The preciously titled Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns) is a real-life music documentary, closely following Christopher Guest’s faux music-doc A Mighty Wind, and only a little less amusing. The two Johns of the title are John Flansburgh and John Linnell, principal and founding members of the rock act They Might Be Giants, and Gigantic is essentially a feature-length version of an in-depth magazine profile, with occasional bursts of inspiration.
It’s a tricky question, really, how to examine a rockumentary. Much of Gigantic‘s offhanded charm comes from footage of the Johns, rather from the talking-head interviews with assorted hipster types (former Pixies frontman Frank Black, author Dave Eggers, and several NPR folks). Some interviewees are more illuminating than others; music historian Michael Azzerad, author of the excellent Our Band Could Be Your Life, is informative, especially as he places the band in the greater context of the independent music scene. Musician Syd Straw, meanwhile, offers quasi-deadpan, unfunny shtick in place of insight. Other interviewees are simply redundant, making similar observations (TMBG’s songs are often upbeat but sad, Linnell is shy, Flansburgh is outgoing, etc).
I appreciated the commentators’ excitement about the band’s music (“Don’t Let’s Start” and “Birdhouse in Your Soul” drawing particular admiration); I also wished it was a bit more streamlined. What’s most striking about Gigantic is its portrait of collaboration and creative spirit, rather than rock ‘n’ roll excess or end-of-career nostalgia. They Might Be Giants started as an experimental duo in the early ‘80s, and at one point were among the most popular independent bands in the country (which, Flansburgh quipped at the time, “is kind of like being the world’s tallest midget”). Later, they were signed to a major label, and expanded their lineup to a full band, which we see here in extensive concert footage.
The band has often been marginalized because of their humorous, sometimes surreal approach to pop music, leading to an endless parade of adjectives like “quirky” and “goofy.” Gigantic showcases their strong songwriting and good humor more naturally, treating them as fun and smart more than silly and smart-alecky, and the concert stuff, if sometimes overlong, captures the genuine joy and energy of their live shows.
How much of my enjoyment of Gigantic was based on its subjects, rather than filmmaking? Flansburgh and Linnell’s chemistry gives the impression that almost anyone could capture them at their best; their non-interview footage is especially charming and funny (“I’d like to be known as the Mike Love of They Might Be Giants,” Flansburgh says at one point. “All the bad vibes start here.”). We see them rehearsing, talking, goofing around, obsessing over coffee. It makes you wonder: is director AJ Schnack astute to capture them on film, or just lucky?
Rockumentaries have great potential for hubris (so expertly parodied in movies like Wind and, especially, This is Spinal Tap), so Schnack does deserve credit for eschewing it here. And there are, in fact, some nicely creative touches. At one point, the film lapses, without explanation, into historical documentary footage of President James Polk, subject of a much-adored TMBG song, before cutting back to a performance of said song.
This 100-minute film could’ve used more moments like that: Little sections of odd concentration. Some of the best material consists of mini-segments on subjects like the band’s coffee habit (“I’ve seen them use abuse it, I’ve seen them use it recreationally,” deadpans their manager) and their obsessive fans.
As is, this approach is pleasantly scattershot, but it lacks real narrative drive. The ample media clips are well chosen and often delightful, but the boys’ pre-band years are passed over in a matter of seconds. When we see clips from a promotional video showcasing the band’s breakthrough album Flood or from the band’s music videos, there’s a feeling that perhaps Schnack was downplaying any visual sense of his own, so as not to distract from the band.
It’s an admirable tactic, but it renders Gigantic more a gentle tribute than a true companion film (the latter not necessarily desirable if the filmmakers were searching for more of an outsider’s view, but they clearly share, or at least admire, some of TMBG’s sensibilities). Still, as rockumentaries go, this is a decent one, celebrating a great band without embalming them.