Made up of 50 states, each with its own idiosyncrasies, cultures and politics, the makeup of America is truly eclectic, formed of a cauldron of ideals that somehow entwine to form a complete national identity. It is often a difficult concept to encapsulate, so grand to truly interpret and pin down, particularly with the ever-changing tides of contemporary living. Though, from the mind of one of America’s finest creatives, David Byrne, comes one of the most exemplary efforts to encapsulate such a sentiment, with 1986’s True Stories celebrating the beauty of America’s national peculiarities.
Conversely, David Byrne does this by focusing on Texas, America’s second-largest state that is often inherited by cinema to tell pertinent tales now ingrained in national culture, be it the Coen brothers re-analysis of the wild west in No Country for Old Men or Richard Linklater’s coming-of-age classic Boyhood. Often recognised as the epicentre of true national identity, Texas is the heart of an eclectic range of American tales, radiating both a fearful sense of barren isolation as well as a liberating optimism that has long defined the national identity.
Acting as a strange alien sage, David Byrne introduces the film with a monochrome history of the Texas state, going as far back as the dawn of time to contextualise and illustrate the modern landscape of the state. Presenting his findings as if he’s giving a theatrical lecture surrounded by Lynchian red curtains, Byrne then steps through the screen itself and suffuses the real-life state with his infectious fantastical charm.
“The radio reception is great here!” Byrne excitedly exclaims as he speeds down the deserted roads of Texas towards the fictional town of Virgil, recounting his joy for the state as if a feverish tourist absorbing the novelty of their surroundings. Such sets the tone for the rest of Byrne’s tour, a frenetic exploration of radiant individualism that is ceaselessly optimistic in its depiction of small-town life.
Narrating the film with a typical surrealist sense of humour, Byrne injects a genuine love for the national identity, effortlessly avoiding the ease of belittling its subjects to instead join in their joyous existence. “What time is it? No time to look back,” Byrne poetically exclaims as he walks through a packed supermarket mall, deconstructing its careful nuances. In just one of the film’s wonderfully orchestrated set musical set pieces, he joins his friend Louis Fyne, played by a young John Goodman, to watch a spontaneous fashion show in the middle of the complex. Itself inspired by the satirical fashion performance in Federico Fellini’s Roma, the show features increasingly elaborate costumes, each punctuated by the soundtrack of the Talking Heads’ ‘Dream Operator’ rattling over the tannoy. Despite the absurdity of the situation, we’re invited into the quirky identity of the town to frolic in its insanity.
Typified by similar scenes of effervescent creative freedom, True Stories becomes a celebration of national identity, taking the ‘true stories’ of the tabloids to compose a mosaic of charming faces and attitudes that make up the dream operators of small-town life. Working in perfect symbiosis with its album of the same name, True Stories poetically examines and illustrates just why David Byrne and the Talking Heads are such incredible creatives. Not only is True Stories a rewarding artistic triumph, but it’s also a magical tour through the glee and heartache of such a wild life.