[4 December 2003]
To my mind, one of the most interesting points raised by Gigantic, the full-length documentary on alternative rock darlings They Might Be Giants, is a scene near the end in which John Linnell and John Flansburgh discuss one facet in the band’s enigma: the name. Taken from the title of a 1971 George C. Scott movie, the Johns deny that it was an act of hubris, ironic or otherwise, that guided them to take the name. In fact, they claim it was never meant to reflect on themselves at all. While most have seen the “they” as the band, and the question of being “giants” as reflective of their quality, the Johns claim, in earnest, that they’ve always seen the “they” as the world around them, the “musical universe”, and that the name reflects the enormous, wondrous existence that is life.
In the film, Flansburgh states, “You would think that it’s a musical universe starring us, but for us it’s a musical universe starring otherness The way we thought the name was kind of interesting is so different from the popular interpretation of what makes the name interesting, because, for us, they might be giants was obviously, as just a set of words, was the outward looking thing. You know, there was some guy sitting in his, looking out the window, looking out at the world, and it was about that stuff going on out there that he would not be able to understand.”
Which is certainly borne out by the obtuse, esoteric, and absurd minutiae of many of their song’s subjects, from the lives of distant Presidents to the fantasies of lonely men to the valorous life of a nightlight. But it also unintentionally brings up the question of why such a documentary was produced, why a band who has reveled in viewing life through a telescope is being placed under a microscope. And the answer, of course, is that the Giants have become enormous icons in their own right.
AJ Schnack’s documentary is a reverent history of the band, making the expected record of the Johns from their first childhood meeting in Lincoln, Massachusetts, through their New York underground art scene years, and on up to the arguably meteoric rise to success—albeit on a fringe trajectory. And with a Grammy, dozens of connections to other media, the best-selling album on the Internet, legions of fans, and a 20-year music career, it’s hard to think of TMBG as anything other than gigantic.
As Jesse Hassenger noted of the film’s theatrical release, Schanck’s film is oddly paced and has an almost unwavering tone of sheer praise for the Two Johns. It features all the requisite celebrity guest interview clips to add commentary on the band (notably Ira Glass and Sarah Vowell’s affiliation through This American Life, John Stewart of the Brave New World series of television specials, and Dave Eggers of McSweeneys), as well as clips of friends, critics, producers, and label reps. It even features some oddly funny clips of various celebs (Janeane Garofalo, Harry Shearer, and Michael McKean most notably) reciting TMBG lyrics as poetry and some divergent yet remotely connected historical clips in History Channel style.
But there’s never really a Behind the Music slant to Gigantic. If perhaps for the fact that the Johns are truly nice guys and well-liked and—in spite of their ever-present quirkiness—just normal guys, there are no dark periods explored, no personal secrets and internal tensions revealed, no real controversies, and almost nothing in the way of negative criticism (barring Syd Straw’s camping for the camera). As such, Gigantic is a movie that walks a tightrope of being for the fans and yet full of info that die-hards already know. It’s a great primer on TMBG’s history, yet it’s filled with in-jokes and commentary that will feel familiar to those who’ve been following the band’s career for some time. It’s a great rock documentary, but it’s already zeroed in on its target audience: those already converted.
The DVD follows suit, perhaps more thoroughly than the actual film. Chock-full of extras, the DVD is a dream for TMBG completists. I lost my VHS copy of TMBG’s video collection (1986-1989) a decade ago when I loaned it to a friend. This DVD collects five of the famous Adam Bernstein videos (with commentary), including “Don’t Let’s Start”, “Ana Ng”, and “Birdhouse in Your Soul”, plus adds three songs and videos created for the Brave New World series, including the favorite “Older”. There are also the obligatory deleted scenes, which include some footage about growing up in Lincoln and a little known story about how Apollo 18 was nearly produced by Elvis Costello.
But the really interesting stuff comes from the bonus materials and raw footage sections. Less set-up, more loose and candid, these scenes are somehow more endearing than the edited footage, I say as both a fan and a critic. And, hey, you can’t pass up a chance to have more footage of the crying girl! The best thing about the bonus features is that they span many eras of TMBG’s existence, including old footage of early performances, the Dial-a-Song piece by Sarah Vowell on This American Life, footage from TMBG’s appearance on Nick Rocks, the full Flood label promo video, and more.
And, of course, there’s the obligatory commentary track, featuring Linnel, Flansburgh, Schnack, and Vowell. I’m not a huge fan of commentary tracks on the whole, and only a very few DVDs ever manage to provide anything truly interesting over the course of a film’s length. However, when you have two truly funny, spontaneous people like the Johns, it’s a good time. This commentary actually includes more history, so it’s informative as well as entertaining, from a documentary standpoint.
As a DVD for the real They Might Be Giants fans, Gigantic scores on all levels. There’s enough extra footage and goodies to make the purchase worth it, even if the film isn’t quite as penetrating as it might be. Schnack’s vision for the films actually seems to work better in the company of its supporting material, and if you enjoyed the film when it made its theatrical run, then you’re certain to love this release. As a historical document, the DVD excellently makes the case for the impact and importance of TMBG. As a release for music fans, Gigantic is a great installment in the TMBG product gallery that no fan will want to pass up. If the musical universe doesn’t star They Might Be Giants, then Gigantic makes the case for their permanent place within it.