- John the Glib (left) and John the Campy.
At the beginning of the third ugliest decade of the 20th century, a musical duo called They Might Be Giants put out an album called Flood. This 1990 trick-bag of oddly brilliant, stick-in-your-craw gems served as a fervid farewell to '80s pop eccentricity and immediately summoned the hipper-than-thou barbs of dubious old Rolling Stone. Specifically, it was music journo David Browne who tried in vain to skewer TMBG for being "too glib for their own good, too absorbed in their own facileness to bother with anything other than campy emotions." This slam might have hit home but for three factors: 1) It never hurt David Byrne any, 2) Most of the pop music that followed -- primarily the grotesquely melodramatic stuff of unintentional self-parody, heavily promoted by budget-conscious Rolling Stone -- has well and truly sucked, and 3) Flood swiftly became very popular among people with something spongy, gray, bulbous, and functional at the tops of their spines. Said individuals were actually able to dance to it, provided that no one was watching.
For these reasons and more, it is comforting and pleasant to behold the celebratory documentary Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns), by newcomer A.J. Schnack. Designed sort of like last year's movie about Wilco except with interesting people in it, this is a near-religious testimony to how splendid They Might Be Giants were pre-Flood and Apollo 18, how they changed and morphed into a full band thereafter, and how splendid it is that they still are up to the recording of 2001's Mink Car and 2002's children's album, No! -- record companies be darned. Overall, the glowing appraisal seems fair. Browne's dusty dis out-bitters any cavils here, but TMBG really do come across as much more than mere white male human beings with a potential messiah complex, as illustrated in their "Kiss Me, Son of God."
They're both called John, and that's only the start of this alleged facileness. Presented alphabetically, John Flansburgh is the glib guitarist in the plaid shirt, with the deceptively conservative haircut, scholarly specs, and wicked licks. John Linnell is the campy keyboardist-accordionist, who favors those stripey T-shirts popularized by Jonathan Richman and other kids from the '70s, topped with a foppish mop. Both men sing, more or less like Willie Nelson on coke. In terms of pure imagination, it took two of them to equal one master songsmith like Robyn Hitchcock, but considering the ghastly, witless state of contemporary American pop, their wry strivings are no less noble. Beck owes his career to TMBG, as does Eminem. Between Harry Nilsson's departure and the arrival of The Negro Problem -- basically during the worst storm of hoarse-ass grunge -- John and John were peerless in terms of both modern pop creativity and goony Caucasian fans.
The portrait delivered by Schnack is well balanced to satisfy curious newcomers and the numerous TMBG faithful -- among whom we can count parodists Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, and Janeane Garofolo, who show up to parrot TMBG lyrics like vintage poetry, which is starting to seem reasonable. The movie opens with former U.S. Senator Paul Simon telling an anecdote about Abraham Lincoln, in order to segue into the Brooklyn-based Johns' hometown of Lincoln, Massachusetts. It ends with a solo from TMBG's bass player, who bears the unfortunate surname of Weinkauf. Yet despite these quirks, this isn't just a zany smirk-a-thon. Numerous talking heads, such as band manager Jamie Kitman, former Elektra A&R rep Sue Drew, and large bald man Frank Black, appear repeatedly to concretize the concept that this duo stood at the "vanguard" of what was once accurately called "alternative" music.
Most revelatory -- and revel-worthy -- are the interviews conducted by Schnack with the Johns themselves. From amusing memories of grade school through their nicely documented, pre-fame East Village experiments to their continued broad-band expansion, the guys who named themselves after a 1971 N.Y.C.-based, George C. Scott-sort-of-as-Sherlock Holmes movie (by way of Cervantes) are just as charming as one might expect.
In addition to discovering the fascinating origins of TMBG's "Dial-a-Song" service plus copious whole and fragmented live performances of everything from "Ana Ng" to "The Guitar," the movie makes good on delivering the Johns as that rarest of entities: good friends who stay the course, who follow their bliss, and who remain productive. Author and obvious lover-of-Johns Sarah Vowell pleads their case as squeaky-clean geek heartthrobs by explaining, "Alcoholics sleeping with people they don't know -- that isn't a really attractive movement to me." It's also impressive that nowhere along the Johns' path have they attempted to conceal their scarcely closeted social resentment -- also a hallmark of Robyn Hitchcock's work. They emerge from this doc a band that truly wishes to love its culture and country, but is still struggling to figure out how and why.