David Byrne celebrates the specialness of small-town Texas at SXSW

By Eric Pulsifer, special to the American-Statesman

David Byrne joined cast and crew from “True Stories” at the Paramount Theatre on Wednesday evening for a SXSW screening of Criterion’s 4K restoration of the 1986 film. The Talking Heads frontman’s sole foray into feature-length film directing is a bizarre, often-hilarious music-driven comedy that has (like Byrne’s music) aged remarkably well.

Byrne offered little of his experience or thoughts on the film, instead letting the spotlight shine on the mostly Texan cast and crew in attendance, including actors Tito Larriva (“The Pee-Wee Herman Show,” “From Dusk Till Dawn”) and Jo Harvey Allen (“Fried Green Tomatoes,” “The Client”). Byrne talked about how they almost lost the talent show stage that serves as the setting of the movie’s climax to a Texas-sized storm, while cast shared memories of working with John Goodman and the late Spalding Gray. Crew talked about the difficulty in tracking down the excessive number of twins Byrne wanted to feature in the film and, after working in the trenches with him, being wowed by Byrne’s lip-syncing musical performances for the film.

“True Stories” follows Byrne as a curious, polite narrator documenting the lives of ordinary people in fictional Virgil, Texas, leading up to the 150th anniversary of Texas independence and the town’s “Celebration of Specialness.”

Byrne, in spiffy over-the-top western wear and cowboy hat, spends much of the film behind the wheel of a red Chrysler LeBaron convertible (with sweet all-red interior) as he travels across vast stretches of open treeless, hill-free Texas country outside Dallas-Fort Worth. He mostly lets the absurdity of life unfold for us to unpack but offers up occasional Byrne-sian nuggets of commentary. “Some people say ‘freeways are the cathedrals of our time.’ Not me,” he notes. And: “I have something to say about the difference between American and European cities, but I’ve forgotten what it is ... I have it written down at home somewhere.”

It feels at times like “The Big Lebowski” — and not just because of the scene-stealing performance of underrated John Goodman (starring here as a young Texan with a taste in sad country music on a quest for love who says: “I’m 6′3 and maintain a very consistent panda-bear shape”). The film serves as a setup for a series of nonsensical music videos — mostly featuring people lip-syncing to Talking Heads songs — and features a narrator talking to camera who’s also a character in the story.

It may not be a perfect world, but it’s easy to overlook the absurd but unique beauty of day-to-day life. At the end of “True Stories,” Byrne concludes, “I really enjoy forgetting. When I first come to a place, I notice all the little details: I notice the way the sky looks, the color of white paper, the way people walk, doorknobs, everything. Then I get used to the place, and I don’t notice those things anymore. So only by forgetting can I see the place again as it really is.”

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