Film of the Day – True Stories (David Byrne, 1986) | DaysAreNumbers
You might recall I was banging on about musicians appearing in films last month. When I was writing that, erm, piece I decided to limit my selection to include only films in which the rock and pop stars in question played straight acting roles; in other words, only films in which they had been chosen to appear in on the strength of their acting talent alone, and with none of this jumping up and bursting into song a la Elvis malarkey.
As a result of this self-imposed ruling, I was forced to leave out some of my favourite films which feature musicians. Most of these are from the 60s, and are effectively snazzier, pop art takes on the musical. The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night, Help! and Magical Mystery Tour are all great examples, as is The Monkees’ completely crackers, certiifiably psychedelic mini-epic, Head (co-written by Jack Nicholson!). After the 60s it became less common for bands and singers to appear in all-singin’, all-dancin’ cinematic vehicles, but one very notable exception is 1986’s True Stories, starring and featuring the music of one of that decades’ finest acts, Rhode Island’s very own arty funk/punk super troopers, Talking Heads.
With the whole band being art school graduates to a man (and woman), it’s little wonder that Talking Heads emerged as one of the most visually astute combos of the 80s, with the iconic video for their anthemic 1980 hit ‘Once in a Lifetime’ universally acknowledged as one of an exclusive handful of eyecatching early promo clips which helped turn the newly launched MTV into an instant phenomenon. Of course, when people think of Talking Heads at the movies, the first thing that springs to mind is Stop Making Sense, their 1984 concert film which is regularly, and rightfully, cited as the very finest example of that particular genre. That incredible, colourful and imaginative performance was staged and directed by the great Jonathan Demme, then at the very top of his game (his next film was to be the sublime Something Wild), but the man in the big white suit was obviously taking notes at stage left, as two years later Talking Heads would star in a narrative film of their own, but this time with David Byrne himself behind the camera.
Well, perhaps not quite “star”, as for the most part the non-singing members of Talking Heads limit themselves to various walk-on and cameo roles. David Byrne, on the other hand, is pretty much omnipresent throughout as he takes us on a guided tour through the fantastical Texan town of Virgil, where the townsfolk are preparing for their annual “Celebration of Special-ness”. The singer basically plays himself (jerky, deadpan, somehow autistic… Is it ok for me to say that?) only with a cowboy hat stuck on his head, as he breaks the fourth wall to introduce us to some of Virgil’s more notable residents. There’s a cuddly, country music-obsessed computer programmer looking for Miss Right; the town’s leading businessman, who refuses to speak directly to his wife; a millionairess who never leaves her bed; a man who can pick up radio frequencies through other people’s heads; a vodoo priest, and various other assorted eccentrics. These characters are all linked to each other in one way or another, and some are preparing to give a performance in the highly anticipated ”Concert of Special-ness” which the whole town is expected to attend.
Confused? Don’t worry, you probably won’t be (at least not in a bad way), but it is quite hard to explain exactly what happens in True Stories. In truth, there isn’t really another film like it in cinema history, which is perhaps one of the reason’s why it is one of my all-time favourites. A series of rich, fuzzy vignettes, that somehow manage to satirise and romanticise American small-town life at the same time, you just knew that a quirky clever clogs like David Byrne would have it in him to not only be in a bloody brilliant band but also make a bloody brilliant film. Apparently the inspiration for Virgil’s various cranks and nonconformists was gleaned from alleged “true stories” that Byrne had read in downmarket US tabloid newspapers; you know the sort, “ALIENS STOLE MY PICK-UP TRUCK”, that kind of thing. His direction is no less imaginative as his storytelling, and some of the sequences in True Stories are simply incredible. It’s often said that Richard Lester’s direction of The Beatles’ musical performances in A Hard Day’s Night et al gave birth to the music video, and it’s just a shame that Byrne’s film didn’t prove equally influential. True Stories is a visual feast, beautifully framed and photographed, with arresting use of various special effects. It also manages to transcend being exclusively aesthetic, however, and while it is certainly both arch and scattershot, it is also a rich, warm and pleasant serving of futurist Americana.
One mild reservation I harbour about this otherwise flawless film is that, by the mid 80s, musically-speaking Talking Heads were beginning to go off the boil ever-so-slightly, and there is the odd duff number to be found here. Luckily, many of the songs are performed by members of the sprawling cast, each one of whom does a sterling job in injecting a bit of added oomph to the proceedings. Take for example the closing number, People Like Us, a fairly straight-forward country pastiche which becomes almost unbearably touching in the hands of none other than cuddly John Goodman (playing that cuddly, country music-obsessed computer programmer, of course!). The non-singing actors are uniformly great, too, with the underseen comedy actress Jo Harvey Allen excelling as a proudly chimerical compulsive liar, and cult spoken word artist Spalding Gray preaching a bizarre sermon over a neon dining table (the hugely talented, and recently departed, Gray would also star in his own Jonathan Demme-directed performance film, the riveting Swimming to Cambodia, in which he recounts his experiences as an actor filming Roland Joffe’s The Killing Fields… Check it out!).
Sadly, David Byrne would never direct another feature film, although he has occassionally returned to filmmaking for the odd documentary or concert film. Funnily enough he would go on to win an Oscar in 1987, but the academy deigned to give him that for his score for Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, and not for this, his truly dazzling directorial debut. True Stories really is a wonderful trip, and I can’t think of another film like it…
Except I can think of another film a bit like it, just one not as good, but similar enough to warrant a mention. It transpires that another, albeit very different, American rock icon directed and starred in his own colourful, freewheeling feature film some five years before David Byrne did. That icon was Neil Young (directing bashfully under the pseudonym Bernard Shakey) and that film was Human Highway. Unfortunately, it is now very hard to find, and although it isn’t the corker that True Stories is, it’s still well worth seeing. Young actually gives an outrageously good slapstick performance from behind nerdy glasses in the lead, and Talking Heads’ peers Devo turn up in the supporting cast alongside Dean Stockwell and Dennis Hopper. There is also one of the greatest, and perhaps unlikeliest, musical collaborations of the last century, as Neil and Devo team up for a face-melting version of Hey, Hey, My, My (yes, the one Kurt Cobain killed himself to). I was going to put up a clip of it for you, but some bastard took it off youtube!
Nevermind… This is Talking Heads’ gig afterall, so here is the wild and groovy performance of ‘Puzzling Evidence’ from the film. The soundtrack was released as an album, of course (Talking Heads’ penultimate one, as it happens), but with Byrne performing vocal duties rather than the actors in the film. If you enjoy this I urge you to seek out the underrated masterpiece that is True Stories! Qu’est que c’est!