Gigantic (a Tale Of Two Johns)

on May 23, 2003 by Jon Alon Walz
AJ Schnack's feature-length and fairly comprehensive documentary on the groundbreaking indie band They Might Be Giants serves as a nice, non-critical valentine to the group and its co-leaders, John Linnell and John Flansburgh.

“Gigantic,” as the film is called, opens with (and manages to keep) its tongue planted firmly in cheek as former U.S. Senator Paul Simon gives a long, descriptive history lesson on Abraham Lincoln which serves--by way of name association only--to introduce the band leaders' hometown of Lincoln, Massachusetts. As the film deftly chronicles, the two “Johns” were childhood friends who went on to produce a number of critically acclaimed albums in the early 1980s and became one of the first bands to make videos for MTV. Today, the band is still active and has moved into writing and performing the theme songs for such television shows as “Malcolm in the Middle,” “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “Life 360” for PBS.

In inter-cutting between staged concert footage of the band performing its many popular and cult hits and talking-head interview footage of the band's many friends and admirers, a viewer realizes quickly that only the cream is being served. “Gigantic” emerges as an insiders-only film and not a particularly serious examination of the band's work and influence. Schnack places too strong a focus on personalities and their unfiltered praise rather than on the music (like the “Last Waltz”) or on the band's defining moments (like “Gimme Shelter”). Questions about the band's fluctuation in popularity over the decades are never asked, and neither are questions as to why such a creatively non-conformist band would begin to do jingles for TV shows.

Newbies to the band can be left to feel way outside of the “cool” zone of the parade of insiders presented here, including Janeane Garofalo, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, etc. Nevertheless, the power of the band's deep and innovative music does seep through every now and then (a performance of “Birdhouse” with Doc Severinsen and the full Tonight Show Band is a triumph of massive proportions), as does the strange working dynamic between the two “Johns” who, like in a marriage, have equal parts love, hate and respect for one another.

But in the case of “Gigantic's” effort to present and please the band, director Schnack could have gained greater perspective from the words of Lester Bangs' speed-and-cough-syrup-induced ramblings in “Almost Famous”: “You cannot make friends with the rock stars.” Starring John Flansburgh, John Linnell, Janeane Garofalo and Harry Shearer. Directed by AJ Schnack. Written by A. Jay Sweeet. Produced by Shirley Moyers. No distributor set. Documentary. Not yet rated. Running time: 102 min.

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