Review by Gordon Justesen
Goodman, Annie McEnroe, Swoosie Kurtz, Spalding Gray, Pops Staples, Tito Larriva,
Director: David Byrne
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 89 Minutes
Release Date: November 27, 2018
“So only by forgetting can I see the place as it really is.”
David Byrne, front man of the new wave pop sensation Talking Heads, caught the filmmaking bug during the filming of the band’s concert film, Stop Making Sense. The work of director Jonathan Demme inspired Byrne to craft his own unique vision. And unique is the first word to come to mind when discussing his film, True Stories.
Byrne’s inspiration for the film came in the form of countless tabloid stories about strange individuals. Such individuals allowed him to create the fictional town of Virgil, Texas. Byrne admitted that he was careful in his intentions not to make an odd film, and because of that ended up making just that very thing...but what an odd thing of beauty it is.
Byrne serves as the film’s narrator, heading into Virgil and carefully observing it’s many eccentric townsfolk. The town is about to hold a festival celebrating 150 Years of Specialness. As the event approaches, we are treated to a variety of fascinating individuals, including Louis Fyne (John Goodman), who is looking to advertise himself for a wife that will accept him for his “teddy bear” appearance, as well as a lazy woman (Swoosie Kurtz) who never gets out of her bed and a lying woman (Jo Harvey Allen) who claims to have the inside scoop of every major event of the last 25 years, having claimed to witness each of them.
All of this is combined a visual pop sensibility that is well associated with the time. And what better association is there than that of Talking Heads, which for my money was one of the greatest bands to grace the period. One of my favorite songs of theirs, “Wild Wild Life”, is showcased in a dynamic music video fashion.
The best way to describe True Stories is like the following: imagine if 1980s era MTV crossed paths with the people depicted in the Errol Morris documentary Gates of Heaven. In fact, both films make terrific companion pieces since they both capture a glimpse of Americana from odd and unlikely perspectives. David Byrne never made another film after this, but to be honest, where else could he venture to top himself?
Of all the films from the 1980s to surface onto Blu-ray for the first time this year, this one gets the grandest treatment of them all from Criterion. The 4K restoration, supervised by both David Byrne and cinematographer Ed Lachman, boasts a monumentally eye-catching picture capturing the beautiful Texas landscape. Colors, in particular, stand out greatly especially in the sun baked vistas and many shots of the skyline. All in all, a grand capturing of the heartland setting of Byrne’s distinct vision.
Equal marks for the 5.1 mix, which perfectly infuses the pop music vibe associated with its musical source. The “Wild Wild Life” segment is unquestionably the standout moment, but there are additional music bits that are effectively captured, such as that of a church choir performance. Dialogue delivery is remarkably heard from beginning to end and beautifully balanced with the other proceedings.
Criterion has put together a fantastic package for this cult release, starting with a terrific digipak package. Among the supplements, we get a new documentary about the film’s production, featuring Byrne, Lachman, screenwriter Stephen Tobolowsky, executive producer Edward Pressman, Co-producer Karen Murphy, fashion-show costume designer Adelle Lutz, casting director Victoria Thomas, consultant Christina Patoski, actor Jo Harvey Allen, and artist and songwriter Terry Allen. There’s also “Real Life”, a short documentary from 1986 by Pamela Yates and Newton Thomas Sigel that was made on the set of the film, as well as “No Time to Look Back”, a new homage to Virgil, Texas. We also get a new documentary about designer Tibor Kalman and his influence on Byrne and work on the film, featuring interviews with Byrne and artist Maira Kalman. Rounding out the package are Deleted Scenes and a Trailer.
Also included is one of the best inserts you’ll see all year, presented in the form of a tabloid paper and featuring essays by critic Rebecca Bengal and journalist/author Joe Nick Patoski, along with an essay by Byrne; a 1986 piece by actor Spalding Gray on the film’s production; and a selection of production photography, along with Byrne’s tabloid clippings and writing about the film’s visual motifs.
And one last bonus; a CD copy of the film’s original soundtrack!
True Stories is both a product of its time, yet also ahead of its time. That’s a unique quality for a film to have and, again, unique is the first word to fittingly associate with this work by David Byrne. And Criterion has delivered one of their all around best Blu-ray releases of the year!