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For, Friday, April 5, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: The quirky David Byrne movie ‘True Stories’ has been given new Blu-ray life by the boutique video label Criterion Collection, so let’s revisit this forgotten but worthwhile little gem. My review was published on Feb. 20, 1987, in the Deseret News.

David Byrne, for the uninitiated, is the songwriter-lead singer for the Talking Heads. He’s sort of a demented cross between Norman Bates and Mister Rogers, with a sense of humor only a low-key Monty Python fan could love. And once you get in sync with him you realize that he is perhaps as wise as he is witty.

Byrne is the co-writer/director of “True Stories,” which he has explained came from human-interest stories in supermarket tabloids.

That’s not hard to believe. This is one of those movies that conjures up words like “quirky,” “offbeat,” “strange” and “odd” in the minds of film critics.

Each description is apt, but despite “True Stories” being far from a conventional film, it’s not quite as unconventional as you might think. And though there are a couple of “music videos,” but this is a far cry from “Stop Making Sense.”


                       David Byrne, 'True Stories'

Set in fictional Virgil, Texas, on-screen narrator Byrne, wearing a big cowboy hat and driving a red convertible, leads us on a tour of the town and its residents, making little asides along the way (“This is not a rented car; it’s privately owned”).

The film begins with a zany little history of Texas, then carries us through a series of people and their experiences, loosely tied together by their anticipation of a town celebration of the Texas Sesquicentennial.

The opening sequence is of a little girl skipping along an open road, set against a barren landscape, reflecting immediately the film’s stylistic set design, which shows off the austere landscape, along with bright, stark photography that sets an odd mood — cheery yet whimsical.

“True Stories” is low-key satire, and it’s easy to see why some critics have complained that Byrne seems condescending toward his subjects. But I’m not sure that’s true. Though some people and events here seem ridiculous, I also felt a warmth and humanity that struck me as quite genuine. (And don’t we all love someone who is, in his/her own way, just a little bit ridiculous.)


The main character would seem to be Louis Fyne (John Goodman), an ordinary, slightly bumbling guy nicknamed “The Dancing Bear,” who wants more than anything to find a mate. “I want to share my life,” he says repeatedly, with no illusions that his life is anything other than quite ordinary. And just to prove his sincerity, he places a TV ad asking potential wives to phone in, and he puts a “wife wanted” sign on his front lawn.

Other characters include “The Lying Woman” (Jo Harvey Allen) who spins outrageous stories about everything from aliens to affairs with celebrities (her funniest yarn is about her being born with a tail); “The Lazy Woman” (Swoosie Kurtz) who never gets out of bed simply because she has so much money she doesn’t have to; the Culvers, who seem to head the perfect family, though they haven’t spoken to each other in years, and so on.

This movie isn’t going to draw big crowds, and even Talking Heads fans may be disappointed that the group sings only three of the nine songs that are performed on the band’s “True Stories” album in the context of the movie — instead various characters sing them as appropriate to their respective stories.

But “True Stories,” rated PG (presumably for a mild profanity or two), is a very unusual piece of film art, and just because something can’t be pigeonholed doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. With this film Byrne proves himself an artist on yet another level who will doubtless provide us with more unexpected delights in the future.