In my early 20s, the friends I spent most of my time with and I shared one trait. We were obsessed with music. In particular, we had a strong obsession with the music of the CBGBs late ‘70s punk era. Our parties were often filled with the sounds that came out of the fabled venue. The Ramones, Blondie, Television, and especially Talking Heads. Of those bands, Talking Heads were probably the band we talked about the most. Whenever one of us would find an elusive Talking Heads album to add to our record collections, we would call one another to brag about it—this was before texting and well before the predominance of social media.
As part of our obsession with Talking Heads when we learned that the group’s frontman, David Byrne, had made a movie we had to get our hands on a copy. Incredibly enough, that wasn’t hard to do. Though Byrne’s lone outing as a director, 1986’s musical comedy “True Stories” was a disappointment at the box office and something of a cult film, it had been given a DVD release by Warner Brothers in the early days of that format’s life—it wasn’t out of print. The DVD was mastered from the same home video master of the film that had been created for the VHS and Laserdisc releases of the film, it wasn’t in widescreen, it was in good ol’ 4:3 AKA full frame.
“True Stories” is presented as sort of almost documentary/musical/comedy. Set in the fictional town of Virgil, Texas the film is a loose narrative, a series of vignettes that show the town preparing for a “Celebration of Specialness” to mark the 150th anniversary of the town’s founding. The film is called “True Stories” as all the characters and events were inspired by stories in tabloid magazines that Byrne had encountered. There’s The Culvers (the late Spalding Gray & Annie McEnroe), a happily married couple who never speak directly to one another, Louis Fyne—played by John Goodman in his big screen debut—who is a lonely bachelor that takes out ads for a wife and even has a flashing sign in his yard that says “Wife Wanted.”
There’s The Lazy Woman (Swoosie Kurtz), who is so rich she can spend all day in bed being tended to by various machines, her assistant Mr. Tucker—played by the legendary Pops Staples of The Staple Singles—who also is a positive voodoo practitioner that helps people with their troubles. The Lying Woman (Jo Harvey Allen) who tells anything about her life to anyone who will listen—including the time her mother sold the tail she was born with to secret agents working for Lyndon Johnson at a swap meet. Fyne, The Lying Woman, and Ramon—a singer who can hear people’s “tones” played by Tito Larriva—all work at Varicorp—a computer company who is sponsoring the celebration of specialness.
Like some of those early Talking Heads songs much of what “True Stories” focuses on is a celebration of the mundane, the beauty in everyday objects. The things no one thinks about as being special or unique. Though the town of Virgil is another small town with eccentric people, this film presents them as part of a tapestry of life. It’s not there to comment or make fun, they’re a reflection of America. “True Stories” is sort of “time locked” into 1986—which is OK—I think it’s intentional. It serves as a reminder of what life was like to an extent before everything becomes digital. Oddly enough, there’s forecasting of that as people who work at the computer company mention “the world is changing.”
The Celebration of Specialness concludes with a massive outdoor talent show—which doubles as a reason for there to be music in the film. The soundtrack is great, it’s a bunch of Talking Heads songs after all. Running at 89 minutes, “True Stories” is a delightful movie to spend some time with. It’s artistic and quirky, but also a little wholesome. Watching the film last night for the first time in a few years, I also found it an oddly nostalgic experience. Pinging my mind with memories of my early ‘20s, and my dimmest memories of the late ‘80s and how much of this movie felt like a short vacation to a time that wasn’t that long ago, yet a completely different place.
The Criterion Collection brings “True Stories” to blu-ray for the first time, and—as I mentioned about that previous DVD—marks the first time the movie has been released to home video in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. This blu-ray features a 4K restoration the film supervised by David Byrne and the film’s cinematographer Ed Lachman. This new transfer is simply stunning. It completely blows the decades-old home video transfer out of the water, I never really noticed what stunning colors “True Stories” had before, this blu-ray makes them shine beautifully. A new 5.1 DTS-HD MA surround soundtrack is also included, this new mix was supervised and approved by David Byrne.
Having been something of a “home video orphan” for years, Criterion brings a wonderful collection of bonus features to “True Stories.” There’s an hour-long documentary looking at the making of “True Stories” with Byrne and several of the film’s crew and creative team. “Real Life” a short documentary made on the film’s set during production, “No Time To Look Back” a visit to some of the locations used in the film 30 years later, and a short documentary about designer Tibor Kalman and his work on the film. Deleted Scenes and a Trailer round out the extras on the disc—all of these are great, and the documentary in particular on the making of the films adds much more appreciation to it for me.
Rounding the whole collection out are two really nice touches. A CD is included that contains the film’s complete soundtrack for the very first time. Both the score and the songs recorded by the actors in the film—that was also recorded by Talking Heads on an album of their own called “True Stories.” A booklet with essays is included, but printed and packaged to look like an old tabloid newspaper, complete with a middle fold.
With this wonderful new blu-ray from The Criterion Collection, I hope more people will discover “True Stories.” It’s a fun film that takes a look at the beautiful and extraordinary nature of every day in America. Even if you’re not a fan of Talking Heads or David Byrne, this one is worth a look. I hope you’ll check it out sometime. See you next week.