As though our apes’ brains could contain the secrets of the
This is a movie about They Might Be Giants, a modest
indie band that resists categorization, comprised of two guys
named John, with a remarkable 20-year history. As with all
such movies, if you love the band, you will see the film and
read the reviews. If you are unfamiliar, let me offer my interpretation
of the TMBG phenomenon. After all, in the big picture, they
are scarcely a household name.
And that name goes all the way back to Miguel de Cervantes'
Don Quixote, which the title character uses as a rationale
for jousting with windmills. In 1971, They Might Be
Giants became the title for a wonderful cult film
about another charming paranoid psychotic, who believes himself
to be Sherlock Holmes. TMBG may be a band that, by any other
name, would sound as sweet, but that name fits perfectly,
conveying most everything you need to know in just four words.
It is one of the only unoriginal things about this overwhelmingly
idiosyncratic band, but it is also economical and efficient.
Crazy? Yes. Paranoiac? Yes. Charming and sympathetic? Yes.
Misunderstood? Yes, quite probably, by their harshest critics,
by their most ardent fans, and even by this humble writer.
Pretentious? No. To be pretentious they would have to worry
about what you think. They don’t.
On the surface, their songs are beautifully crafted pop masterpieces
of happy melodies, highly innovative chord progressions, and
vocal harmonies sung perfectly by two guys whose voices are,
well… famously nasal. The lyrics are symbolic puzzles, revealing
a morbid and cynical intelligence to challenge the most adept
poetic mind. Their arrangements are extremely economical,
with every voice put to exacting use. The decidedly untraditional
topics for their songs know no bounds, from James K. Polk
to a “blue canary night light.” They wrote the theme song
to “Malcolm In The Middle”.
Their music is friendly and simple. They seem quintessentially
personable and unpretentious, presenting two very different
stage personas which fans would really like to know
better, as if that might explain everything. Of course, each
bit of information leads to an answer which leads to more
questions. Their personalities have been compared to Penn
and Teller (Flansburgh and Linnell, respectively),
and that comparison is more apt that one might expect. Like
the magicians, they can reveal a part of the trick and yet
remain no less mysterious and fascinating. There is a clear
link between their music and childhood. Children most often
love them because so much of life is still a mystery to them,
and they can recognize a good puzzle when they see one.
How does one make a film about them? It would be safe and
easy to make a concert film; these guys are consummate performers,
but live performance is only part of their appeal. Even if
the Johns would let you, a deep investigation into their personal
lives would miss the point of the musical experience. You
could try the obvious tongue-in-cheek parody of a documentary
a.k.a. This Is Spinal Tap… Still not right, but you’re
So, Schnack lovingly throws in a little bit of everything,
fast and loose. There is some considerable and rewarding history
of the band, punctuated with old performance clips, videos,
and commentary from varied associates. He excerpts new, modern
performances of their classics, filmed in an appropriately
small, controlled environment with a live audience. With TMBG,
not unlike the Grateful Dead, every performance is
valuable and unique. (You just know that footage is
money in the bank… maybe not a lot of money.) There is some
footage of the band on tour, giving radio interviews, even
little glimpses of their personal lives, just enough to confirm
that they really are human. Schnack takes considerable risk
in offering various celebrities as they recite TMBG lyrics,
thus putting them in a new light. Many people, including some
fans, are going to hate that.
A most illuminating interview is with an associate vocalist,
Syd Straw. She asks the voice behind the camera whether
the film is going to be a real (D.A. Pennebaker) documentary
or just a fluff piece. Why would a filmmaker choose to edit
that into their film, knowing that reviewers are going to
seize it to ridicule them? I believe it to be a defining moment.
Schnack will present his message however he wants and let
the film answer that question, just as TMBG insists on letting
the music speak for them. There will always be people who
demand that all the pieces of puzzles fit, who believe that
magic is “just a trick,” and that Don Quixote is just a pathetic
old fool. TMBG is not for them, and this film is probably
not for them, either.
On the other hand, the film could be a little more concise
and a little less indulgent, but I’m sure that won’t stop
you. It didn’t stop me.
After working festivals, the film is going to get a limited
national release. If you are a fan, you must see it in your
local art theater at least once. If you miss it, you are a
traitor to the cause. The DVD is projected for October; buy
that as well. It will make a great holiday gift, whether the
recipient will appreciate it or not.
If you are afraid of TMBG, or even if you hate them, wait
for the DVD and watch it as best you can tolerate it. I think
we should all become familiar with the pragmatic dreamers
who invented Dial-A-Song. In this increasingly corporate world,
they are… inspirational.
— Steven Harding
Roxanne Bogucka interviewed
director AJ Schnack after the world premiere of Gigantic
at the 2002 SXSW film festival.
Recently, she got a chance to ask him a few more questions.
RB: When can we buy the DVD, and what special features
will be on it?
AJS: This fall. Thats been most of my life for the
past couple of months because we want to put out a really
great disc with lots of extra stuff on it. Theres gonna
be a bunch of performances, some of the Giants' videos (some
of which have never before been available on DVD), some raw
footage, a couple of deleted sequences and a lot of other
cool stuff. Also, Im going to New York in a week and
a half to record the commentary, which should be pretty fun.
RB: How does the phenom of Gigantic compare to
your presumably modest expectations when you conceived the
AJS: Its really crazy. Its a pretty strange and
wonderful thing to see that idea that once was only inside
your head become this thing that people are lining up outside
a theater to pay good money to see. We were at a screening
in Washington D.C. a couple months ago and I overheard someone
say Im so glad that we went to see that instead
of Bruce Almighty. And I was blown away by that
notion. Someone actually was making that choice. Suddenly,
it was like this very real thing.
RB: What do John and John think of this? Were they/you
surprised by the depth and breadth of the TMBG fan base?
AJS: I think that theyre happy and a little surprised
that the movie is really playing in theaters across the country.
They understand that, despite the great success this year
of Spellbound and Winged Migration and Capturing
The Friedmans, getting distribution for a documentary
is no easy task. So I think they probably didnt have
any idea that it would still be going strong a year and a
half after they saw it for the first time.
RB: Even viewers who've barely heard of TMBG are digging
your film. Why do you think that is?
AJS: People really respond to their relationship - which
is very unique and special. Also, the way they have crafted
their career, which is emblematic of the do-it-yourself ethos,
is a pretty inspiring thing to watch, especially for anyone
who is doing something creative themselves. And theyre
very appealing guys, very funny and great storytellers. But
I think also its a very un-cynical film, you know, its
not your typical pop culture profile and I think people leave
glad that theyve been exposed to John and John.
RB: Is it now a 24/7 TMBG life for you guys?
AJS: Yeah, pretty much, so its a good thing that we
like them. I cant imagine if you made a film about people
that you didnt like and had to spend so much time working
on it. Youd have to go completely the opposite way and
really, really hate them.
RB: Y'all got interviews with a lot of "names"
for Gigantic. Who, if anyone, were you most surprised
to learn was a stone TMBG fan?
AJS: Probably Michael McKean. I knew about most everyone
else from my research, but Harry Shearer told us that
Michael McKean was a big fan and could recite TMBG lyrics
in his sleep. So that was really cool. Also, Michaels
wife, Annette OToole is a fan and had wanted
to do a lyric recitation of the Giants song No
One Knows My Plan but she was up in Vancouver working
on "Smallville." But we ended up getting her to
be the voice of (former first lady) Sarah Polk in the
movie, which was great. Those two are the greatest - you know
they wrote a bunch of songs together for A Mighty Wind,
including "Kiss at the End of the Rainbow," the
great Mitch and Mickey number. I hope they get an Oscar nomination
RB: What's your next film project? Are people throwing
money at you, or are will y'all keep producing your projects
AJS: Theres a few things were talking about doing
but were not sure whether it will be another non-fiction
project or a narrative film from a script that I wrote. But
Im sure that Bonfire will be involved and Shirley
[Moyers] will produce it and well probably work with
some of the same folks again.
RB: Does making such a well-received documentary give
you confidence as a filmmaker or give rise to nervous jitters
about your next project?
AJS: I think that it makes me really excited about the possibilities
of everything. Before I started Gigantic I couldnt
have imagined all the great people who would get involved
or the places Id travel to or the number of cities where
Gigantic would screen, so it feels like the next project
has all these wonderful unknowns--new people to meet, a new
subject to get excited about, new challenges. And I guess
that everything that has happened these past couple of years
has made me confident that Shirley and I can take that project
on and do something worthwhile.
RB: Are you having fun?
AJS: Yeah, most days its a total freakshow of fun.
Theres definitely moments where youre thinking,
"Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into?" But
mostly, I feel like weve been super blessed. Its
like the best open bar on earth.
RB: Thank you.