Followers of They Might Be Giants come in a variety of mentally unstable flavors. From 20-something ladies crying hysterically at record signings to the obsessed TV execs behind “Malcolm in the Middle” and “The Daily Show,” the wacky duo has built a loyal, eccentric fan base after two decades of tireless performances.
At some point, all semi-interesting stories will be made into documentaries, and TMBG gets their shot with Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns). That isn’t to say the band’s history – and more importantly, their music – isn’t quirky and insightful enough to warrant a feature film. In fact, they deserve better than this new tribute.
Gigantic is devoted to two Johns, Flansburgh and Linnell, who met in grade school, became chummy and started the band. Both look like they should be working at Office Depot, not front men for a successful quasi-rock band, but noone’s seem to noticed and if they have they hope noone else will. They have a three-man backup band (they’re all named Dan, completing a solid full house of first names), but fans adore Flansburgh for his dorky glasses and plaid shirts, and, sure, his gifted guitar playing. Linnell, the quieter of the two, plays an accordion in most songs, and the two share the vocals and the writing responsibilities.
The band started on the New York City club scene, and their unusual style garnered immediate interest from the desperate-for-creativity ’80s crowd. Part of their success is due to a brilliant marketing method that they birthed out of Flansburgh’s one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment long before they gained national exposure. Almost daily, the Johns would record a song onto an answering machine, along with a message about upcoming shows and record sales. They then posted mysterious ads about this invention, called Dial-A-Song, on bulletin boards all over the city, and calls poured in. The number supposedly still works, but it’s now nearly impossible to get through, since the $2 vintage answering machine can’t hold enough messages while the guys are on tour.
From a music history standpoint, Gigantic is competent, which isn’t difficult to muster when they get 100 minutes to do what normally is shown on VH1 in half an hour. But the documentary really falters when inexperienced director A.J. Schnack tries to get fancy. The most annoying example is when he inserts wasted cameos by the band’s celebrity fans. Ostensibly it would be funny and interesting to hear what comic notables Andy Richter, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, and Janeane Garofalo have to say about the band, but instead, Schnack has them stare at the camera and recite lyrics from random TMBG songs – huh?
Given the shoddy direction, the better parts of the film arrive from the Giants’ performances; so why not throw in a few more of those in place of the lyric mumbling, or better still, ask these funny people some questions? This odd distraction aside, one that comes off as a desperation attempt hoping to add commercial viability, the rest of Gigantic is just the camera following the band around and interviewing people influential in their success.
Irony isn’t hard to dig up in a movie that serves to finally document these brilliantly innovative and generally underexposed musicians, yet remains so plain and boring in its delivery. Again, it might as well have been an “E! True Hollywood Story” – actually their lack of attractiveness wouldn’t cut it – but a “VH1 Behind the Music” episode is a sure shot. The only saving grace past the first hour is the two Johns.
Neither of them is really charming or interesting on their own, but once they get on the stage, they are undeniably captivating. A lot of people won’t “get” their music, especially when they shift from fairly standard rock songs like “Don’t Let’s Go” to something like “Particle Man,” which is basically a kid’s song with deeper emotional implications. But that’s exactly why the people who do tend to be fanatical.
This is a story of showbiz, how two smart, intelligent guys without perfect cheek bones and abs have earned critical respect and appearances on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” and “The Daily Show,” the latter of which they created the theme song for. They also won an Emmy for “Boss of Me,” the theme for “Malcolm in the Middle.”
In one scene TMBG sign their new album at a midnight appearance in a small record store. The camera turns from the guys and pans across the sizable crowd, which with any other band would likely result in passionate fans screaming and pushing. For TMBG there’s no response at all, not one person seems to care about being on film, they’re merely there for the band – which is how you’ll feel seeing this in the theatre.
You can call Dial-A-Song from your roommate’s cell phone at 718-387-6962. Good luck getting through.
Shawn Wines can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.