Movie review: 'Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns'

3 1/2 stars (out of 4)

Whether its title is an intended double entendre or not, "Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns" is really about the geek-chic music duo They Might Be Giants.

TMBG are John Flansburgh and John Linnell, the songwriting team behind 1990's pitch-perfect pop song "Birdhouse in Your Soul" and the bratty, infectious "Boss of Me" from TV's "Malcolm in the Middle."Capturing the 20-plus-year history of this Brooklyn-based pair, director A.J. Schnack fuses his oddball documentary with non-sequitur tangents, animation bits and recitations of TMBG lyrics by Janeane Garofalo, Andy Richter and Harry Shearer. At one point, a classroom of kids deconstructs the philosophy and physics of TMBG's superhero ode "Particle Man."

Yet while Schnack harnesses TMBG's darkly irreverent humor, his documentary lacks the band's energy. A tighter, more streamlined cut of "Gigantic" - still intact with its playful clutter of guest stars and video clips - might have served the band better. As it plays now, some of the interviews are weighty and too long, and the film comes to a dead stop when comedian Michael McKean recites the repetitive lyrics of "End of the Tour" as if it were Shakespeare.

But when Schnack deviates from an interview/concert footage/interview format, "Gigantic" truly comes alive, recreating the post-punk glee with which the Johns stormed MTV in the early 1990s.

Example: The duo's brassy rendition of "Birdhouse in Your Soul" with Doc Severinsen and the Tonight Show Orchestra is shown against author Sarah Vowell's loving memory of circling the television with her friends, unified in their disbelief that music they liked was getting such mainstream exposure.

"This American Life" host Ira Glass adds some insight into TMBG's idiosyncratic synergy, and wunderkind author Dave Eggers sidesteps his "e-mail only" interview policy to gush on screen about "Birdhouse in Your Soul."

It's indie musician Syd Straw who steals the show, however. She's one of the few interviewees to take the documentary lightly, to have fun with it while still treating the whole interview process as a serious endeavor. She asks what kind of movie she's participating in - and whether people have been truthful or simply complimentary.

Yes, a voice behind the camera says, people have been saying nice things.

"Have you talked to anyone who really knows them?" Straw asks, suggesting the boys have more dimensions than quirky compositions and coffee addiction.

Separate interviews with Flansburgh and Linnell inject the most life and gentle conflict into the film, peeling back their unique musical marriage and friendship.

"I need him to believe that I am essential to this project," says Linell, who does most of the vocal heavy lifting - while Flansburgh credits Linell with being the true genius of the group.The answer, of course, is somewhere in the middle, propelled by the pair's musical tenacity and longevity. After holding their own against the likes of Whitesnake and Whitney Houston, and after surviving the grunge movement, the Johns have proved themselves more than a pop anomaly. Rather, their sheer existence affirms that all things corporate and bland don't always win out - that music can be intimate, political and alienating, sometimes all on the same album. Who couldn't love a band that defies Pete Townshend with lyrics like, "Hope I get old before I die"? Let's hope they do.

"Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns"
Directed by A.J. Schnack; photographed by Yon Thomas; edited by Jason Kool, Alisa Lipsitt; original music by They Might Be Giants; produced by Shirley Moyers. A Cowboy Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:42. No MPAA rating. Featuring: John Flansburgh, John Linnell, Frank Black, Dave Eggers, Ira Glass, Sarah Vowell.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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