True Stories: Everybody Has Tones

True Stories: Everybody Has Tones

On Film / Essays — Dec 3, 2018

True Stories, David Byrne’s 1986 paean to American eccentricity and ordinariness, called to me from the shelves of a video store in Austin, Texas. Subtitled “A Film About a Bunch of People in Virgil, Texas,” True Stories is not “true” in a literal sense. Its multiple and surreal narratives were largely lifted from stories in tabloids that Byrne collected while on tour with his band Talking Heads, and you will find no such town as Virgil on a map. It was fifteen years after its release, well into its cultish afterlife on VHS, that I first watched it. And yet, with its small-town rituals and besotted computer engineers and yodelers and healers and politicians, and with the plaintive, earnest, and divergent music that reverberates across its vast landscapes, the film cracked open the profound strangeness of the state I’d just moved to in a way that nothing else I’d seen had. True Stories is a film about Texas and about America, too—about freeways and strip malls and shopping malls but also about the peculiar ways human beings seek communal experiences in an increasingly isolating and polarized world, about how we square our understanding of who we were and who we are against the dream of who we want to be.

Deeply funny and free-spirited, True Stories is a nuanced, acutely perceptive mosaic of a film, a merging of comedy and music and art. In a vein similar to Robert Altman’s Nashville (an influence on Byrne), it is highly attuned to place, transporting us to a present-day reality where the computer corporation Varicorp is king, employing many of the staunchly individualistic souls who live in Virgil. Plotwise, it is deliberately loose. A stranger (Byrne) visits the town and becomes briefly enmeshed in the lives of the people he meets there, as they prepare for a sesquicentennial festival called the Celebration of Specialness—to involve a street parade of Shriners and baton twirlers and accordionists; a fashion show, held in a shopping mall, with children dressed like adults and adults dressed like trees; and a talent show of auctioneers and singers and line dancers. In essence, True Stories is itself a celebration of specialness. 

This was Byrne’s first and only narrative feature film, perhaps an inevitable step for an artist who is best known as a musician but is wide-ranging in his interests and generous in collaboration, across mediums and genres. At the time of True Stories’ premiere, the editors of Time commissioned Byrne to create his own self-portrait for the magazine’s cover, on which they christened him—the cowriter, director, and star of the film—“Rock’s Renaissance Man.” He was thirty-four years old and more than a decade into making art and music that both exalted the ordinary and appreciated the unconventional. He had enlisted painter Robert Rauschenberg, as well as the folk artist and Baptist minister Howard Finster, to make cover art for Talking Heads. He was deeply influenced by the work of graphic designer Tibor Kalman, whom he had previously collaborated with and would commission to render the titles and the history-of-Texas slide-show sequence for True Stories—strong, modern interpretations of tabloid-magazine typography. Both with his band and on his own, he’d forged collaborative relationships with Jonathan Demme (whose unforgettable Talking Heads concert film, Stop Making Sense, had come out in 1984), Brian Eno, and Philip Glass, and he had recently composed scores for both choreographer Twyla Tharp and avant-garde theatrical artist Robert Wilson, whose anti­narrative style informed the making of True Stories.

Just before he embarked on the film, Byrne had composed music and text for The Knee Plays, a series of vignettes planned for Wilson’s epic opera the CIVIL WarS. “Knee plays” is Wilson’s term for entr’actes, skits or other kinds of interludes performed before a drop curtain as a kind of distraction while set changes take place—“all those short comic scenes with buffoons or side characters who would sometimes comment on the larger action,” as Byrne has described them. Byrne wrote knee plays of sorts for True Stories, too, and they provide some of the most transcendent and memorable moments in the film. 

He discovered that Wilson tended to begin with visual and sound elements and let a story layer over and grow around them, and for True Stories, Byrne tried a similar approach. He made drawings of characters and events inspired by his tabloid clippings, things he could imagine existing in one place. He also began to think about the songs that might connect these disparate characters. It wouldn’t be a musical, he later wrote in a book created to accompany the film, “where people burst into song for unjustified reasons,” or a pantomime of a story, like so many music videos of the era. Instead, the music would grant a town’s neighbors and coworkers a liberating form of expression, a means of “exposing their insides to everyone else in the town.” 

Joan Tewkesbury, who had written Nashville’s brilliantly pageant-like script, suggested Byrne con­sider Texas for his setting. He visited and was fascinated by the state’s visual contrasts, and he appreciated the range of music that had deep roots in the place—cumbia, country, polka, and blues, to name a few kinds. He liked the wide-open landscapes around Dallas, which made everything look cool and graphic. Everything was bigger in Texas, and that fed into his ideas of the film too; because people had space to be themselves there, Byrne reasoned, “they seemed to be fairly tolerant of personal eccentricities.” 

To articulate the look of the film, Byrne hired director of photography Ed Lachman, who had worked with Wim Wenders on the expressionistic documentary Lightning over Water; he, Lachman, and production designer Barbara Ling referenced color photographs by Len Jenshel, Stuart Klipper, Joel Sternfeld, and William Eggleston. Eggleston was one of a few photographers Byrne enlisted to take photos at the Dallas-area location during the shoot. “Movie sets are so boring!” Eggleston told me once, when I asked him about that time. He and his camera drifted instead, with Byrne’s blessing. The photographs he made, ultimately published in the book True Stories, are very much his own—like the rest of his work, color-saturated images of the humor and grace beneath mundane surfaces—and perfectly suited to the film’s themes and aesthetic. Eggleston photographed forlorn displays of fake flowers and toothpaste and waterbeds, and sunlight striking a rumpled bedsheet on which a phone receiver has been left off the hook.

On Byrne’s wall, the drawings kept shifting. Beth Henley and Stephen Tobolowsky, whom Byrne had hired to create a story from his sketches, suggested that an anniversary celebration like the sesquicentennial one Texas was preparing for at the time could provide a framework for the various threads. Ultimately, Byrne revised their script several times, dismantling it back into something more fragmentary. He was intent on leaving enough room for the “tangential activity of the film”—essentially, the sound and visual elements that constitute the “knee plays” of True Stories, its quieter, more off-kilter sequences. 

One of these tangents, created by composer, singer, and choreographer Meredith Monk, both opens and closes the film. The first song of True Stories is a wordless one, made up of sounds that seem to emanate from the landscape itself—a Texas-flat horizon, an open road disappearing into a blue sky. Down that road wanders a little girl, moving her hands in an odd little dance to accompany the birdlike tune she sings to herself, the first suggestion of the quiet inner life behind the film’s extroversion. She fades into the background of the scene, letting Byrne’s vivid cast of characters take the stage.

Our impressions of the towns­­people of Virgil are filtered through their encounters with Byrne’s character, the cool, curious, semidetached observer who drifts through the downtown streets and circles the freeways of the town’s sprawling outskirts in his red convertible. The other characters were inspired by items in the Star or the Sun or the Globe, the National Enquirer or the Weekly World News, and, as brought to life in the film’s wonderfully nuanced performances, they exist as archetypal representations of our fumbling attempts to communicate and connect with one another and the wider world. 

Most of these figures are quite recognizable, like Earl and Kay Culver, a husband and wife who share a home and family but haven’t spoken to each other in years. As Earl, also the owner of Varicorp, Spalding Gray is a civic leader whose public speaking is accentuated by dancelike hand gestures that speak a language at odds with the one issuing from his mouth, his inner life coming out to contradict his projected self. Kay (Annie McEnroe) is a poised steel magnolia of a woman who communicates with her husband only through their children. She seems most herself when she emcees the shopping-mall fashion show with aplomb, articulating the psychology embedded in a suit patterned in brick-wall camouflage, or in dresses cut like wedding cakes—created by costume designer Adelle Lutz for a scene that champions absurdist fashion, celebrating ingenuity even as it delivers a wry critique of consumerism. “Shopping is a feeling,” Kay intones. “I have a commercial feeling. A wobbly feeling.” 

Other archetypes are embodied by the Lying Woman (delightfully played by Jo Harvey Allen), who claims to have been pursued by Burt Reynolds and the “real” Rambo, and the Lazy Woman (Swoosie Kurtz), propped up by pillows and armed with a remote control, expe­riencing the world only through television and the magazines she reads with the assistance of a page-turning robot. And if True Stories can be said to have a protagonist, it is Louis Fyne, a lovelorn, good-natured Varicorp engineer, played by John Goodman in an early defining role. A “country bachelor” who maintains a “consistent panda-bear shape,” he advertises on television for a wife. True love eludes him, though not for lack of trying.

Eventually, Fyne seeks the intervention of a witch doctor. Mr. Tucker is the only fictional feature-film character played by the soul singer Roebuck “Pops” Staples, and, as in the Staple Singers, his presence here is a sage, beatific one. The song he sings to cast a spell over Louis is like a fresh wind, opening his soul to enable him to receive love. Renewed, Louis takes the stage at the talent show for a rousing performance of his song (“People like us / Who will answer the telephone . . . People like us / We just want someone to love”).

By this point in the film, we are primed to receive this message, thanks in part to the knee plays that occupy the fissures Byrne left in the narrative. They are among True Stories’ most personal and mysterious moments, often showing the kinds of things we do when we think no one is looking: a couple strolls through a flat, benign landscape, expressing their love for each other; a security guard belts out an aria on an empty stage; a band of 4-H kids leads their goat through a sub­division construction site, seizing scrap lumber and singing in chorus. These interludes are little windows, the baffling and necessary glue that connects these stories, and connects us to them. When Louis succeeds onstage, it’s because he’s able to make this hidden part of himself known.

Rewatching True Stories at a revival in New York recently, I found the film both prescient and wistful. It’s hard not to feel a little nostalgia watching everyday people dress as Prince and Apollonia and Billy Idol, or just as themselves, seizing microphones and lip-synching to “Wild Wild Life” (later the single on the Talking Heads album of songs Byrne had written for the film). Nostalgia prevails in the mentions of Steve Jobs’s name, or when the Computer Guy (Matthew Posey) greets Byrne’s narrator holding a stack of diskettes. “I send up signals,” he says. There are augurs of the future, though, too, as when Earl illustrates the new “spiritual economics” at the dinner table, tossing asparagus into the air as a plate of zucchini and lobster appears to glow from within. “There’s no concept of weekends anymore!” he concludes with chilling triumph. There is also augury in this quote from Byrne in the True Stories book: “True story: I was just recently told about a man in Texas who’s soliciting funds to build a wall around the state of Texas modeled after the Great Wall of China.” 

 “Texans see themselves as a distillation of the best qualities of America: friendly, confident, hardworking, patriotic, neurosis-free,” Lawrence Wright wrote in the New Yorker in 2017, in a piece that characterizes the state as far less politically monolithic than often assumed, and a bellwether for the United States as a whole. “Outsiders see us as the nation’s id, a place where rambunctious and disavowed impulses run wild.” When Louis sings “People Like Us,” he aligns himself with the Texans’ point of view in Wright’s comparison—with the idea of “us” as people who just want to get along but often get left behind or overlooked in the larger story of progress. Louis’s sadness is not just that of a too-big heart searching for its match but that of a soul seeking unfettered expression and a sense of belonging in a society that seems to value conformity even as it becomes vaster and more fractured. 

“Everybody has tones,” Ramon (Tito Larriva) confides to a coworker on the Varicorp assembly line. “Like a radio station. It’s the music of your soul.” Byrne assembled a soundtrack for True Stories that seems to arise organically from the people and places the film depicts. This is borne out in the talent-show sequence, in which two dueling auctioneers monologue simultaneously in mesmerizing rhythm, lassoed together by a yodeling cowboy who serenades them with a wordless, starlit melody. It is borne out in the musical sermon “Puzzlin’ Evidence,” part populist hymn for a world being swallowed by corporations and part bewildering conspiracy theory, one that even the Preacher (John Ingle) seems unable to properly articulate. Backing him, though, is a powerful, joyful, multiracial gospel choir whose chorus connotes hope. As if to say: We can work this out. As if to say: If we are tones, we are tones looking to harmonize. 

Maybe the greatest augury True Stories has for us is embedded in its very title. Maybe Americans need this film, with its faith in the possibility of deeper truth and connection and its embrace of human difference, now—at a time when our president regularly condemns journalism as “fake news” and casually lobs cruel insults at individuals and entire populations alike—more than we even did in 1986. Maybe we need to hear that “people like us” are just other people. Watching the film again among strangers, I experienced a palpable shared feeling, symphonic and communal, that has stayed with me. I hope you feel it too.