Public radio personalities Ira Glass and Sarah Vowell are presented by Public Radio International. A movie review in the May 30 Style section incorrectly said they worked for another radio network.
'Gigantic': Long on Johns
Friday, May 30, 2003
AJ Schnack's documentary about They Might Be Giants may not create new converts among those unfamiliar with the cerebral and playful pop music of John Flansburgh and John Linnell, or those poor, benighted souls who know but remain unsmitten by the band. "Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns)" is really a gift for those already in the fold, for those who get the joke and just want to savor it with other like-minded fans. But for them -- or rather for us, since I include myself among the cognoscenti -- the movie is a must-see.
After all, who goes to see documentaries about bands they don't like -- except those who feel they might somehow become better, cooler people if only they were hip enough to understand bands such as They Might Be Giants?
Structured as a minor chapter in the last 20 or so years of rock history, "Gigantic" consists largely of interviews with TMBG's devoted if not particularly multitudinous fans, smarty-pants folks such as author and McSweeney's editor Dave Eggers, news correspondent and "Brave New World" co-host Robert Krulwich and host-producer Ira Glass and monologist Sarah Vowell of National Public Radio's "This American Life." In addition to the requisite live performance footage (including an early, unforgettable rendition of "Lie Still, Little Bottle" featuring vocals, keyboards and a giant, percussive stick), the film also offers dramatic readings of the group's surreal lyrics by the likes of Janeanne Garofalo and Andy Richter; an occasional cartoon; a passage from a mock documentary about James K. Polk that serves as introduction to the band's paean to the 11th president of the United States; and plentiful insights from Flansburgh (the beefy, bespectacled, nasal-voiced showman) and Linnell (the thin, floppy-haired, nasal-voiced introvert) themselves, musical polymaths who only in recent years have taken to playing with a backup band, all of whose members, in a bizarre but appropriate twist, are named Dan.
By turns hilarious and somewhat less hilarious (at least to the initiated), "Gigantic" is a kind of meta-documentary, a tongue-in-cheek smirking at the conventions of rock hagiography that buys into many of those same conventions, following the Johns backstage, for instance, at one of several tapings of "Late Night With Conan O'Brien." It is fitting, given that many of the band's songs seem to comment on themselves even as they are what they are (well-crafted pop ditties that turn pop songcraft inside out), that the film is both serious and a goof. Even as singer-songwriter and friend of the Johns Syd Straw brings a healthy dose of acerbic wit to her on-camera commentary, implying at one point that Flansburgh and Linnell are not the nice guys they appear to be, "Gigantic" at times runs the risk of becoming too precious, as precious as some, no doubt, would find such lyrics as these, from one of the band's all-too-rare bona fide hits, "Birdhouse in Your Soul," a song about, that's right, a night light:
I'm your only friend
I'm not your only friend
But I'm a little glowing friend
But really I'm not actually your friend
But I am
Blue canary in the outlet by the light switch
Who watches over you
What does any of this nonsense mean and why should you care about the strange yet deceptively average-looking men who came up with it? Why indeed, unless you are already head-over-heels gaga for They Might Be Giants and their brand of loopy and banal yet startlingly beautiful poetry.