24 November 2010

True Stories

In a way, David Byrne's bizarre film True Stories (1986) reminded me of another '80s film centered around music: Michael Jackson's Moonwalker (1988). Now, don't get me wrong. Just like the music itself, there's a lot of difference between these two films. However, at their core, both of them are like extended music videos coupled with in-depth insights into the minds behind the music. Both Michael Jackson and David Byrne certainly have... very interesting minds, but in different ways.

Defying traditional logic, Moonwalker has a more confusing and bizarre plot, but is actually more accessible. Music probably plays a big role here. Everyone has heard of Michael Jackson and probably likes a few songs (which are most likely ones included in the movie). Talking Heads? They are completely obscure and underground, but aside from actual fans, most people know just a few songs, none of which are in this film. Probably the most popular song from the movie is "Wild Wild Life," probably best known today for being referenced in two very bad animated films from 2006 by Dreamworks and Columbia Pictures respectively. It's probably best to just take the song in its original context:

And yes, that is John Goodman in one of his earlier roles.

A musical mockumentary?
Okay, so I wouldn't really consider this film a mockmentary, but it does reference certain documentary styles at time. I also wouldn't call it a musical, but that seems to be the genre it is general grouped in to.

It's true that the movie often breaks away into a song, and in that sense it's a musical. But it doesn't have the same feel as a musical. All the songs are in context, sung by actual characters or, in the most unusual one (seen above), they are lip-syncing on stage like some sort of weird karaoke game. Likewise, out of the nine songs featured in the film, only three are performed by the entire band. For example, John Goodman actually sings one of them.

Ultimately, the music takes on a different role, some sort of spiritual outlet for the people of the small town of Virgil, Texas.

The documentary feel takes over. David Byrne, unnamed throughout the film, comes in to the town as a stranger and introduces us to its many unique inhabitants. He often provides us with various facts, some relevant and others irrelevant.

The quaintness of small-town consumerism
Much of the documentary feel takes the form of a humorous look at small-town America and the rise of consumerism. In one scene, he describes to us the significance of the shopping mall, describing it as the new city center. Likewise, he discusses metal housing, which is supposedly more prevalent in Texas than elsewhere, saying:
"Metal buildings are the dream that Modern architects had at the beginning of this century. It has finally come true, but they themselves don't realize it. That's because it doesn't take an architect to build a metal building. You just order them out of a catalogue. Comes with a bunch of guys who put it together in a couple of days, maybe a week. And there you go! You're all set to go into business! Just slap a sign out front."
Like much of the music by Talking Heads, the commentary never really becomes mean-spirited. The most farcical of the characters is Miss Rollings, a woman who was so wealthy and content with everything that she owned that she decided to live the rest of her life in bed watching television, but even she is treated gently by the camera lens. At his worst, Byrne states matter-of-factly, "Some people say, 'Freeways are the cathedrals of our time!' Not me."

Rather, the commentary is too far removed from one of the Talking Heads last songs, "(Nothing but) Flowers." The song tells the story of a time when civilization has fallen and humans have returned to a Eden-like paradise on Earth, in which a man finds himself missing microwaves, billboards, Dairy Queens and 7-Elevens. Neither the film now the movie never specifically imply that this world of consumerism and capitalism is, in itself, a bad thing. However, behind it all, we find ourselves feeling that things are somewhat empty... hallow...

We just want someone to love
The film's climax occurs when Louis Fyne (John Goodman), the character who comes closest to being the main protagonist, sings "People like us," which features the chorus, "We don't want freedom / We don't want justice / We just want someone to love."

[WARNING: This video contains spoilers, though if you stop it right after he finishes his song you should be safe.]

His character's main trait is his strong desire to find love, and not just a fling, but a wife. In his heartfelt song, he finally breaks the music free from the commercialism that surrounds the rest of the film's music (perhaps best exemplified by the overtly poppy "Love for Sale," which features a slew of pop culture references and advertisements).

Amidst the superficiality of the world in which these characters live, Louis calls for a little bit of humanity. His aim is not great. These are not huge, lofty ideals that he is calling for like freedom and justice. No, he just wants love. He wants a little bit of genuine, human interaction. An intimate connection. [Spoiler: highlight to read] Perhaps most powerfully, his song is able to stir Miss Rollings from her bed, if only long enough to call him on the telephone. In his song, she saw her own desire for human interaction, and though the two of them will no doubt spend the rest of their life together in bed, in front of a tv, it will, at the very least, be spent together.

Are you a fan?
Ultimately, the main people who are going to enjoy this movie are people who like David Byrne and the Talking Heads. That's not to say it's a bad movie or one completely inaccessible to outsiders. However, the music does figure heavily, even if most of it is performed my cast members rather than the band itself. Also, the themes are ones that will be familiar to fans of David Byrne's lyrics, and the film's quirky style will fit right in with fans of the awkward, thoughtfully poppy sound.

If you like the Talking Heads and you haven't seen this movie yet, you really should. It's quite entertaining and, really, it does give you a nice little look into the head of David Byrne. If you're not a fan of their music, it's up to you. You could really enjoy it. Or you could just think it's weird and pointless.

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