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Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns)

The last schmaltz

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There's much to like about They Might Be Giants, the 20-year-old Brooklyn band. They strap poignant lyrics into upbeat songs. They eschew rock-star pretension -- dressing like Beaver Cleaver in plaid short-sleeve shirts and striped jerseys. Their songs are funny, but not cloying. Band founders and boyhood friends John Linnell and John Flansburgh are affably smart and kinda geeky.

There's also much to like about AJ Schnack's documentary, Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns). The film traces the roots of the band, starting out in the early '80s in Brooklyn and Greenwich Village. Schnack illuminates the ways in which TMBG have been trailblazers, being the first indie band to get in regular rotation on MTV and the first to release a full-length MP3-only album via the Internet. The film also chronicles Dial-A-Song, a low-tech affair in which you call a Brooklyn number to hear an original recording of a TMBG song, now celebrated as do-it-yourself genius.

Schnack's documentary is sure to appeal to the band's devotees, but as a documentary this is less of a headliner than an opening act. It's shot less with the lens of a documentarian than that of a disciple, more interested in heaping praise on the band than in making critical insights. A slew of interviews feature smart, funny people saying why they like the band. There's Sarah Vowell, who likes the band so much she did a piece about them for Ira Glass's public-radio program, This American Life. There's Glass himself, who likes the band so much he chose them to accompany him when the radio show went on tour. There's publishing it-boy Dave Eggers, who likes the band so much that two years ago he commissioned them to make an album of new material that he included with an issue of his literary magazine, McSweeneys.

Sure, these three -- and many other TMBG collaborators featured in the film -- make some interesting points, but those points get glopped down in what turns out to be a big circle jerk. What's worse, these fawning interviews are done with stills of the band superimposed behind the subjects, a choice so dumbly reverent that one hopes it's a joke, but apparently it is not.

Nor is Schnack compelled to capture the band at particularly revealing moments. While Sam Jones' recent documentary about the band Wilco, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, blends concert scenes with a mostly verité style to capture the band's falling out with its label, its dismissal of its keyboardist and, in a particularly unflattering moment, band leader Jeff Tweedy barfing in a recording studio bathroom, Gigantic does little to go behind the scenes, choosing instead to bathe the band in beatific light. The message is, forget about "might be" -- they are giants. And sadly for a band as worthy as They Might Be Giants, it's just the sort of hard-sell approach that makes you less likely to buy it. **

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