Reelin’ & Rockin’ – True Stories Is The Weird Cousin To Robert Altman’s Nashville

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Though the Talking Heads emerged from the New York punk scene in the late ‘70s, they aren’t typically associated with punk rock. Even with the credentials of opening for the Ramones for their first gig as well as touring with them, the Taking Heads are more associated with new wave, the commercially acceptable offshoot of punk. Eventually the Talking Heads would become one of the most successful, if not the most successful, of the New York punk bands. Timing was fortunate for the Taking Heads. As they were coming into their own a new television channel has started. It was called MTV. Now for those of you not old enough to recall, MTV at one point stood for Music Television. Bands would make short films to promote their music and MTV would play them. Surely it sounds like an outdated novelty, but at the time MTV was a big deal.

Having already conquered the concert film with Stop Making Sense, directed by future Oscar winner Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs), the Talking Heads graduated to a narrative feature. A quirky slice of Americana and music called True Stories. While touring with the band, frontman David Byrne compiled a scrapbook of odd tabloid stories. Collaborating with Stephen Tobolowsky (anyone who has seen Groundhog Day will remember him as Ned Ryerson, aka Needle-nose Ned, Ned the Head, and more. Got it? Bing!) and his wife Beth Henley, Byrne crafted his scrapbook into a screenplay that he would direct. As is the case with unique films, the marketing department was baffled on how to sell the film. By its opening weekend True Stories was already relegated to cult status.

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True Stories opens with a small girl, singing to herself as she wanders her way through a vast field. Then we’re introduced to Byrne, our guide and narrator, an almost alien-like observer. He runs through the history of Texas from the dinosaurs to the violence that led up to the settlement of the Lone Star State. Just when one might be under the impression that this is going to be an Oliver Stone-esque airing of grievances, the tone suddenly changes. Once he begins discussing the technological revolution sweeping through the state, he sounds awe-struck with a child-like sense of wonder. There’s a sense of childish innocence that permeates through practically everything in True Stories. One minor example is the way Byrne casually remarks how dinosaurs fascinated him as a child before continuing his narration.

There are a number of similarities to Robert Altman’s Nashville. Each features a collection of unique characters in a southern town coalescing around a music festival. In Altman’s film the concert is working around the impending bicentennial of the United States with a massive concert taking place at the Nashville Parthenon, a Greek-style monument just outside of Nashville. In True Stories the citizens of the fictional Virgil, Texas are celebrating the sesquicentennial of the state of Texas with a celebration of specialness just outside of town.

While Altman’s film has sometimes been criticized as looking down upon his characters (he’s not), showing the harsh edges of some of his characters, Byrne avoids being misconstrued. While Byrne’s characters aren’t necessarily the most intelligent, they’re each driven by their own passions. Each individual, some misguided or simply full of shit, are built on a foundation of sincerity. Both films capture an America in transition. Nashville shows America at a crossroads – the end of Vietnam, post-Watergate, and pre-dating the Reagan Revolution. True Stories presents America as the Cold War is winding down, the Reagan Revolution waning, and the beginnings of the technological revolution that is still affecting us to this day.

More importantly, Byrne avoids the techno-panic that seems to grip people when facing new technology. A character simply known as The Computer Guy (Mathew Posey) ponders the significance of the changes that technology brings without the hubris presented in Silicon Valley. He compares computer programing to music and language. Representing the changing face behind changing technologies, he simply states, “You know, the astronauts didn’t read poetry.”

The CEO of Varicorp, Virgil’s technological and economic hub, is Earl Culver (Spalding Grey). Not greedy or malicious, just another one of Virgil’s residents driven by his passions. During an impassioned dinner speech, using the food as a visual metaphor, Culver explains the changing nature of business in the world. Like Byrne’s character, Culver describes the changing nature of business with an outsider’s amusement, in awe of the passions that drive people to invent. When he proclaims, “there’s no concept of weekends anymore,” he’s not speaking as a capitalist executive who has just staged a coup to reduce the free time of his employees. It’s a proclamation about the greater freedoms technology will bring. While his statement may not be entirely true to all of us, it is true to the perspective of this particular character.

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Of all the sincere oddballs that populate the fictional town of Virgil, Texas, the one that embodies the sincere optimism is John Goodman’s Louis Fyne. Desperately looking for a wife, Fyne tries whatever necessary – computer dating, placing a sign on his lawn reading “Wife Wanted,” taking out a television ad, voodoo, and composing and performing a song about his desires. That song, People Like Us, contains certain lines that obviously meant to elicit laughs – “We don’t freedom, we don’t want justice. We just want someone to love” – but they’re all rooted in the character’s viewpoint. Louis doesn’t realize that his passionate pleas may be considered blasphemous. Yet he still ponders in song, “What good is freedom when God laughs at people like us?”

The other assorted oddballs of Virgil consist of The Cute Woman (Alix Elias), who just loves to love anything pastel, small, and cuddly. Then there’s The Lying Woman (Jo Harvey Allen) who’ll but in on any topic with outlandish tales so far beyond reason – her involvement in the assassination of JFK, her encounters with the real Rambo, or her romantic liaisons with Burt Reynolds. Her lies aren’t malicious but self-aggrandizing tales that inflate her sense of self-importance. Miss Rollings (Swoosie Kurtz) is a woman so rich that she never leaves her bed. She has no ailments, she just doesn’t want to get up. Finally there’s Earl Culver’s wife Kay (Annie McEnroe). The spouses haven’t spoken directly to one another for years, but they still maintain their nuclear family. Kay organizes the town’s fashion show, narrating the proceedings with simple platitudes like, “Shopping is a feeling.” In almost any other film these characters would have a dark side, but not in True Stories.

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Virgil isn’t all kind, idealistic souls. There’s the Preacher (John Ingle) spewing conspiracy theories from the pulpit. The Preacher is reminiscent of the Replacement Party candidate, Hal Phillip Walker, from Altman’s Nashville, who drives around town preaching his unique worldview. “Does Christmas smell like oranges to you?” is one of the questions that Walker ponders aloud. The Preacher, on the other hand, explains the conspiracy in terms like, “Do you run out of Kleenex, paper towels, and toilet paper at the same time? You know it’s true!” The Preacher’s rambling are similar to that of the Church of the Subgenius, of which Byrne is a member, a phony religion that acts as satire of religion. The sermon transforms into a rousing musical number, subverting the near-religious orthodoxy of the conspiratorially minded.

True Stories is special because you don’t have to be a fan of the Talking Heads to enjoy the film. While there are a number of Talking Heads songs in the film, its offbeat spirit can be endearing to those who aren’t a fan of the band. Sadly, the film has only been issued on DVD once, a bare-bones release with no special features and an incorrect aspect ratio. I reached out to Warner Archive, who reissues smaller Warner Bros. films on Blu-Ray, and they informed me that at present there are no plans to reissue the film. The soundtrack has only been issued with the Talking Heads’ versions of the songs (Fun fact: the band Radiohead got their name from a song on the soundtrack). The cast’s versions of the songs have never been officially issued. We can hope as the years go by that True Stories’ cult grows, and that it will find its rightful place as the weird cousin of Altman’s Nashville, a musical reflection of Americana in its singular place and time.

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