A Celebration of Specialness: A Look at the Idiosyncrasies of Small Town Life in David Byrne’s ‘True Stories’

With David Byrne’s True Stories (1986) releasing on Criterion today in a beautifully restored 4k edition supervised by Mr. Byrne himself, I have been thinking a lot about what makes the film so unique, and loved by so many. There is a tendency to see the film as a scathing critique of small town southern life, rather than a celebration of the idiosyncrasies that can exist in a place so removed from the rest of the world. To see True Stories this way, however, is to seriously misinterpret not only the film, but David Byrne as a person.

It is understandable that fans of Byrne’s band The Talking Heads – known for its deceivingly upbeat pessimism – would want to see a film about a town full of neurotics, fools, and people whose favorite pastime is going to an outlet mall as a harsh criticism of suburban life; that we are meant to laugh at these people rather than with them. However, what True Stories really marks is the beginning of Byrne stepping away from that pessimism. It is only in hindsight that this becomes abundantly clear, as we see what Byrne is up to now. His new album, pointedly called American Utopia takes a much more positive (although not at all ignorant) approach to the current state of the world than, say, songs such as Only the Flowers or Life During Wartime. In fact, Byrne has been working continuously on a project called Reasons to Be Cheerful that shares technological innovations, social movements, and optimistic profile pieces from all over the world, with the sole purpose to restore faith in humanity during a time where it feels like there may not be much of that left.

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David Byrne, therefore, shines as a beacon of hope, faith, love, and optimism that the world so desperately needs. A negative judgement of small town life serves to do nothing except divide us and breed more misunderstanding. What True Stories attempts to do, instead, is take us on a road trip through the joyful, iridescent, and idiosyncratic world of the fictional, but still very real small town of Virgil, Texas.

With a soundtrack composed of Talking Heads songs — sung both by themselves and some of the cast members — it is difficult to watch True Stories without a smile plastered on your face. David Byrne drives through Virgil in his bright red convertible and serves as the narrative thread of the film, as we are shown just how special Virgil is through character-based vignettes and vibrant, montage-heavy music videos. As the narrator,  Byrne is an outsider looking into the strange world of Virgil. However, he is just as strange as those he is talking to and describing for the audience, so there is never a sense of judgement or disdain — only love and intrigue. We enter Virgil as it is nearing the 150th anniversary of its founding. Excitement buzzes all around as different events are held all around town, all leading up to the big and exciting “Celebration of Specialness” which is being funded by a big computer manufacturing factory where most of the citizens work.

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Every small town has its “thing.” My home town of Grapevine, Texas has “Grapefest” where we all get together to drink wine and smash grapes with our feet. My dad’s even smaller town of Plainview, Minnesota has “Corn on the Cob Days”, where people give out free corn on the cob all day and hold a special parade through the center of town. Virgil, Texas has a “Celebration of Specialness” where local talents take the stage to sing joyous songs, tell stories, and dance. There are multitudes of smaller, but just as exciting celebrations going on around town the week following the celebration, including a karaoke night at the local bar, a fashion show at the local mall, and a parade down the main street. Time after time we are shown the eccentric and fascinating world of Virgil. Byrne sees through the mundanity of small town life and uses every medium at his disposal, whether it be music, art, film, spoken word, or interpretive dance, to channel the beauty he sees at work below the surface.

I myself am from a suburban community in North Texas, near Dallas Fort Worth — right where the mythical town of Virgil happens to be as well. For so much of my life, I absolutely loathed my home town. I felt trapped by it, like most teenagers do. As soon as I was able, I traveled six states away to go to college in Michigan. I decided to try and start a new life there, be my own person and not be so terrified by the idea that everyone around me knew me, or worse — knew my mother.

But as I grow older, I realize that I miss home more than ever. I miss the things that made my town special: the special events celebrating our town’s local cash crop, the cook-outs in the parking lots of strip malls, or the old repertory theater on Main Street with only one screen that plays It’s A Wonderful Life every Christmas. I find more and more that when the people around me write all small suburban towns off as being full of old, white, bigoted morons I feel hurt. Not because there isn’t an abundance of those people where I’m from (because there certainly is), but because there are still people like me there. Wonderful, beautiful people full of love and hope. People who cannot escape in the way that I did, or maybe don’t even want to. Too often there is a sense that if you remain in the town where you were born that you have somehow failed in life. But what is so wrong about wanting to stay and change the place you were born and raised for the better?

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Earl Carver (Spalding Gray) entertains his family and special guest David Byrne with an explanation of the Protestant Ethic involving a lobster and some peppers.

What True Stories preaches is that everywhere and everyone is beautiful. David Byrne drives by empty countryside with half-dead grass, across the too-familiar concrete jungle of freeways and overpasses, and through a suburban community where each house looks exactly the same — and he sees it all as beautiful. He allows us to enter these homes and see how different they are once you look past the exterior. The woman who never leaves her bed (Swoosie Kurtz) is never spoiled or entitled and is in fact always happy, kind and generous to those around her. The woman who has never said a single truth about anything in her life (Jo-Harvey Allen) never gossips, she just likes to tell people she used to have a tail, has psychic powers, and was abducted by aliens.  Louis (John Goodman) is just your average young man who wants to settle down with a woman, and likes to dance and write songs in his free time. Mister and Misses Culver (Spalding Gray and Annie McEnroe respectively) never speak directly to each other but nothing vicious is ever said, and it doesn’t seem to affect their relationship at all. 

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The “cute woman” (Alix Elias) matches her couch! Isn’t that neat!

If there is any criticism to be found in True Stories it is against cynicism itself — not the people of Virgil, Texas. The film never blames them, instead celebrating them and revelling in their joy. They are never villainous or the butt of any of the jokes. Rather, the entirety of the film is a celebration of their uniqueness. We are all special, wonderful, and magnificent creatures worthy of celebrating that within ourselves — whether the “elites” think we deserve to or not. It is a simple message, told in many different ways and spanning generations, but it is a message we desperately need right now. Spalding Gray’s speech to open up the Festival of Specialness explains the beautiful moral of True Stories better than I ever could, so I will leave you with this:

“God was working around the earth trying to make it beautiful like the rest of the world — only He had to knock-off because it was night time and He said: ’I’ll come back tomorrow and make it just as pretty as the rest of the world, with lakes and streams and mountains and trees.’ And He got back the next day and he saw that the ground had completely hardened — like concrete. And He didn’t want to begin all over again! No, in his infinite wisdom, He had an idea. He said: ‘I know what I’ll do! I’ll make some people that like it this way!’”

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