Combustible Celluloid
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With: John Flansburgh, John Linnell, Dan Miller, Janeane Garofalo, Harry Shearer, Danny Weinkauf, Dan Hickey, Frank Black, Michael Azerrad, Dave Eggers, Josh Kornbluth, Michael McKean, Conan O'Brien, Andy Richter, Harry Shearer, Jon Stewart, Sarah Vowell
Written by: n/a
Directed by: A.J. Schnack
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 102
Date: 03/10/2002

Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns (2003)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Gentle Giants

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I will never forget the wondrous discovery, listening to They Might Be Giants' "Birdhouse in Your Soul," that it was a song about a nightlight. It imbued an already catchy and amusing pop song with a new layer of sweetness, even sadness. The new documentary Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns manages to capture that sense of amazement, regarding musicians John Flansburgh, John Linnell, their band and their 20-year history together. But, like the recent Wilco documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, Gigantic fails to get to the heart of who this band is and what makes it tick. We don't really get to know the two Johns; it's mostly a fan's scrapbook on how cool They Might Be Giants (TMBG) are and why.

If you listened to "Alternative" or "college" radio anytime during the late 1980s or early '90s, you couldn't help but listen to They Might Be Giants, with their extraordinary tunes "Don't Let's Start," "Ana Ng," "Birdhouse in Your Soul" and "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)." They were unabashedly clever and funny, but had a tinge of bittersweet. One of their greatest lyrics from "Don't Let's Start" goes "no one in this world ever gets what they want / and that is beautiful. Everybody dies frustrated and sad / and that is beautiful." Gigantic gets Janeane Garofalo to quote those lines, and several other interviewees (Dave Eggers, Josh Kornbluth and Frank Black among them) back her up with equally wide-eyed assessments of the band's genius. Interviews with the two Johns reveal some funny tales but rarely any insight. Either they don't understand their own appeal, or they're simply not comfortable talking about it.

Gigantic's most extraordinary story revolves around TMBG's famous "Dial-a-Song" service, on which fans could hear songs or bits of songs in progress. The sheer amount of work this free service must have required boggles the mind. But the Johns talk about it as if it were an interesting, albeit failed, experiment. The film also showcases their latest achievements, including the catchy title tune for TV's "Malcolm in the Middle," without trying to figure out why even this potential sell-out move is still considered cool. Still, the film gives us plenty of great concert footage. The scene of the band visiting England and trying to brew coffee -- a substance to which the band members are seriously addicted -- is priceless. Even at face value the world of TMBG is still wonderful and fascinating, making for an engaging film.

Best Buy Co, Inc.