Having conquered the pop charts and even the world of concert films by Oct. 7, 1986, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne then made his debut as a feature film director, with a soundtrack albums (of sorts) by his band in tow.
Co-written by Byrne, Beth Henley, and Stephen Tobolowsky (yes, that Stephen Tobolowsky, as if there could be another), True Stories wasn’t just Byrne’s directorial debut, it also featured him as one of its cast members...if, that is, you can really call The Narrator a character in the traditional sense of the term. The film consists of a series of vignettes which take place within the fictional Texas town of Virgil, which is preparing for their so-called “Celebration of Specialness” in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of Texas’s independence, and the townsfolk are played by a variety of recognizable faces, including John Goodman, Spalding Gray, and Swoosie Kurtz, along with musicians Pops Staples and Tito Larriva.
Oh, yes, and the other Talking Heads – Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, and Jerry Harrison – pop up as well, credited simply as Lip-Synchers.
Byrne first met his future cowriters of True Stories as a result of director Jonathan Demme inviting Henley and Tobolowsky to a screening of Stop Making Sense, his stunning concert film with the Talking Heads. In an episode of his long-running and ceaselessly-entertaining podcast The Tobolowsky Files, the actor revealed that Byrne subsequently invited him and Henley over to his house, showing them a number of drawings he’d done which had been inspired by tabloids he’d read while Talking Heads were on tour and telling them that he’d been mulling over the idea of making a film revolving around the question, “What if all these stories were real?”
Tobolowsky pitched the idea of utilizing the impending sesquicentennial celebration, and after he and Henley penned a draft of the script, they gave it to Byrne. About a year later, they heard back from him, discovering that – barring a few lines and the sesquicentennial framing device – he’d pretty much rewritten the whole thing. Still, he asked them if he could include their names as co-writers, lest it seem like too much of a “vanity project,” and they agreed.
Now about that Talking Heads album...
Under normal circumstances, you’d expect that True Stories would be considered a soundtrack rather than a studio album, but the truth of the matter is that it isn’t a soundtrack album. Not exactly, anyway.
Here’s the thing: there are songs on Talking Heads’ True Stories album that are performed by cast members in the film, but those versions aren’t on the Talking Heads album...or at least they didn’t used to be. In 2006, an expanded CD release of the album included three bonus tracks: an extended mix of the album’s big hit, “Wild Wild Life,” a version of “Papa Legba” sung by Pops Staples, and a version of “Radio Head” sung by Tito Larriva. It wasn’t until November 2018 that the world at large had the opportunity to purchase True Stories – A Film by David Byrne: The Complete Soundtrack, a 23-song collection.
During its initial release, “Wild Wild Life” was a Top 30 hit in the U.S., climbing to No. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100, but it earned more airplay than just that: the tune also made its way to No. #4 on the Mainstream Rock chart. That’s also the chart where the song “Puzzlin’ Evidence” hit No. 19, even if it never cracked the pop charts. Additionally, “Love for Sale” secured a ton of airplay on MTV, so you may be surprised to learn that it didn’t chart in any capacity.
True Stories didn’t wrangle much in the way of box office numbers, but as an album, it did relatively well in the U.S., climbing to No. 17 and going gold, and it did even better in the U.K., hitting No. 7. Oh, and in case you’re wondering: yes, Radiohead did name themselves after the Talking Heads song...and come to think of it, that just might explain why Byrne was selected to induct the band into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.