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  • Benjamin May

True Stories (1986) Review

Virgil, Texas is a sleepy little town as American as apple pie and just as sweet. The townsfolk are preparing for a so-called 'Celebration of Specialness', to mark the sesquicentennial of Texas' independence, which has attracted the attention of a talkative, cowboy-hat sporting stranger. This enigmatic stranger guides us through the town and introduces us to its people, showing us the beautiful strangeness of everyday life in Virgil. David Lynch once said that if "one looks a little closer at this beautiful world, there are always red ants underneath." In Virgil, the ants are on the surface.

A surreal musical-comedy directed by David Byrne and written alongside Stephen Tobolowsky and Beth Henley, 'True Stories' is a delightfully absurd film that paints an affectionate portrait of life in a small American town. Full of eccentric, compelling characters- such as the lonely Louis Fyne and the lethargic Miss Rollings- the film is consistently entertaining in an offbeat manner. Consisting of quirky vignettes and permeated with Byrne's brilliant music throughout, 'True Stories' plays a little like a comedy 'Blue Velvet'- minus the sexual and psychological violence, of course.

Like Lynch's film, 'True Stories' celebrates the diversity and creativity of American culture, and finds joy in the ordinary, peculiar and mundane. Byrne, Tobolowsky and Henley's dialogue is idiosyncratic and the way in which Byrne weaves his songs into the narrative is terrifically clever. Though some might find the peculiar tone and satire not to their tastes, for anyone who enjoys the films of Jim Jarmusch, The Coen Brothers, Aki Kaurismaki or the aforementioned Lynch; 'True Stories' will entertain greatly.

It is also a technically impressive effort, with Ed Lachman's cinematography being particularly outstanding. His work enhances 'True Stories' satirical tone while complementing its whimsical humour and charm. Lachman captures the vibrant landscapes and quirky details of Virgil with a keen eye, utilising bright colours, natural light and wide-angle shots to create a sense of openness and awe. This he contrasts with darker tones, artificial light and close-ups to create a sense of intimacy and mystery. Additionally, he employs various camera techniques- such as tracking shots, zooms and freeze frames- that emphasize the rhythm and energy of the musical numbers, as well as Byrne's narration.

Speaking of the musical numbers, fans of Byrne and Talking Heads will find them delightful. Ranging from bouncy hits like 'Wild, Wild Life' and 'Radio Head' to ballads like 'Dream Operator,' they mark some of Byrne's most heartfelt and witty lyrics, as well as some of his catchiest melodies. They also bolster the film's satirical tone, and the down-to-earth strangeness of its characters. Admirably performed by various members of the cast, each and every song is memorable. Though perhaps the rerecorded versions that made up Talking Heads' penultimate album are better known, the original songs as performed by the cast make up a vital part of 'True Stories' charm and humour.

While on that point, all in the cast perform brilliantly, bringing a sincerity and a quirkiness to proceedings that fits the material- and their roles- perfectly. John Goodman shines as Louis Fyne, the lovable and lonely bachelor longing for romance who sings his heart out. Swoosie Kurtz is equally hilarious as Miss Rollings, who never leaves her bed and has everything delivered to her. Spalding Gray and Annie McEnroe also do fine work as Earl and Kay Culver, a bickering pair of civic leaders who communicate through their children and their television. And of course, David Byrne himself is a captivating narrator and guide, who interacts with Virgil's townsfolk with an endearing mixture of curiosity and respect.

Unique and charming, 'True Stories' showcases David Byrne's incomparable vision and talent as a director, writer and musician. Featuring numerous humorous vignettes that paint an original, surreal tapestry of small-town American life, as well as great dialogue and pointed satire, the film is a delight from start to finish. Boasting a brilliant soundtrack, striking cinematography and fine performances from all in the cast, 'True Stories' is a truly strange, truly brilliant piece of fiction.


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