Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns (2003)

Not rated .

Directed by AJ Schnack.
Produced by Shirley Moyers.
Distributed by Cowboy Pictures and Bonfire Films of America.
102 minutes.

LVJeff's Rating: 8/10

Photo ©Cowboy Pictures and Bonfire Films of America.
All rights reserved.

Which Describes How I'm Feeling

"A woman came up to me and said, 'I'd like to poison your mind
With wrong ideas that appeal to you, though I am not unkind'
She looked at me, I looked at something written across her scalp
And these are the words that it faintly said as I tried to call for help"

Hi everybody, this is "LVJeff" of the They Might Be Giants e-mail newsgroup. About ten years ago, in college, I first fell in love with the band and found this wonderful discussion forum, where people talked about the songs and projects of the duo comprised of John Flansburgh and John Linnell. When I joined it, I noticed several other people named Jeff already posting to the group, so I decided to give myself a net-name that allowed me to be distinguishable from the other Jeffs out there. "LVJeff" seemed appropriate, since L.V. were the initials of the name of the student store I worked at, where a fellow fan and co-worker first alerted me to the existence of the newsgroup. I left the mailing list after I graduated, but I've kept "LVJeff" ever since.

Thus, it has been a long time since LVJeff wrote about something related to They Might Be Giants (or "TMBG," as we like to refer to them). Happily, AJ Schnack has directed a little documentary called Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns, which I knew I couldn't miss and had to write about. The film is made with a lot of admiration for the band -- almost overflowing in its praise, for better or for worse -- and I know it's because we TMBG fans consider ourselves pseudo-intellectuals who truly know a good thing when we hear it.

Gigantic feels like a movie made by the fans for the fans -- it's filled with valentines to the band, from those involved with their careers to other artists (mostly writers, which is a little telling), almost to the point of embarrassment. Intermingled with footage from videos and concerts, the anecdotes and opinions turn the documentary into a kind of lovefest, and I began to wonder if they were just preaching to the choir. I'm not sure the film needed to make a case for the Johns with all these testimonials, but it did give me an idea of how highly we fans regarded their songwriting skills. I think the biggest point a casual observer could take from the stories is just how much we're into the lyrics they write -- their wordplay, imagery, irony, puns, humor -- listen to me, I sound like one of the people in the movie.

But, as a fan, I wanted to see the Johns speak more for themselves, and thankfully they are given the opportunity. Gigantic's best moments are when we get to watch the Johns while they are being interviewed or just observed on camera. That's when their charm comes through, from Flansburgh's quick-wittedness to Linnell's introverted thoughtfulness. Much of the joy of being devoted to TMBG comes from knowing how genuine the Johns are as friends -- no signs of bitterness can be detected in their creative rivalry, and their long journey together since the beginning of the '80's has only made them more solid as a team. No rock stars with drug problems here; the only substance the Johns abuse is coffee. They have maintained their popularity while remaining relatively under the mainstream radar, but the devotion they've gathered from their fans is undeniably strong. It gives us hope to see two smart, friendly, upstanding hard-workers get to where they have gotten without suffering through melodramatics.

I can't tell if the movie is going to bring any new followers to the cause -- so much of the movie is loaded with insider goodies, such as random celebrities quoting song lyrics (e.g., Michael McKean recites nearly all of "The End of the Tour") and the cameo of the little cartoon crow character. I, for one, was quite excited to actually see, for the first time, the phone-answering machine that is the "They Might Be Giants Dial-a-Song Service." I wouldn't expect an outsider to share that excitement, but hopefully the film provides just enough samples of the They Might Be Giants experience to give anyone a good idea of why we dig them so. Some of the songs seen performed in their entirety are "She's an Angel," "The Guitar," and "James K. Polk," which is a song providing practically everything you need to know about the 11th president of the United States.

Overall, Gigantic is a pleasurable ride for the devoted fans of They Might Be Giants. Make sure to have a place for it in the birdhouse in your soul.

"There's only one thing that I know how to do well
And I've often been told that you only can do what you know how to do well
And that's be you. Be what your like. Be like yourself
And so I'm having a wonderful time but I'd rather be whistling in the dark
Whistling in the dark
There's only one thing that I like, and that is whistling in the dark."

--They Might Be Giants

©Jeffrey Chen, Jun. 28, 2003

An edited version of this review appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews.

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