Gigantic: A Tale of Two JohnsReviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 02/26/07 23:01:32
(Worth A Look)
Thinking back, I’m fairly sure that nine out of every ten people I knew in college owned a copy of They Might Be Giants’ “Flood.” It was one of those albums everyone had, issued to kids by government officials just for hanging in the alternative music crowd. Even those that didn’t own it knew all the words to “Particle Man.”Some of those early 90s college folks held on tight to their Giants obsession; many others faded away, eventually filing the tapes and CDs away in a box along with their Dead Milkmens and their Depeche Modes and (if they were jackasses) their Morisseys. Well, if you’re one of the filers, then you’ll need to play catch up by checking out “Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns),” a documentary on the Giants’ twenty-year career. And if you’ve stuck with the band all this time, chances are you’re so addicted to them that you were first in line when the movie opened.
And if you’ve never heard of them at all? Well, while the movie certainly plays more for the fans in the audience, it does manage to act as a primer on the band, blending interviews and concert footage in a manner that’ll leave you humming the tunes and, perhaps, interested in buying a CD or two. Although I’ll chalk that up to the talents of the band more than the talents of filmmaker A.J. Schnack, who presents a worshipful fluff piece that works only because the subject is so interesting. As a serious documentary, “Gigantic” is pretty wimpy. But as a fan-driven music movie, it’s pretty good stuff.
If nothing else, we do get a compelling dynamic in the band’s two main members, John Flansburgh and John Linnell. Linnell handles lead vocals, keyboards, and accordion, and despite his frontman status, he’s more of a quiet, reserved type. Flansburgh, on guitars and back-up vocals, is the self-described showman of the duo, pumping energy into every concert with his revved-up performances. There’s also stuff about how Flansburgh handles the business side of things, leaving Linnell free for more creative ventures, blah blah blah.
This is all typical “Rolling Stone” interview genericness, sure. What makes the Giants’ story so much fun to watch is the Johns’ sly humor, which spills over into the filmmaking style - the movie’s introduced by the late Sen. Paul Simon, of all people; we get segments that feature celebrities such as Harry Shearer, Michael McKeon, and Janeane Garafolo reading, in all seriousness, the band’s more absurd lyrics; there’s a what-the-hell? middle section all about James Polk, inspired by a rather peculiar Giants song that turns the 19th-century president’s career into a rousing epic.
Most interesting of all is the examination of the Giants’ bleak lyrics and how the band sets them to shiny happy melodies (“No one in the world ever gets what they want, and that is beautiful” goes one bouncy tune). Commentary from such varied folks as essayist Sarah Vowell and writer/actor Josh Kornbluth (who quips that they’re “peppy, but in a horrible way”) reveals how the band has managed to hook in a particular audience over the years through their sense of humor, then smacks those same people with lyrics of unexpected despair.
The majority of the film, however, is concerned less with the grit behind the songs and more with the band’s rise to cult favorite status. Schnack traces the Johns’ path from their first meeting (way back in junior high) to their New York club circuit days (which include the strangely appealing, fan-friendly marketing tool known as “Dial-A-Song”) to their various battles with record companies (a plot point that seems to be mandatory in music biographies these days) to their settling down as a niche band, hidden away in the corners of the alternative music scene, popping up now and then to churn out the TV themes for “The Daily Show” and “Malcolm In the Middle.”
All of this comes with vintage video footage and typical interview segments, done entirely to please the fans. “Gigantic” may not be as different a music movie as it thinks it is, what with its by-the-book fluffiness. But that’s OK, really, since it’s a fun watch anyway.One thing especially stuck out at me. In one film clip from the late 80s, a British journalist congratulates them on being the top ranking artist on the independent music charts. To which Linnell replies, “That’s like being the world’s tallest midget.” He has a point. In their own microscopic fan-created world, the Giants are kings. To the rest of the globe, they’re still relative unknowns. Which suits the band just fine, for they are not giants. They just might be giants.
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