Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns) (2003)

Jesse Hassenger

Flansburgh and Linnell's chemistry gives the impression that almost anyone could capture them at their best.

Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns)

Director: AJ Schnack
Cast: John Flansburgh, John Linnell, Michael Azzerad, Jamie Kitman, Sarah Vowell, Frank Black, Ira Glass, Syd Straw, Dave Eggers
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: Cowboy
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 2003-05-23 (Limited release)

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.





How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.


From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?


The 50 Best Songs of 2007

Journey back 13 years to a stellar year for Rihanna, M.I.A., Arcade Fire, and Kanye West. From hip-hop to indie rock and everywhere in between, PopMatters picks the best 50 songs of 2007.


'Modern' Is the Pinnacle of Post-Comeback Buzzcocks' Records

Presented as part of the new Buzzcocks' box-set, Sell You Everything, Modern showed a band that wasn't interested in just repeating itself or playing to nostalgia.


​Nearly 50 and Nearly Unplugged: 'ChangesNowBowie' Is a Glimpse Into a Brilliant Mind

Nine tracks, recorded by the BBC in 1996 show David Bowie in a relaxed and playful mood. ChangesNowBowie is a glimpse into a brilliant mind.


Reaching for the Sky: An Interview with Singer-Songwriter Bruce Sudano

How did Bruce Sudano become a superhero? PopMatters has the answer as Sudano celebrates the release of Spirals and reflects on his career from Brooklyn Dreams to Broadway.


Inventions Conjure Mystery and Hope with the Intensely Creative 'Continuous Portrait'

Instrumental duo Matthew Robert Cooper (Eluvium) and Mark T. Smith (Explosions in the Sky) release their first album in five years as Inventions. Continuous Portrait is both sonically thrilling and oddly soothing.


Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch Are 'Live at the Village Vanguard' to Raise Money for Musicians

Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch release a live recording from a 2018 show to raise money for a good cause: other jazz musicians.


Lady Gaga's 'Chromatica' Hides Its True Intentions Behind Dancefloor Exuberance

Lady Gaga's Chromatica is the most lively and consistent record she's made since Born This Way, embracing everything great about her dance-pop early days and giving it a fresh twist.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Street Art As Sprayed Solidarity: Global Corona Graffiti

COVID-19-related street art functions as a vehicle for political critique and social engagement. It offers a form of global solidarity in a time of crisis.


Gretchen Peters Honors Mickey Newbury With "The Sailor" and New Album (premiere + interview)

Gretchen Peters' latest album, The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury, celebrates one of American songwriting's most underappreciated artists. Hear Peters' new single "The Sailor" as she talks about her latest project.


Okkyung Lee Goes From Classical to Noise on the Stellar 'Yeo-Neun'

Cellist Okkyung Lee walks a fine line between classical and noise on the splendid, minimalist excursion Yeo-Neun.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.