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Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns (NR)
Bonfire Films of America/Cowboy Pictures
Official Site
Director: AJ Schnack (jump to interview update)
Producer: Shirley Moyers
Featuring: They Might Be Giants: John Flansburgh and John Linnell; Adam Bernstein, Frank Black, Sue Drew, Dave Eggers, Ira Glass, Dan Miller, Syd Straw, Sarah Vowell

Rating: out of 5

As though our apes’ brains could contain the secrets of the Johns…

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 getting closer.

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

Interview Update

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. That’s 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. There’s 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, I’m 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 film?

AJS: It’s really crazy. It’s 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 “I’m 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 they’re 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 didn’t 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 they’re very appealing guys, very funny and great storytellers. But I think also it’s a very un-cynical film, you know, it’s not your typical pop culture profile and I think people leave glad that they’ve been exposed to John and John.

RB: Is it now a 24/7 TMBG life for you guys?

AJS: Yeah, pretty much, so it’s a good thing that we like them. I can’t imagine if you made a film about people that you didn’t like and had to spend so much time working on it. You’d 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, Michael’s wife, Annette O’Toole 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 for it.

RB: What's your next film project? Are people throwing money at you, or are will y'all keep producing your projects through Bonfire?

AJS: There’s a few things we’re talking about doing but we’re not sure whether it will be another non-fiction project or a narrative film from a script that I wrote. But I’m sure that Bonfire will be involved and Shirley [Moyers] will produce it and we’ll 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 couldn’t have imagined all the great people who would get involved or the places I’d 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 it’s a total freakshow of fun. There’s definitely moments where you’re thinking, "Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into?" But mostly, I feel like we’ve been super blessed. It’s like the best open bar on earth.

RB: Thank you.


hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

It’s worth a full-price ticket.

It’s worth a matinee ticket.

Wait for video rental.

Check out the video from the library, if you must.

While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...

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