scene, he moves it up and down while commenting, "Yup. It's fancy driving, all right."
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Quite a few characters are simply called "The Lying Woman", "The Computer Guy", "The Cute Woman", and so forth.
  • Happily Married: Earl and Kay Culver, despite never speaking (directly) to each other.
  • Impossibly Tacky Clothes: The fashion show includes suits made of grass, a dress shaped like a stone column, and a bridal gown with headpieces about a dozen feet high, which causes one poor woman to topple off the stage. Has to be seen to be believed.
  • In Case You Forgot Who Wrote It: A variant: advertising for the film focused extensively on Byrne's involvement, to the point where he's the sole person on the movie poster and the one presenting the theatrical trailer, the latter of which is built more closely to a pitch reel than a conventional trailer.
  • Just Smile and Nod: Louis' reaction to The Lying Woman's outlandish tales during their date.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: Although Byrne's character, and others, break the fourth wall throughout, there is an additional lean prior to the "Wild Wild Life" musical number when Byrne says, "Maybe you saw it on television, or maybe you missed it." The "Wild Wild Life" segment was used as a music video to promote True Stories on MTV prior to the film's release.
  • Left the Background Music On:
    • The Narrator turns up the soundtrack on his radio, saying that the reception is great out here.
    • Lampshaded during the Culver dinner.
      Linda: Does anyone hear music?
      The Narrator: (aside to Larry) Is there something wrong with your sister?
  • Magic Realism: The Culver dinner.
  • The Mall: the film has a sequence set in one, culminating in an Impossibly Tacky Clothes fashion show.
  • Moment Killer:
    The Computer Guy: People at work must think I'm going nuts, though.
    Girlfriend: Well, if this is being nuts, then I don't ever want to be sane.
    (They cuddle.)
    Girlfriend: Oh... did you fart?
    • Louis' date with The Cute Woman ends when she remarks the his song is "kind of sad."
  • Mundane Made Awesome: The whole movie runs on this. The town depicted is celebrating "150 Years of Specialness," but everything they do is actually quite banal (if quirky).
  • Musical World Hypotheses: The film presents its songs in a bunch of different ways. Two of the songs used are the recordings that Talking Heads made for the album—"Wild Wild Life" is the basis for a lip sync contest at a nightclub, and "Love for Sale" is the song's video being watched on TV by The Lazy Woman. Two of the songs are performed diegetically in-character at the climactic talent show ("Radio Head" by Ramon, "People Like Us" by Louis). The rest are sung by characters as part of the story, like "Dream Operator" sung by Kay Culver at the podium during the fashion show, "Puzzlin' Evidence" by the preacher at his church, "Hey Now" by a group of 4-H kids, and "Papa Legba" by Mr. Tucker as he performs a ritual.
  • Never Bareheaded: The narrator wears a ten-gallon hat throughout the film.
  • Nice Guy: Mr. Tucker notes that Louis's obsession with matrimony is that he has too much love to give.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: That's band member Jerry Harrison pretending to be Prince and Billy Idol during "Wild Wild Life" (and in the re-edit for the music video he also plays Kid Creole).
  • No Name Given: Save for the Culvers, Louis and a couple minor characters, most characters in the film are never actually identified by name. This includes the narrator himself (though one trailer seems to imply that David Byrne is just playing himself as a narrator).
  • Non-Actor Vehicle: Besides Byrne as the narrator, two other music notables have prominent roles—Pops Staples (of The Staple Singers) as Mr. Tucker, and Tito Larriva (of The Plugz) as Ramon.
  • Noodle Incident: We are never told why Earl and his wife never directly talk to each other anymore.
  • Nothing Exciting Ever Happens Here: Subverted. Nothing does, but the town treats the mundane as exciting.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: Miss Rollings gets out of bed to call the talent show after seeing Louis' performance.
  • Quirky Town: Pretty much the entire theme of the film is just how quirky one town can be. The Narrator puzzles, however, how Virgil could be "special" since he says it's completely normal.
  • Rags to Riches: Miss Rollings, whose stocks in VariCorp skyrocketed just as computers became a major business. She never gets out of bed anymore. The Narrator asks the viewer if they wouldn't do the same thing.
  • Random Events Plot: The movie is light on narrative and mostly just follows the day to day lives of some strange people in a small Texan town; the closest thing to a conventional narrative is Louis' search for a soulmate, which links some of the vignettes— but not all of them— together.
  • Rule of Symbolism: After Earl announces "Linda! Larry! There's no concept of weekends anymore!", he treats the hors d'ouerves as Communion wafers and prays.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Or possibly Spared By The Edit: in the original screenplay, the Narrator and Louis have a conversation at a funeral where the coffin and everything else is covered with cute flower displays, strongly suggesting that the Cute Woman died. This is missing in the final cut, where the Narrator is heard in voice-over.
  • Stepford Smiler: There are hints of this with Kay Culver, whose always-smiling, calm, vacant demeanor, coupled with the fact that she never talks directly to her husband, suggest some major problem in her life, but it never really gets explored.
    Kay: Be sexy in business, be successful at night.
  • Sure, Let's Go with That: During the Preacher's speech, he mentions JFK, the Lying Woman stands up and declares that she was the reason JFK was killed, and that Mike Wallace wants her body. The Preacher's reaction? "Uh.... thank you."
  • Talking Heads: In addition to Byrne's band playing on the soundtrack, the movie itself has little narrative and many scenes are simply characters talking about some intriguing topic.
  • Tell Him I'm Not Speaking to Him: Earl and Kay Culver are a husband and wife who, for reasons never explained, never communicate directly to one another, instead doing so through the people around them (e.g. Kay asking her kid at dinner to ask Earl to pass the salt).
  • Unbuilt Trope: As a stylized, quirky examination of some of the overlooked nooks and crannies of American culture by an oddball Fauxlosophic Narrator, but with a somewhat tongue-in-cheek tone, this film could almost be taken as a parody of This American Life were it not for the fact that it predates it by a decade. A lot of the similarities come down to both works being sort of a Post-Modern take on legendary radio broadcaster Paul Harvey and his downhome Americana (Byrne in fact initially wanted Harvey himself to play the narrator).
  • Unreliable Narrator: The film sets up a stark contrast between the somewhat bleak, sterile nature of Virgil, and the Wide-Eyed Idealist narrator's take on it, leaving it up to the viewer to decide how sincere the movie is. Byrne has said that he tried to put it at least a little into the Idealism side of the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism.
  • Vanity Project: The film is a vanity project of David Byrne, who wrote, directed and starred in it. In fact, he insisted that Beth Henley and Stephen Tobolowsky take co-writing credit, even though he had rewritten almost all of their screenplay, because he was concerned that the film would get branded a vanity project.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist:
    • Byrne's character. For example, he gazes at some ugly tract housing and muses, "Who's to say it's not beautiful?" When he points at the VariCorp facility, he compliments it for having a multi-purpose shape: a box.
    • Louis appears to be this. He is thoroughly a Nice Guy, and willing to accept everything at face value, but it turns out he's also a Sad Clown during his song "People Like Us".
      We don't want freedom
      We don't want justice
      We just want someone to love
  • Your Mind Makes It Real: Not overtly depicted, but something of a subtextual theme. The lyrics of "Dream Operator" suggest that the boundaries between dreams and reality are thin, and the credits close with the line: "IF YOU CAN THINK OF IT, IT EXISTS SOMEWHERE"
  • You Were Trying Too Hard: After Louis spends most of the movie deliberately searching for a potential wife, Mr. Tucker advises him to stop trying so hard and just be himself. Sure enough, it's his earnest performance of "People Like Us" which attracts the attention to Miss Rollings, whom he ends up marrying in the end.