When you think of alternative music these days, what comes to
mind? Angry white boys screaming? Teeny-bopers dressed up like
parodies of English punks, who crashed and burned before they were
born? Hoobastank?

Janna Hutz
Why do you always get to be Particle Man? (Courtesy of Plexifilms)

Some folks will tell ya’ alt-rock was little more than a
marketing scheme invented to force underground bands on people sick
of Bon Jovi. Don’t believe ’em. It was real. It was on
the radio. Twelve-year-olds sang along. They knew all the
words.

For an all too brief moment in the early ’90s, mainstream
music almost pitched a post-punk tent that was big enough to make
room for both flannel-wearing, angst-filled burnouts and
bespectacled geeks politely dreaming about Constantinople and James
K. Polk.

Ah, John Flansburgh and John Linnell, the Brooklyn-based duo
that was/is They Might Be Giants. OK so they’re still around,
but it’s hard to think about the Giants’ beautiful and
strange 20-year survey of pop music without a twinge of nostalgia
(and without using the word quirky). Watching director AJ
Schnack’s endearing documentary “Gigantic: A Tale of
Two Johns” without thinking back to compulsively listening to
Lincoln and Flood 10 years ago. Oh, for their sense of
self-satisfied bewilderment, they inspired in a generation of
middle-class kids who weren’t really ever gonna rip shit up,
but certainly would think about it a lot.

With such nerd heavy-hitters as Pixies mastermind Frank Black,
meta-author Dave Eggers and NPR’s Sarah Vowell and Ira Glass
professing their love and admiration for the Johns,
“Gigantic” is one part love letter, one part history
lesson.

Tracing TMBG’s beginnings as an after-school bedroom
project in Lincoln, Mass., to their arty East Village salad days,
right through their current incarnation as journeyman songwriters
for hire, “Gigantic” highlights a running theme of
determined New England DIY spirit and Puritan integrity that keeps
the Giants plugging right along.

But perhaps most revealing is exploration of the underlying
sadness buried beneath much of Flansburgh’s and, especially,
Linnell’s songwriting. You start to realize that it is that
secretly buoyant emotionalism as well the boy’s commitment to
craft and old-fashioned entertainment that has guided the Giants,
lifting them above cult and novelty status to something far more
enduring.

Including rare performance footage, early videos and plenty of
extra interview outtakes, this recently released DVD gives
“Gigantic” the fair-shake chance that its limited
release last summer never could have. It’s a simple message
and they’re leaving in the whistles and bells.

 

Movie: 4 stars.

Picture/Sound: 3.5 stars.

Features: 4 stars.

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