Director: David Byrne
Writers: David Byrne, Beth Henley, Stephen Tobolowsky
Starring: David Byrne, John Goodman, Annie McEnroe, Spalding Gray, Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples, Swoosie Kurtz
“When you were little, you dreamed you were big.
You must have been something, a real tiny kid.”
– “Dream Operator”
Back in the day, I worked at my college radio station, KLC, at Lewis & Clark College in Portland. Like most college radio stations of the time, we fell in line with the kind of standard orthodoxy of the radio of the era. We loved Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, Concrete Blonde, Billy Bragg, Love and Rockets and the like. We were always in search of the latest, greatest indy bands and I always seemed to veer towards the sillier or at least more fun bands – the Dickies, Camper Van Beethoven, the awesome Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper, a very young They Might Be Giants, Pat Fish the Jazz Butcher and many more bands who are both obscure and great (The Balancing Act anyone? Peter Case and his quixotic solo career? Andy White and his Dylan influenced sound? The amazing Robyn Hitchcock?).
The consensus greatest band in the world at that time was, yes, the band who you’d imagine it to be: that was R.E.M., the great American band, perhaps the absolute, no doubt, if you argue with me you’re insane greatest American band at that time and hell yeah they actually were the greatest fucking band in the world. I saw R.E.M. play the Portland Civic Auditorium in ’85 and they absolutely killed that night with an breathtaking ahead-of-its-time multimedia show with film projectors and tight playing and more than that an absolute intense conviction in everything that they did. Their album “Lifes Rich Pageant” was a virtual manifesto on how to live your life as a smart, committed, slightly geeky and overly intelligent person who firmly believed that we were “Young despite the years. We are concern. We are hope despite the times,” as they sang so earnestly on “These Days.”
That album is still just as breathtaking when I listen to it these days. When I Spotified that album last week, the songs still touched me deeply. I wanted to take on the fucking world all over again. I was still young despite the years. I was still hope despite the times. And I was shocked to find myself bursting into tears singing “I Believe”, a manifesto song from a young person yet to really take on the world.
Yeah, this is a bit of an oblique lead-in to an article about David Byrne and Talking Heads, but I wanted to give you a feel for the intensity of feeling my friends and I had about music at that time. “Talk About the Passion”, as the R.E.M. song goes, and I could talk about it for hours.
Talking Heads were one of the bands that all of us at the station agreed were popular but cool. Unlike U2, whose “Joshua Tree” caused a bit of angst among the KLC cognoscenti, Talking Heads’s breathtaking live album “Stop Making Sense” was a crossover hit that everyone agreed was a committed, smart, non-sellout success. The band didn’t compromise their music to become a huge success. Instead, they made their music smarter, slicker and more professional and became hugely successful. David Byrne and friends had become more committed to themselves, to the very things that made Talking Heads so great: oblique lyrics, polyrhythmic percussion, astonishing guitar parts, and an awesome, unstoppable beat. Like R.E.M., they had become hugely, massively popular simply by being themselves. Their triumph was an artistic triumph, but it was also a political triumph and a triumph of persistence. “Stop Making Sense” was the well-deserved prize of a long career of growth, smart change and commitment.
Then came “True Stores.”
Few albums caused more angst in the KLC studios than Talking Heads’s 1986 album “True Stories” and its accompanying movie, directed by David Byrne. “True Stories” seemed a radical right turn, a change from smart, slightly rebellious independence, to a Reagan-era conservative compliance and sellout.
Where the music in “Remain in Light” and “More Songs About Buildings and Food” and “Speaking in Tongues” featured polyrhythmic brilliance, “True Stories” seemed to continue a perceived downward trend from 1985’s “Little Creatures” and its simpler songwriting to the seemingly very simple songs on “True Stories”. The band hadn’t quite given up, but it seemed they had lost their way, that something had shifted in the band’s dynamics. They seemed on the verge of being that most dreaded of terms among the college radio crowd: a sellout.
There was tremendous angst about “True Stories” in the halls of KLC. A particularly hip girl named Angie from New York, who loved the band from their days singing songs like “Don’t Worry About the Government” – a love song about the government- and found the increasing insider nature of a formerly outsider band intensely personally painful. I remember Angie’s angst-filled moaning with a mixture of admiration and humor – who but a college kid could have so much angst about a goddamn rock band?
Then there was the movie that accompanied the “True Stories,” album a baffling “completely cool, multi-purpose movie” that seemed to be as much about itself, its quirks and strangeness, as about the events that happen in it. In an era that brought us great concert movies like Laurie Anderson’s Home of the Brave and of course Stop Making Sense. not to mention the films that had rock and roll feels to them- stuff like Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild and Martin Scorcese’s After Hours. I gotta admit that when I first saw True Stories I was alternately amused and repelled by it.
In retrospect, I was kind of overwhelmed by the bizarre and self-aware artfulness of the thing – what are we supposed to make of a movie that contains a scene like this one?
I’d forgotten about the movie for many years, and had really pretty much forgotten about all Talking Heads albums that came after “Stop Making Sense” while still loving the band. I still listened to their early stuff – I think my favorite is the live “The Name of This Band is Talking Heads” with its astonishing versions of “Houses in Motion” and “The Great Curve” that are breathtakingly alive – but completely ignored any Heads albums that came out after 1985 or so.
But recently I went to a play, and the song that they played as we walked out of the theatre was “Dream Operator” and I’ll be damned if I didn’t start singing the hell out of that song. Out of context of its time or of the movie or of the very disappointing album that contained it, “Dream Operator” struck me as being very sweet, very kind and very emblematic of the kind of American false dream of small town life.
I came home curious to watch True Stories again and happily found it on Netflix. I prepared myself to have a different opinion of the movie at age 45 than I did at age 20… and found that my opinion was basically the same as it was 25 years ago – only more so. I was filled – almost consumed – with ambivalence about this movie as I watched it. Which is only fair, because the movie seems a bit ambivalent about itself.
The movie True Stories chronicles the visit of a narrator (Byrne) to the small town of Virgil, Texas . The movie begins with a long and colorful history of the state and a very bizarre introduction by Byrne:
Right there you get a sense of the strangeness of this movie. You see the fake backgrounds that Byrne “drives” through, the way that he almost but doesn’t quite interact with the people of the town of Virgil, the way that the movie seems to both want to embrace small-town life and make fun of it at the same time. This is a very “cool” movie in the sense of the movie never quite embracing the things it explores, but just kind of coasts along from moment to moment, event to event, without ever quite connecting them.
The best moments in the film embrace the band’s rock and roll roots. Maybe my favorite scene is John Ingle preaching the gospel of conspiracies from the pulpit:
It’s actually pretty striking how much the movie resembles an odd sort of reality show, a slightly surreal reality show that might appear on one of the artier digital TV channels. The people who live each scene in this movie are so completely committed to themselves, so sincere in their existence, that their characters transcend the cool surroundings and really do seem to come to life. Kay Culver sings the heck out of “Dream Operator”, and watch how wonderfully the very young John Goodman sells “People Like Us”:
Even in this sincere song, though, we seem kept at a bit of a distance from these people. Is a line like “We don’t want freedom/We don’t want justice/We just want someone to love” a put down of small-town small-mindedness or an embrace of what Byrne sees as the simplicity of the people of the flyover states? It’s the tension of a scene like this that gives this movie its ambiguous and intriguing power. Is this song the equivalent of “It Don’t Worry Me” from the final scene in Robert Altman’s brilliant Nashville – one of the best movies of the 1970s?
Or is it a scornful self-mocking bit of ’80s arrogant irony? It seems to me that it’s impossible to say based on the evidence on the screen.
Viewers are never given any guidance by Byrne and the other writers about how we’re supposed to feel about the people in this movie, and it’s never quite clear whether he cares about them himself. Everything is kept at a bit of ironic reserve, which fits the tone of the later Talking Heads style. Are we really supposed to believe that Byrne was “Born in a house with the television always on”?
He certainly seems to be keeping the topics of his songs at a convenient distance – how else can you take line like “I can love you like a color TV”?
And this song is one of three music videos that are embedded in the middle of the movie. Yeah, right in the middle of the movie, some real life music videos appear. “Wild Wild Life” was the most fun to me, with its parodies of such ’80s icons as Prince and Billy Idol:
We also get the video for “Radio Head”, which yes, is where another one of the World’s Greatest Bands got their name:
All of this adds up to a very odd movie, a film that never seems to be sure of its tone or style. Is True Stories ironic or sincere? Is it a sellout or a triumph of artistry? Sincere or sarcastic? The fact is that this movie kind is all of those things. It’s a strange movie, a true streaming pile o’wha. Do yourself a favor and watch it – then tell me what you think. If nothing else, you get a chance to watch John Goodman for most of 90 minutes and that isn’t too bad.