Review: ‘Gigantic, A Tale of Two Johns’

"Gigantic," AJ Schnack's diverting documentary ode to the veteran indie rock unit They Might Be Giants, just about perfectly replicates that band's frequent strengths and occasional shortcomings: It's shiny, amusing, incessantly clever, but sometimes a tad too snarky for its own good.

“Gigantic,” AJ Schnack’s diverting documentary ode to the veteran indie rock unit They Might Be Giants, just about perfectly replicates that band’s frequent strengths and occasional shortcomings: It’s shiny, amusing, incessantly clever, but sometimes a tad too snarky for its own good. Given TMBG’s loyal fan base, pic has a fair shot at specialized theatrical release in urban centers, with decent ancillary prospects to follow. The already devoted will be thrilled. Others may find (as with the Giants’ albums), that this would be better experienced in small doses.

The “two Johns” — extroverted guitarist John Flansburgh and nasal-voiced, accordion-wielding introvert John Linnell — have been best buds since junior high days in mid-’70s Lincoln, Mass. They collaborated on a very quirky songbook, which joins depressive and/or absurdly esoteric-themed lyrics with infectiously chipper New Wave pop melodies.

This brainy mix, combined with suitably surreal stage theatrics, first won them attention on New York City’s performance art scene of the early 1980s. Self-distributed demo tapes won unexpected sales and press attention, then delightful vidclips directed by Adam Bernstein for irresistible singles like “Ana Ng,” “Don’t Let’s Start” and “Purple Toupee” were shown on MTV.

By decade’s end, TMBG was topping college radio charts as an act on Elektra, though management shifts soon left them operating independently once again.

That didn’t pose a serious problem, since the insanely prolific songwriting duo (by then outfitted in live performance with a “Band of Dans”) found new ways to access a rabid if numerically modest fan base. One was “Dial-a-Song,” wherein a brand new tune was posted on their answering machine every single day. They also took pioneering advantage of the Internet’s possibilities and penned soundtrack music for both big and small screen, notably Fox sitcom “Malcolm in the Middle’s” theme “Boss of Me.”

Definitive musical spokesmen for the Age of Irony, the Johns boast one of the whitest, most college-educated and permanently brainiac-dweeby audiences imaginable, and “Gigantic’s” many celebrity testimonials offer a roll call of that demographic’s heroes: Janeane Garofalo, Dave Eggers, Conan O’Brien, Jon Stewart, Harry Shearer, et al.

Brightly paced and texturally lively docu comes up with its own absurdist running jokes in the form of intermitten animated segs, a mock Ken Burns-style docu on President James K. Polk and deadpan lyric recitations by Michael McKean. Still, the adulatory tone grows a bit monotone, with little drama available from the subjects — very non-rockstar-ish nice guys.

Plentiful concert footage (shot during one marathon gig in Brooklyn) is intercut throughout. Tech aspects are sharp.

Gigantic, A Tale of Two Johns

Production

A Bonfire Films of America production. Produced by Shirley Moyers. Directed by AJ Schnack.

Crew

Camera (color), Yon Thomas; editors, Alisa Lipsitt, Jason Kool; music, They Might Be Giants; music supervisor, Linda Cohen; sound, Bill Jenkins; concert segmentssound producer, Patrick Dillett. Reviewed on videocassette, San Francisco, June 12, 2002. (In San Francisco DocFest, Seattle, CineVegas, Florida, Provincetown film festivals.) Running time: 102 MIN.

With

They Might Be Giants, Frank Black, Dave Eggers, Joe Franklin, Janeane Garofalo, Ira Glass, Mark Hoppus, Josh Kornbluth, Robert Krulwich, Michael McKean, Conan O'Brien, Annette O'Toole, Andy Richter, Harry Shearer, Sen. Paul Simon, Jon Stewart, Syd Straw, Sarah Vowell.
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