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True Stories: Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection // PG // November 27, 2018
List Price: $34.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Randy Miller III | posted January 9, 2019 | E-mail the Author

Promotional image courtesy of The Criterion Collection (click to enlarge)

Developed after the success of Jonathan Demme's Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, David Byrne's True Stories (1986) is unequal parts travelogue, musical, comedy, and satire that pays tribute to the fictional town of Virgil, Texas and its upcoming 150th anniversary. Along the way, our unnamed guide (Byrne) meets a variety of Virgil's more colorful characters -- some of which are directly tied to the celebration -- including a country singer looking for love (John Goodman), the world's laziest woman (Swoosie Kurtz), a compulsive liar (Jo Harvey Allen), a Tejano singer with unique hearing abilities (Tito Larriva), a civic leader whose family conversations play out like the telephone game (Spalding Gray), and others. Their perspectives, interactions, and performances give the film a patchwork quality knit together by theatrical monologues and musical performances, many of which were written by Byrne for the Talking Heads studio album of the same name. This faux-documentary takes a lot of cues -- including a handful of character types -- from tabloid publications of the era like Weekly World News but does so without laughing at them.

Byrne reluctantly stepped in as True Stories' tour guide and narrator (or ringmaster, if that's a more appropriate word), initially proposing a more well-known personality like Willard Scott or Paul Harvey for the job. He acquits himself nicely here, showcasing the necessary amount of...well, oddness without coming across as completely detached or insincere. There's not a whiff of cynicism to be found during the bulk of True Stories and Byrne is a primary reason for that: he plays this important role as a tourist totally fascinated by the fictional town's odd quirks and colorful characters, and it works just fine because he (perhaps unknowingly) fits right in with this motley crew, kind of.

Does True Stories depend too much on all those odd quirks and colorful characters? Perhaps. Does it succeed as an entertaining hybrid of faux-documentary, musical, and comedy? Not always. But while a few of its shortcomings prevent True Stories from reaching greater heights, it's got a few secret weapons that keep things interesting along the way. The most obvious is outstanding cinematography by Edward Lachman (The Limey, I'm Not There) which, combined with Byrne's keen eye for interesting locations, gives True Stories a captivating, organic atmosphere filled with interesting colors, textures, and background details. So too does the off-kilter dialogue, which often flows from scene to scene with free-associative thoughts linked between unrelated characters. It's that kind of attention to detail that keeps sharp-eyed viewers interested...but if you're not looking for such connections (or simply don't care), True Stories might feel like a random assortment of weirdos. Which it technically is, in the grand scheme of things.

So, call it what you want: a precursor to films by the Coen Brothers, a descendant of Errol Morris' Vernon, Florida, or an extended collection of music performances with long, stilted intermissions. But David Byrne's True Stories still casts a unique spell more than 30 years after its quiet theatrical release, which yielded little more than a small cult following and a lackluster pan-and-scan DVD release by Warner Bros. back in 1999. Criterion changes all that with their outstanding new Blu-ray edition, which features a widescreen 1080p transfer sourced from a new 4K scan and a valuable assortment of extras with plenty of participation by Byrne and company. It even includes the film's complete soundtrack, presented here in its entirety for the first time. Quite a package, and one of the most surprising releases of 2018.

Promotional image courtesy of The Criterion Collection (click to enlarge)

Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, True Stories' sparkling 1080p transfer is the result of a new 4K scan of the original 35mm camera negative. Supervised and approved by Criterion's technical director Lee Kline, director David Byrne, and cinematographer Ed Lachman, this transfer is a real beauty: True Stories is loaded with color and fine detail, and it's replicated nicely with excellent saturation and a natural, organic appearance that reveals a great deal of texture and other fine elements. Skin tones appear accurate (when they're lit naturally, at least) with strong black levels, shadow detail, and minimal crush in the darkest moments. Outdoor shots, as expected, fare the best and really pop with detail and natural film grain. Since True Stories is such a potent time capsule of 1980s Texas, it's great to see everything in mint condition...and presented in widescreen for the first time on home video, even. Although most will be seeing this for the first time with no gauge for improvement, that doesn't make Criterion's Blu-ray any less impressive.

NOTE: The images on this page do not necessarily represent the title under review.

Although a lot less ambitious during the bulk of its running time, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track sounds perfectly natural and dynamic from start to finish. The majority of True Stories is anchored squarely up front with room in the surrounds for music cues (especially the performance of "Wild, Wild Life" 15 minutes in), outdoor and crowd ambiance, and a few stray effects here and there. Dialogue sounds especially crisp and natural, with good volume balance between speech and background noise. The soundtrack, both during the film and on the separate CD (covered in more detail below), has an excellent dynamic range and overall presence that gives songs a great deal of weight. Optional English (SDH) subtitles have been included during the main feature, but none of the supplements.

Promotional image courtesy of The Criterion Collection (click to enlarge)

Criterion's interface is smooth and easy to navigate with access to its timeline, chapters, and bonus features. The disc is locked for Region A players and comes packaged in a colorful Digipak case with lots of great goodies stuffed inside. The accompanying Booklet is a newsprint beauty inspired by the film's original poster and includes production photos, notes about the restoration, essays by critic Rebecca Bengal, author Joe Nick Patoski, and David Byrne, plus Byrne's tabloid clippings and writing about the film's visual motifs. Meanwhile, the Complete CD Soundtrack, detailed below, compiles all 23 music performances and other songs from the main feature for the first time on disc.

Plenty to dig through here, and all of it is well worth your time. After a brief vintage Introduction by David Byrne (0:23), the supplements lead off with "The Making of True Stories" (63:28), a newly-produced documentary that covers a lot of ground with plenty of style. Featuring participation from Byrne, cinematographer Ed Lachman, screenwriter Stephen Tobolowsky, costume designer Adelle Lutz, casting director Victoria Thomas, actor Jo Harvey Allen, artist/songwriter Terry Allen, and several others, there's a lot to learn here about topics including the film's development, shooting locations, casting, music, Byrne's work with Jonathan Demme, happy accidents, and other items. What's more is that it has great production value and is loaded with dozens of original storyboards, concept art, and photos, which really creates a compelling atmosphere that suits the main feature well. It's got everything but John Goodman, honestly.

A trio of new and vintage featurettes is up next. "Real Life" (31:29), shot on-set by Pamela Yates and Newton Thomas Sigel, is more of a narrative-free time capsule than a standard making-of piece; there's almost no context provided here, but we get a nice cross-section of cast interactions, alternate angles of scenes from the film, and other off-kilter moments. "No Time to Look Back" (11:26), a more recent piece directed by Bill and Turner Ross, pays homage to the fictional town of Virgil with a tour of the shooting locations and several scene re-enactments. Lastly is "Tibor Kalman" (11:49), a tribute to the late, great graphic designer featuring Byrne and Maira Kalman (Tibor's widow) that includes lots of great mock-ups and original concept art from True Stories and his later collaborations with Byrne.

A closer look at the soundtrack's sleeve design, including a full track list (click to enlarge)

Winding things down are seven Deleted Scenes ("Cute Woman Monologue", "UFO Guy", "Hunters", "Genealogy", "Heart Attack", "Kidnapping Skit", and "Funeral", 14:18 total), which look to be sourced from analogue tape and are in pretty rough shape and 1.33:1 format. Interestingly enough, some are alternate takes and lead the narrative down a few detours -- and while not polished in any sense, they're obviously worth a look. We also get the appropriately quirky Theatrical Trailer (2:28), also presented in 1.33:1 format but taken from much better source elements.

Finally, there's the Complete Soundtrack on CD, which is tucked inside the case in its own colorful cardboard sleeve (seen above, if you need a better look at the complete track list). This is an invaluable extra and one I'm extremely glad was assembled for the first time. We get all 23 tracks featured in the film in sequential order, including several songs sung by the cast members (including "Dream Operator" with vocals by Annie McEnroe and "People Like Us" by John Goodman); previous versions were studio recordings by Talking Heads featuring Byrne on lead vocals. Speaking of which, he's also thrilled that such a disc has finally been assembled: though the sleeve features little more than art and a track list, Byrne contributes an essay for the included newsprint booklet that speaks at length about how it was put together. As someone who still obviously collects physical media, I'm glad to have a copy on CD and you should be too. (And if, for whatever reason, you want the soundtrack but not the movie, it's available separately from Nonesuch Records.)

True Stories is the first and only full-length film directed by Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, and it's a remarkably accomplished production that bounces between several genres while remaining visually impressive from start to finish. Featuring a mixture of trained actors (Swoosie Kurtz, Spalding Gray, John Ingle, Annie McEnroe, and John Goodman in his first leading role), noted musicians (Byrne, Pops Staples, and Tito Larriva), and complete unknowns in a variety of colorful roles, the film's unique tempo and off-balance atmosphere will keep first-time viewers guessing. Still, it's not a film for everyone and, if you're not in the mood for it, True Stories may barely even register. But this is a fascinating specimen that hasn't received a proper home video release until now, and Criterion's Blu-ray swings for the fences: featuring a top-tier A/V presentation and a host of terrific bonus features including the film's complete soundtrack, it's an all-in package that fans will enjoy from top to bottom. Highly Recommended to the right audience.

Promotional image courtesy of The Criterion Collection (click to enlarge)

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work and runs a website or two. In his free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.
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