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  True Stories The Middle Of Nowhere
Year: 1986
Director: David Byrne
Stars: David Byrne, John Goodman, Annie McEnroe, Swoosie Kurtz, Jo Harvey Allen, Spalding Gray, Alix Elias, Roebuck 'Pops' Staples, Tito Larriva, John Ingle
Genre: Musical, Comedy, Drama, FantasyBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 2 votes)
Review: The small American town of Virgil, in the state of Texas, is celebrating its 150th anniversary with a parade and a concert. Here we dip into the lives of some of the townsfolk as they prepare for the event, as guided around its environs by David Byrne who is mightily impressed with the place and how its lends itself to a journey in song...

This sunny, odd musical was co-written by director David Byrne with Stephen Toblowsky (also an actor himself, of course) and Beth Henley, and based on stories they found in supermarket tabloids. Byrne's band Talking Heads provided the songs, which are mostly sung by the cast, though the band appeared as "themselves" in a pop video as seen on one character's television. The whole thing is an offbeat mix of "funny old world" slices of life and basically what amounted to pop videos, as if we had tuned into a curated ninety minutes of 1986 MTV.

There is no real main character, but the narrator, Byrne, introduces the town and its people with deceptively bland yet quirky observations. Louis (John Goodman) turns up most often and was the most accomplished of the players, a worker at the electronics plant that provides most of Virgil's population with its livelihood. Louis is looking for love, a wife to "share his life" and even resorts to advertising on local TV to achieve this, seemingly unaware that all of his yearning smacks of desperation and is not likely to attract a mate any time soon, indeed we never do see him find what he's is looking for.

The other characters range from a woman who seems to have lived a life straight out of The National Enquirer, complete with references to space aliens and Elvis Presley (she is credited as "Lying Woman" at the end, to hint broadly at what Byrne and company think of her claims), to another woman (Swoosie Kurtz) who is so rich that she spends her whole life in bed watching TV, waited on by a butler and not seeing the need to move from her mattress when the whole world is broadcast into her bedroom. Then there's the preacher who turns his sermon into a lecture on conspiracy theories, with gospel singers backing him up.

There are a string of sequences that start out with ingenuous scenes and turn quaintly eccentric, like the fashion show where the hostess starts to sing as the costumes become more and more outlandish, from conservative grey suits to ones made out of lawns, or representing classical architecture, or the parade itself which features the traditional cheerleaders and majorettes, but also lawnmowers, babies in pushchairs, accordion players and elderly men zooming around in tiny cars. True Stories may also hold the record for the most establishing shots in one film, emphasising its episodic qualities. It was interesting to compare this to another David, David Lynch, whose Blue Velvet was released the same year and could be the flipside of what we see here.

All this is so slight that you get the impression it may have been better off as a Talking Heads concept album rather than a quirky pseudo-documentary. Why not film real examples of American eccentricity and set that to music instead? Though you could argue that's loosely what they did, and there's a sense that Byrne and his cohorts are as much looking down on their subjects and their quietly aggressive ordinariness as they were championing it: we never see them react to an outsider, possibly because they never get any there (unless Byrne counts). Despite a variety of styles, the songs are not really as memorable as the band's best work, with only the singles "Wild Wild Life" and "Radio Head" standing out, though middling Talking Heads is better than many band's best work. Still, it's a good natured film that quietly celebrates this way of life rather than patronising it fully, even if that "alien's eye view" of eighties life can cultivate that impression. Also with: Victor Kiam on TV, the epitome of the kind of celebrity who would fit in fine in Virgil.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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David Byrne  (1952 - )

Although best known as the frontman of art rockers Talking Heads and for his own successful post-Heads solo work, Byrne has in fact enjoyed parallel careers in the world of art, photography and film. In 1986 he directed True Stories, a satirical musical comedy about life in a small Texan town, and won an Oscar the following year for his soundtrack to The Last Emperor (scored with Ryuichi Sakamoto).

 
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