September 4, 2003

Cornell Cinema

Print More

A funny thing happened during the late 70s. Some of the new rock bands began to look more like their devoted music fans and less like guitar gods who came before them. In many ways, punk and new wave were a glorious revenge of the nerds. At a certain stage, geekiness, real or affected, became cool. No band better exemplifies this than They Might Be Giants, and while the cooling of the un-cool has led to extraordinary music (“Don’t Let’s Start”, “Birdhouse”, etc) it makes for an oddly, fascinatingly tense documentary. The band, filmmaker, and commentators all hang perpetually suspended between their genuine love for the band and its music, their desire to appear credible, and their inability to utter any praise without it sounding like irony.

This is not to say the film is a failure. On the contrary, it is one of the most interesting documentaries, musical or otherwise, I have ever seen. I should also state here that I’m no more than a casual fan of the band, and that a more knowledgeable person would probably be able to watch the film with an eye to what aspects of TMBG’s career are overexposed, which are glossed over, and come away with a far different impression than mine. To an uninitiated viewer, the whole movie resembles nothing so much as a balancing act between studied indifference, irreverence, and pretension. Commentator Syd Straw asks early on: “so is this more than a puff piece or what?” The filmmaker seem convinced that it is indeed more than that, but don’t know quite what they have on their hands..

The filmmaker take their cue from the Giants’ videos themselves and present the documentary in a dazzling variety of media from cartoons, to interviews, to home movies and live performances.

The liver performances are the uncontested highlight of the movie, showcasing the band at its quirky, endearing best. The Johns, who, like many artists, seem somehow diminished and faded when off stage, come alive with geeky-cool charisma. More importantly, in their every accent, smile, and note is contained that sense of pure joy which can make live music a near religious experience for both audience and band. There is a reason the classic music documentaries aren’t really docs at all, but rather concert films: what bands do best is perform. All the rest is talk, however entertaining that talk may be.

As bland as the Johns sometimes appear offstage (although they come alive when explaining their dial-a-song scheme and the various ways they kept it going), they are vastly more comfortable than the talking heads assembled (not David Byrne and co, commentators). By collecting a gaggle of some of the freshest comedic talent of our time, Schnack came up with a bunch of people who clearly love the band and are just as clearly uncomfortable with saying so without adding some sort of disclaimer. The director seems to share this ambivalence himself. He constructs the interviews with an offhandedness which is meant to suggest that neither he nor the band are trying to establish themselves as anything in particular. Yet one of the featured spots is with Frank Black of the Pixies. This is somewhat tantamount to screaming “I have credibility” at the top of one’s voice. But the thing which allows this balancing act to be successful is that, as is made wonderfully clear in the performance scenes, They Might Be Giants really are that good.

Archived article by Erica Stein