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They Might Be Giants: Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns

Can anybody save rock and roll at this point? Probably not. Since MTV switched formats many years ago from playing music videos to chasing teenage tits-and-ass on beaches all over the world, pop music itself has fallen into a steady, headlong decline. Not that MTV was all that great to begin with — the very success of the cable outfit from its earliest days in the 1980s transformed the recording industry, ushering it out of a haze of pot smoke and album-oriented radio in the '70s, and solidifying the appeal of both synth-pop and glam-rock with the arrival of "New Wave." Even the musicians who actually wanted to rock out were affected, having little choice but to smear on makeup and hairspray to get noticed as one of the decade's many inferior headbanging "hair bands." If you were there, you know it wasn't pretty, given that most listening options at the time amounted to deciding between Duran Duran and Ratt. But give MTV credit — they may have helped wreck popular music by purposefully narrowing consumer awareness (and using hormonal appeal to disguise bland dreck), but if you had a VCR, or somehow could be up at the time, the program "120 Minutes" probably changed your life. Consigned to an early death by being given a Sunday-night-at-midnight time slot, the show quickly became a modest, influential hit by playing videos from all of the other bands that MTV wasn't supposed to show you. Arriving just before the foundation of college radio (if not spawning it outright), this was the place to see such groups as Sonic Youth, REM, The Pixies, The Replacements, Hüsker Dü, The Smiths, and others. Most of these bands never crossed over into MTV's regular rotation, but their records were avidly collected by young American musicians who would soon start their own bands, and by the '90s push the "alternative" sound into the mainstream, albeit with another corporate label — "grunge." But "alternative" was not just "grunge" — or if it was, then the truly alternative bands were far more underground. And there they would remain, simply because they could not be efficiently catalogued by record-industry executives. Underground is where John Flansburgh and John Linnell have remained for two decades — the duo that forms the nucleus of They Might Be Giants have turned out a steady stream of albums, weathered changes in record labels and musical fashions, and built up a substantial, almost rabid following for two reasons: They're awfully good songwriters, and they're completely unpredictable. The documentary Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns (2003) looks back at their career, starting when they were schoolmates in Lincoln, Mass., and shared a love of music. With Flansburgh on guitar and Linnell on keyboards (or often accordion), it wasn't long before they relocated to Brooklyn, N.Y., and formed their own live act with just the two of them and a reel-to-reel tape machine. An early demo tape caught the ear of a People magazine reviewer and earned the duo their first national attention. Their live performances were a popular ticket in the East Village club scene. And before long their self-titled debut album spawned the video for "Don't Let's Start" — directed by Adam Bernstein, the hyperkinetic short actually went into MTV's daytime rotation, where it rubbed shoulders with videos from Pat Benetar and Journey and Heart and generally confused the hell out of everyone. The boys suddenly found themselves reluctant rock stars.

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As Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns reveals, things have gone well for Flansburgh and Linnell, even though they have spent the majority of their career on the edge of public awareness. Several interview segments show the pair to be candid, amusing, self-effacing, and of course, enormously clever. There is an intangible duality to their relationship that the film tries to address somewhat — baby-faced Flansburgh is the band's guitarist, showman, and ad hoc business manager, while floppy-haired Linnell appears thoughtful and introverted when he's off-stage. Both contribute songs to the group in a Lennon/McCartney fashion, and the many talking heads in the documentary — ranging from musicians and journalists to industry reps — ponder the inner workings of this collaborative effort. However, the most common topic is simply the band's appeal: How have two guys from Massachusetts who don't look or dress or sound like pop stars remained popular enough to draw a cult following for nearly 20 years? Yes, they avoid traditional pop tropes by writing songs about Istanbul and President James K. Polk and puppet heads and Cyclops and night-lites and lions in silver spaceships and the enigmatic Triangle Man (and that's just scratching the surface) — but they're hardly a novelty act. "Don't Let's Start" is one of the catchiest pop-tunes of the '80s, but every TMBG album sorts through a variety of musical genres, often sounding more mystifying at first than appealing. Yes, they think the accordion can be a kick-ass rock-and-roll instrument — and they're not wrong. Still, despite being on a major label for part of the '90s, the band has returned to a smaller outfit, where they continue to make new music for their fans while picking up plenty of work on the side writing material for TV and movie soundtracks (odds are you've heard more of their work than you know, from Austin Powers to the theme of "The Daily Show"). They may not save rock and roll, but at least They Might Be Giants will continue to watch over its most experimental and irreverent sentiments. Plexifilm's DVD release of Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns features a clean transfer from the original video source (1.33:1), while the audio is delivered in pure Dolby 2.0 Stereo. The supplements on the disc are extensive, making it a must-purchase for all TMBG fans. On board are five videos, all directed by Adam Bernstein — "Put Your Hand in the Puppet Head," "Don't Let's Start," "She Was a Hotel Detective," "Ana Ng," and "Birdhouse in Your Soul." Three excerpts from the television special "Brave New World" are also here, as well as an excerpt from the radio program "This American Life." Vintage "Tonight Show" footage is found with a live performance of "Birdhouse in Your Soul" with the Doc Severinson Orchestra, while two early live performances are included, along with recent live cuts of "They Might Be Giants," "Number Three," and "Fingertips," and a brief clip from an in-store appearance. Rounding out the features are the Johns' appearance on Nickelodeon's "Nick Rocks," fan interviews, Michael McKean reading "I Palindrome I," a gallery of raw footage from the film, and two deleted scenes, including a circuitous story about how Elvis Costello was once approached to produce a TMGB album. Keep-case.
—JJB



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