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'Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns)'

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If you're familiar with the cult-favorite rock group They Might Be Giants, you won't be needing any encouragement to see the new documentary on the band, "Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns)."

If you're not already washed in the blood, the answer is more complex, and ends up turning on a remark Claude Louis Hector, Duc de Villars, is reputed to have made to Louis XIV: "Defend me from my friends; I can defend myself from my enemies."

A line like that would likely appeal to gifted musicians John Flansburgh and John Linnell, a.k.a. the two Johns. Leaders of a group that's known for its quirky, puckish lyrics ("I can't hide from my mind though I try") and for mixing sad situations with peppy sounds, they've already done songs on President James K. Polk and painter James Ensor, so a habitue of Versailles would not be out of the question.

Friends since junior high and bandmates for more than two decades, the Johns and their band have become legendary in the independent music world. "They record when they want to record, they play the songs they want to play, they tour when they want to tour," says one former record company executive. "They've really been the vanguard of alternative, and I think their importance can't be overestimated."

To be specific, Giants, the first independent band, according to the film, to get a music video in regular rotation on MTV, is also well known on the Internet. It's typical of its loyal audience to have discovered the group while in college, and being consistently at the top of that age group's sales charts is another of its milestones.

Add to the mix the fact that the gregarious Flansburgh and the quieter Linnell come off as good guys remarkably unaffected by all the hubbub and the group sounds like a sure bet for the kind of documentary success Wilco had with the fine "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart." Or so you would think.

Certainly first-time director AJ Schnack and producer Shirley Moyers have worked quite hard on this film, interviewing several dozen people, folding in current and past music clips, even getting vocal talent like Janeane Garofalo, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer to read aloud from the Giants' lyrics.

Unlike the Wilco documentary, "Gigantic" doesn't have a titanic battle with a record label to use as a dramatic throughline, so the film invariably falls back on a series of interviews with Giants' often high-powered, media-savvy fans. Which is where the Duc de Villars comes in.

For though it's understandable that this group has a loyal following, those ultra-worshipful devotees are the film's worst enemy. If I heard one more thunderstruck admirer talk about how drop-dead astonished he or she was to find themselves actually talking to one of the Johns on the telephone, I was going to throw my own phone at the screen and scream.

Even more off-putting is the smugness of this adulation, how formidably pleased with themselves the acolytes often are to be clever and hip enough to appreciate these wonderful folks — this band that, thank God, is not for everybody.

Only vocalist Syd Straw, who used to tour with Giants, breaks through this wall of self-satisfaction. "How serious a documentary is this," she asks at one point, asking later, "Is this movie a fluff piece?" The answer, though the filmmakers don't appear to know it, is yes.

While at their best, music docs will draw the curious in and help them become part of the faithful, "Gigantic" works precisely the opposite way.

Not only does it feel like an exclusive party at which there is definitely no room for the uninitiated, its waves of idolization barely leave room for the band itself. Good as they are, They Might Be Giants deserve a better film.

'Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns)'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Adult subject matter

A Plexifilm and Bonfire Films of America presentation, released by Cowboy Pictures. Director AJ Schnack, producer Shirley Moyers, cinematographer Yon Thomas, editors Alisa Lipsitt, Jason Kool. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes. Exclusively at the Laemmle Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500; starts Friday at the Mann Rancho Niguel 8, 25471 Rancho Niguel Road, Laguna Niguel, (949) 831-4359.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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