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Back in the mid-to-late 80's, when I was barely hitting the point of puberty, there was a show that used to come on every day after school on the kids' television jugggernaut Nickelodeon called Nick Rocks. This show's premise was music video for the younger set, and culled some of the more family-friendly hit videos that otherwise would be buried between Cher's bare ass and Motley Crue hanging out with strippers on MTV. One thing that I can credit Nick Rocks for, besides keeping me away from my homework and seeing the outdoors as much as I should have, is my introduction to a band that would still be among my favorites in this day and age: They Might Be Giants.
It's tough sometimes to go in to certain films as an objective viewer. When I heard there was a documentary film chronicling one of the bands I've grown up with, I was determined to see it based purely on subject matter. It could have received the worst reviews in the history of modern cinema, and I still would have made it a point to soak in a viewing or two. When it's all said and done, in the world of documentary films, if you're interested enough in the subject matter, then the quality of the documentary is a moot point.
Fortunately, in the case of GIGANTIC, I didn't have to worry about that point. Not only was I wildly interested in the subject, but the film itself was quite an achievement. They Might Be Giants, for the uninititated, are John Linnell and John Flansburg, two very different musicians who have been making their own distinctive brand of music for twenty-plus years. Because of the uniqueness and charm of their music, TMBG often gets labeled with buzzwords like "quirky" or "whimsical" (fun drinking game for you: go look at TMBG album reviews and take a sip every time those words get thrown out.) AJ Schnack, the creator of GIGANTIC, went with that idea when he produced this documentary.
Opening with a bit of history about the President and Massachussetts town that lent their name to the band's second album Lincoln conducted by no other than late Presidential Nominee Paul Simon, the film definitely states right away that this is not your run-of-the-mill biography. Sure, it does go through the motions of chronicling the band from their days as two high school nerds all the way through their achievement of pop culture icon status, but it goes far beyond that. The documentary shows the band in a way that someone who has never heard one of their records can walk out as entertained as a die-hard fan.
The film focuses quite a bit on the two Johns, who are as different as night and day. Linnell is the introvert, Flansburg is the rock star. Yet, when on stage or in the studio, they mesh together like cookies and milk. There are no tales of strife or conflict between the two, and in fact, there's very little in the way of negativity at all covered in the band's history. The worst thing chronicled is the band getting a bad PR man a few years after signing to a major label. Rather, the film looks at the positives that has kept the band afloat and kept their fans as dedicated to the band as the band is dedicated to their fans.
One of the things that the filmmaker does to bring out the band's dedication is focus on the Dial-A-Song service that they created in lieu of touring exposure. The concept of Dial-A-Song is that anyone can call a New York City number at any time and hear a They Might Be Giants song that they probably had never heard before. New songs, unfinished songs, demo versions of previously released songs, and the like. Dial-A-Song is still in existence today, and we get to see the archaic setup that keeps it up and running during the course of the documentary. This bit of detail, the dedication that the band puts forth to continue something that was basically a gimmick to keep them in the eye of the public when they were still a pair of struggling artists two decades ago, says wonders about the band's ability to remain humble.
The film likes to go off on tangents, but does so in a way that only a film about TMBG could pull off. For instance, there's a total nonsequitor likening the band's weakness to coffee to the "dark days" portion of a Behind the Music special that just kind of comes from nowhere. Later, a dead-serious biography of president James K. Polk segues into a performance of the band's song of the same name. Occasionally, just to break up the pace a bit, Janeane Garafolo or Harry Shearer or Andy Richter or Michael McKean will recite TMBG lyrics in a deadpan tone, accentuating the idea put forth in the film that the band writes songs that seem happy on the surface but can be rather depressing when put in to the wrong light.
Aside from these celebrity appearances, there are snippets from quite a few talking heads, ranging from obscure radio personalities to real live rock stars. Sarah Vowell and Ira Glass of the underground radio program American Life probably get way more face time than they're entitled to, but their passion for the band probably earns them some street cred. New York talk show legend Joe Franklin heaps quite a healthy dose of compliments on the band as well. Even Pixies frontman Frank Black and Blink 182's Mark Hoppus weigh in on the band's influence on them. The least effective of these come from alt-folker Syd Straw, who comes off as a rambling goof who barely says anything worthwhile about the subject matter.
At times, the praise for the band seems gratuitious, but the idea of GIGANTIC is that it was made by a fan and designed for fans. However, the beauty of its (dare I say) quirkiness is that it can easily appeal to anyone out there, regardless of how much they are familiar with the band it chronicles.
This is a film that I made an effort to see theatrically, but was never able to. However, this may be a blessing in disguise, as otherwise I probably would never have procured the DVD copy I own. If there were ever a DVD worth owning, this is it. Not only does it feature both the feature film as well as a commentary, but includes two and a half additonal hours worth of footage. There are menus among menus of extras, featuring everything from music videos to rare performances to deleted scenes to odd little bits involving the band and their admirers. There's even a video promo for the band's album Flood, and the item that made me happiest was footage from the aforementioned Nick Rocks. Trust me on this one: if you're a fan of the band, buy this DVD. Hearing the Johns converse with Conan O'Brien about the proliferation of bands who wear masks on stage is almost worth the cost alone.
Overall, what you have here is an entertaining documentary for anyone, which serves dual purpose if you just happen to be a fan of They Might Be Giants. Hell, it might even make you a fan if you'e not already one.
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