ROCK DOCUMENTARIES: BATTLE OF THE BANDSby Derek Miner
Film critics provide some of their best insights while directly comparing films of similar topics or styles. But how often do they have the time to watch such films back-to-back? I seized upon such an opportunity at the just-concluded Florida Film Festival where one Saturday night's offerings included two documentaries on rock bands that many might consider just a footnote in the history of music.
Teenage Kicks-The Undertones (** out of ****) employs legendary BBC DJ John Peel to chronicle the rise and fall of a seminal Irish pop-punk band. Despite having a couple tunes from The Undertones in my CD collection, I couldn't say that I knew anything about them. The Undertones rose to fame on the strength of the 1978 single "Teenage Kicks," which became John Peel's favorite tune of all time. While the song is obviously good, Peel's testament is the strongest case in the film for The Undertones' importance. For fans of the band, this might be a rollicking good time. To myself, merely a fan of UK pop, the film was enjoyable but lacking.
The documentary hints at issues relevant to the importance of this band, but rarely clarifies them. Derry, Northern Ireland, the birthplace of The Undertones, is infamous for the "Bloody Sunday" of 1972 where protestors clashed with the British Army. I looked that up - it wasn't really spelled out in the film, something which would greatly clarify the context for anyone outside the United Kingdom. Also missing is a solid sense of the musical environment that preceded the rise of The Undertones. The group almost seems to exist in a pop culture vacuum.
While a number key moments in the band's career are discussed, the presentation is too episodic, never suggesting a relationship between the events. When the story turns to the breakup of the band, it's almost a surprise, because nothing is ever implied about the rising tensions among the members. Even documentaries need a dramatic structure to cultivate the interest of an audience, and this film needs a better one.
The presence of John Peel lends a great deal of credibility to the proceedings, however, few of the other friends or experts interviewed come across with as much weight. Critical analysis takes a back seat to the band's first-hand remembrances, which feels more like a light memoir than a documentary. Thankfully, the film utilizes a decent selection of performance clips and songs from The Undertones, if only in limited number. While the filmmakers want the music to speak for itself, too often, it's not enough.
The short running time of 72 minutes feels long, yet I would welcome a lengthier version with better material. I came out of Teenage Kicks-The Undertones with a greater awareness of the band, yet I was still lacking a sense of their importance and their body of work.
Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns) ( ***1/2 out of ****) on the other hand, is one of the most enjoyable films I've seen this year. In addition, it's a good rock 'n' roll documentary about the New York City-based band They Might Be Giants (the two Johns of the title). With a healthy sampling of live performances, faux history lessons (!), archive footage and even celebrity interpretations of the band's songs (look for 2/3 of Spinal Tap!), this documentary would have to try hard to be boring.
John Linnell and John Flansburgh have made their mark with a particularly unique catalog of pop songs that could be considered absurdist art, shrewd satire or just pure entertainment. They Might Be Giants began in the early 1980s as a duo performing to taped accompaniment, but the Johns evolved their sound over the years to include live musicians and countless musical influences. While the band has a tremendous cult following, the Johns themselves are notoriously private. Even the biggest fans will find interesting revelations here. When this documentary chronicles the events that led to a falling out between the band and their label, Elektra Records, it's juicy, unheard material.
Though my interest in the film was pretty much guaranteed as a fan, the greatest achievement of the documentary is getting to the heart of what people find so fascinating about the band. Rather than just cutting together some foggy recollections and dated live footage, the film follows a determined path through the band's mythology, backing up the claims of those interviewed with solid examples, mostly in the form of live performances recorded specifically for the documentary, but also in some of the oddest archive clips you've ever seen.
The style and tone of the film borrow heavily from the unique personality of They Might Be Giants. The Johns are famous for packing their albums with 18 to 20 short, yet twisted pop songs, and the documentary operates with a similar directive. Animations and absurd asides cleverly link the sections of the film. Even the interviews rise above the usual talking head parade with good humor, curious observations and plain weirdness. One might even assume that the most normal people onscreen are the Johns themselves.
While Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns) may not be the best document of the music scene in the late 80s and early 90s, it does provide some hints at the environment the band was part of. We hear mentions of MTV, hair-metal, grunge, and other contemporary trends, but never get a enough of a sense of these things compared to the band itself. In a perverse way, this is keeping with the spirit of They Might Be Giants' singular musical universe. They don't seem to worry about competing with trends, yet they are able to absorb the musical landscapes of yesterday and today and use their music to comment on them.
It's hard for me to decide how the uninitiated might view a documentary about They Might Be Giants. The film is such fun that many might just give in and enjoy themselves even if they learn nothing about the band. But there are bound to be some jaded viewers who find this to be so lightweight and trivial that it's not worth their time. I decided long ago that trying to "explain" They Might Be Giants to people never works. The participants in this documentary aren't really sure how to "explain" things, either. But the film is able to approximate the unique spirit that exudes from everything the band does, and that has to be the best tribute you could give them.