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Plexifilm presents
Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns) (2003)

All alone at the '64 World's Fair
Eighty dolls yelling "Small girl after all"
Who was at the Dupont Pavilion?
Why was the bench still warm? Who had been there?

- John and John, from Ana Ng

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: March 18, 2004

Stars: John Flansburgh, John Linnell
Other Stars: Janeane Garofalo, Michael McKean, Conan O'Brien, Andy Richter, Harry Shearer, Jon Stewart, Frank Black, Syd Straw, Mark Hoppus, Ira Glass, Sarah Vowell, Dave Eggers
Director: A. J. Schnack

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:43m:03s
Release Date: November 18, 2003
UPC: 082354001421
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ A-BB- A-

DVD Review

In college, They Might Be Giants was the band that served as a litmus test for me and my disturbed circle of friends. If you liked them—hell, if you'd even heard of them—you might be just dorky enough to hang with. The Johns, Linnell and Flansburgh, have been at it for more than twenty years now, and this documentary is a fond look back over that time with them and some of their biggest fans.

These days, TMBG is known for a bunch of things besides their own recordings—they've become the de facto house band for This American Life, they composed the theme song for Malcolm in the Middle, as well as the signature tune for Dr. Evil. But they're a band first and foremost, and Gigantic goes through the necessary paces—two high school buddies from Lincoln, Massachusetts, with a guitar, an accordion and a dream, moved down to the big, bad city of New York, and now they could be Brooklyn's poster boys. Director A.J. Schnack is clearly a big Giants fan—why would you want to make this movie if you weren't?—and so the whole exercise is kind of a mash note to the Johns. So if you're a fan, it's fun to reminisce about the early days of the band, see what they're up to now, and learn stuff about them you probably didn't know. If you're not a fan: why are you even reading this?

Basically, when the boys got to New York in the mid '80s, the punk scene was in tatters, and They Might Be Giants carved out their own little niche. The two Johns are fun to listen to, but even better are their many fans and the stories of people's affection for the band. They showed up on MTV in the early days, "alongside Whitesnake and Whitney Houston," and luckily for us, went on to greater glory. All the usual suspects from This American Life are here—Sarah Vowell in particular gets a lot of face time, though she doesn't in fact have all that much to say; Ira Glass is stationed behind his microphone; and the hipper-than-thou crowd is well represented with Janeane Garofalo and Dave Eggers. A history professor who specializes in the administration of James K. Polk seems downright giddy at the Giants' song about our eleventh president; so too does former Senator Paul Simon, who introduces the movie.

There's the obligatory concert footage, and lots of talking heads—the Johns are perched on a couple of La-Z-Boys in front of the New York skyline, and their tale is well told particularly by Jamie Kitman, their longtime manager with a potty mouth; and Sue Drew, the A&R rep who signed them to Elektra. There is a certain amount of inside baseball—when Drew left, the relationship with Elektra went south, and they've been a little nomadic ever since—but not too much to make you feel like you're catching up on old issues of Billboard. Also dropped in are odd little bits of reasonably famous people (including Spinal Tap alums Michael McKean and Harry Shearer) reciting Giants lyrics as if they were Milton sonnets. The boys rise up the entertainment food chain, and always with a bit of self-mocking irony—one of the oddest career highlights was an early Tonight Show appearance, with Jay Leno sitting in for Johnny, and They Might Be Giants backed by Doc Severinsen and his orchestra on a brass-heavy rendition of Birdhouse In Your Soul.

There's some suggestion that the Johns have a sort of Lennon/McCartney thing going—Flansburgh (the one with the glasses) would be Paul, the outside man; Linnell would be John, the genius. But even they are pretty self-mocking about that, and they seem to handle whatever comes their way—a reasonable amount of fame, rabid fans dissecting the philosophical implications of Particle Man, parenthood—with great good humor. And on top of everything else, they seem like genuinely nice guys and good friends, who just happen to put out some groovy records. Make a hole with a gun perpendicular to the name of this town in a desktop globe.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Transfer to DVD is certainly adequate, which is about all one could expect or hope for; things sometimes have a little too much contrast, but there's nothing that calls too much attention to itself.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: There's some buzzing from time to time, and the concert footage can be a little murky; but not too much to complain about here.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 23 cues and remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Deleted Scenes
1 Feature/Episode commentary by John Linnell, John Flansburgh, A.J. Schnack, Sarah Vowell
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. TMBG videos
  2. TMBG television appearances, radio spots, promo films (see below)
  3. raw footage and interviews; concert footage
  4. accompanying booklet with an essay by the director
  5. commentary track on the two deleted sequences
Extras Review: The extras package are like Christmas morning for TMBG diehards. The two Johns, director A.J. Schnack, and Sarah Vowell provide a freewheeling commentary track, which goes from speculation on Christopher Walken's speech patterns to the kind of people who wear They Might Be Giants t-shirts. Schnack reports that the first cut of the film was a staggering three and a half hours. Schnack and producer Shirley Moyers provide commentary on the two deleted sequences, too—the first is about the boys growing up in Lincoln; the second, about music label politics, and the efforts to follow up Flood with Apollo 18. They were both wisely cut; the first because the story really starts when the guys arrive in the East Village, and the second because it gets a little far afield—though the discussion of why TMBG was afraid even to meet Elvis Costello is a pretty funny one.

There's a grab bag of vintage band footage, too, starting with the complete Tonight Show appearance, with Doc in a fabulous Christmas tie; and a promo shot for Flood, featuring the guys drinking coffee, being cheesy, and performing an acoustic Particle Man. A couple of mid-'80s performances for public access TV are here (the songs are Hide Away Folk Family and Mister Me), as is Sarah Vowell's This American Life piece on Dial-A-Song, their Brooklyn answering machine which you can call up and hear new tunes. The guys perform two songs (including Meet James Ensor) at the Astor Place Tower Records during an in-store appearance; we see them host Nick Rocks, a kids' show; and get to hear the original cut of New York City, a song later covered by TMBG.

You'll also find excerpts from The Fan Room, in which Giants aficionados profess their love, to the camera; and Michael McKean's moving rendition of I Palindrome I. Perhaps best of all is a bushel of videos, with intros from the Johns and Adam Bernstein, who directed five of them (they would be Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head; Don't Let's Start; (She Was A) Hotel Detective; Ana Ng; and Birdhouse In Your Soul). The other three were commissioned by Robert Krulwich at ABC News for his series Brave New World. A section labeled Raw Footage and Interviews brings us sixteen chapters' worth of TMBC arcana, including the boys goofing and recording promos for local radio stations, doing sound checks, and showing off the work they did for McSweeney's. Finally, we see the band performing three songs Live From the Polish National Home, straight outta Brooklyn. If all of this doesn't slake your thirst for They Might Be Giants, you've got to get out of the house more often.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

A pretty smart look at the Giants, and a grab bag of treats to keep fans happy when the Dial-A-Song line is busy. (Try it sometime: 718-387-6962.)


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