photo & text by nacrowe
ive written before about what a unique film DAVID BYRNE's TRUE STORIES (review linked HERE). in essence its a multi-tiered fictional narrative from the perspective of a NEW YORKER about various idiosyncratic characters from TEXAS. growing up on a compound in NIGERIA surrounded by TEXANS and LOUISIANANS, TRUE STORIES was a godsend in attempting to understand their backwards ways. and i say that with full contempt.
but the music from the film is what drew me in as a child and had me rewatch countless times. as to be expected, in the movie the characters more or less sing all of the songs, with a few exceptions. the release of the TALKING HEADS' album TRUE STORIES (SIRE, 1986), however, is sung entirely by BYRNE. the songs are forever intertwined with the film, and what is striking about the songs is the range of genres and perspectives captured in these songs. from the good ol' boy perennial bachelor and man-about-town played by a young JOHN GOODMAN singing the lap steel-inflected country ballad "PEOPLE LIKE US" about small town values to TITO LARRIVA (of LOS ANGELES PUNK band THE PLUGZ fame) singing a CHICANO-rock ode to the glory, majesty and mystery of transistor radios (and by extension the computer chip industry) in "RADIO HEAD"; the album is a showcase of the width and breadth of TEXAN culture circa the 1980s. other notable examples from the film range from topics such as the conspiratorial brand of EVANGELICAL CHRISTIANITY taking shape at the time ("PUZZLIN' EVIDENCE" sung by JOHN INGLE & THE BERT CROSS CHOIR) to crass CONSUMERISM both in commercials ("LOVE FOR SALE") and in newly constructed malls ("DREAM OPERATOR").
taken as a whole i always appreciated how the songs themselves showcase a perspective on small-town AMERICAN life that celebrates both the ARTIFICE of mainstream CONSUMER CULTURE and the value of the community that springs for from it. to be AMERICAN in this milieu just means being plugged in to the latest fashion trends, going to church, eating with your family and working at a nearby production plant. its a film that celebrates conformity, specifically the surface-level safety of buying in to the AMERICAN DREAM without worrying about the finer details of history, inequality or racism.
when i watch TRUE STORIES now as an adult it feels like a searing takedown of all those naive and hopelessly quixotic ideals surrounding AMERICAN CONSUMER CULTURE from the inside out. or maybe i am misreading it. i'll never know which is probably why i continue to keep rewatching it and listening to the soundtrack..
photo manipulation by nacrowe
at some point TALKING HEADS frontman and notable NEW YORKER (via Rhode Island) DAVID BYRNE decided to make a film about TEXAS. sounds horrible but TRUE STORIES (WARNER BROS, 1986) is a classic film of its time.
this musical was referenced consistently throughout my childhood, especially BYRNE's obtuse narration of "who cannot say this isn't beautiful?" when speaking about the seeming infinite flat expanse that is the lone star state. literally every time we went to a new country growing up, my father used that line. "everything you see here is typically SOUTH AFRICAN, and who cannot say it isn't beautiful?"
full disclosure: i've never been to TEXAS. its a streak i am hoping to keep. closest i got was the GEORGE BUSH INTERCONTINENTAL AIRPORT in HOUSTON and that was enough. unfortunately i feel like i was partly raised in the south given that for three years in NIGERIA i lived in a guarded company compound full of TEXANS and LOUISIANANS, but that is a story for another entry.
what separates this film from just being an eccentric look at a southern state by an outsider is the soundtrack. what makes the music work is its earnestness and ability to illustrate different aspects of TEXAN culture, from its proud LATINX population to its crazed-apocalyptic evangelical doom-spouting sermonizers to its then-growing construction of new mega-malls brought on by new wealth from the tech and petroleum industries, this film really captures a moment in the AMERICAN psyche where capitalism seemed to potentially provide a means to self-actualization.
or maybe it showcased the insular nature of a pre-internet AMERICAN landscape where basic needs were met for the first time in history and all that is left is the vacuity of media culture to provide meaning. i don't know. its a very interesting film that means something different each time i see it. sometimes i feel BYRNE is viciously satirizing and mocking MIDDLE AMERICAN VALUES while other times it seems he is empathetically presenting an endearing slice of AMERICAN life. it's probably all true. oh shit, see what i did their on accident. that's good stuff.
i should mention that the songs are sung in the film by an impressive cast including JOHN GOODMAN, TITO LARRIVA (THE PLUGZ/TITO & TARANTULA/THE FLESH EATERS), POPS STAPLES (THE STAPLES SINGERS) and, my personal favorite, GENERAL HOSPITAL actor JOHN INGLE as a crazed televangelist preacher spewing crackpot conspiracy horse shit. most people are also suprised to learn that BRITISH INDIE/ALTERNATIVE legends RADIOHEAD derived their name from a song in this film.
regardless, this film is amazing. you should see it whether you are a fan of DAVID BYRNE and/or TALKING HEADS or not. but really you should be a fan of them as well.