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.