People Like Us: David Byrne’s True Stories

Benjamin Burns, Senior

David Byrne’s True Stories could have been a satire very easily. He could have looked down or made jokes about the fictional small town in Texas he built his first and only movie around. But he didn’t. He made an exceptional movie that does more than that. It may be built around a fictional town and the townspeople may be played by famous actors, like John Goodman as the country singer looking for love Louis Fyne, but he films the whole movie as if it was a documentary, and he is the viewers tour guide. 

The film takes place over the course of a week in the fictional small town of Virgil, Texas. The movie doesn’t have a very strong plot, but that isn’t an issue. The viewer follows David Byrne as he talks to people in the town, who are all getting ready for the town’s 150th anniversary. They all call it the Celebration of Specialness, but as Byrne says himself, “this place is completely normal”. There’s Louis Fyne, who works at Varicorp, the big computer factory that all of the town works at. The company is run by Earl Culver (Spalding Gray), who is happily married to his wife Kay Culver (Annie McEnroe) despite them never talking directly to each other, just indirectly by having their kids relay a message.  There is a preacher, played by John Ingle, whose sermons are on conspiracy theories and Louis’ buddy Ramon (Tito Larriva) believes that everyone has a tone and that he can hear them and learn something about someone through them. Miss Rollings, played by Swoosie Kurtz, never leaves her bed and is either helped by the many robots in her room or by Robert Tucker, her assistant. Tucker, who is played by the famed singer Pops Staples, is a practitioner of voodoo who Louis later goes to for assistance in his love life. David Byrne follows all of them, with Talking Heads songs playing all the while.

The film is an extreme of small town America, and of course has some good jokes throughout the movie. At one point, during one of many of Byrnes short breaks in-between different people in Virgil, he says “I have something to say about American and European cities, but I’ve forgotten what it is. I have it written down at home somewhere”. The film does have some absurd humor as a result of it being an over exaggeration of small towns, but it never looks down on the characters. When Byrne is walking around the mall in town, he runs into someone who seemingly has been sending signals into space, hoping for a return call. While he’s there he watches a fashion show that has suits patterned like brick walls, and suits covered in astroturf. Later on the town holds a parade celebrating the town and its history. There are marching bands and dancers, but also low-riders, and a brigade of lawnmowers. Later that day is the town talent show, which is interspersed with Robert Tucker singing “Papa Legba” one of the songs made for the film, about the titular figure in Voodoo, who is the communicator between humans and spirits.

My favorite moment of the talent show is right at the beginning, with the dueling auctioneers and the man who lassoes both of them at the end. After Tuckers song, it is time for Louis’ big moment, his song he had been working on over the course of the whole movie, People Like Us. It is a great country song, sung wonderfully by John Goodman, about how “We just want someone to love”. It is the culmination of his entire character arc and it is done perfectly. After this he gets a call, and it cuts to him at his wedding with Miss Rollings, still in her bed. I implore everyone who reads this to watch this movie as soon as possible.

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