“The cringe problem—we’re both super tuned into that,” says John Linnell of They Might Be Giants in Gigantic, his authorized bandography. “We usually do some kind of end run around it.” Your capacity to involve yourself in the world in which they already are giants is directly related to your willingness to grant them that leeway. Linnell (the shy doe-eyed one) and his partner John Flansburgh (the one who pogoes) have for two decades managed to capture the affection of each year’s crop of 17-year-old nerds without pandering, and they’re not going to start now.
Director-producer team AJ Schnack and Shirley Moyers can’t get the Johns to tell you how they manage to be so damned clever, so instead they provide tons of examples, without being terribly clever themselves. There are fan testimonials and talking heads (Joe Franklin can’t get enough of them), scenes of the road and the studio, cute skits, and some animated bits by Tony Millionaire and Kevin Kobasic. But the best stuff is the history of a band that always managed to be in the right place first: the East Village performance scene, the East East Village (highlighted by interviews on the deck docks of Williamsburg), college rock, and MTV, which successfully gambled (with not very much money) that the Giants could generate a little visual excitement among the instant clichés of the ’80s rock video wasteland. They even had an analog Web site up and running in 1984, streaming to one listener at a time via a cheapo answering machine and a fraudulently obtained ad on the back of this newspaper. Schnack is a willing participant in their happy experiment in boho capitalism, in which a perpetually youthful fan base (which now includes the toddler children of their original cult) sustains their project on whatever terms the Giants choose.
There’s plenty of concert footage too. The film ends with performances of two favorites, “She’s an Angel” and “The Guitar,” with the camera just above the bobbing heads in the Polish National Home. John and John, it cannot be denied, are charming, witty, adorable, and quite capable of rocking. Shouldn’t we spot them the occasional cringe?