They Might Be Giants: Direct from Brooklyn - Video Compilation
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The wit and whimsy of John Linnell and John Flansburgh, collectively known as They Might Be Giants, is on display in this thoroughly entertaining video compilation. Twelve of the group's videos (dating from the mid-'80s to 1998) are here, filled with all manner of craziness and looking and sounding great. But the real prize may be the two clips from Tiny Toon Adventures, marrying TMBG's silly but also smart and clever music with the cartoon series' riotous animation; the twin Giants actually didn't write "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," a "Puttin' On the Ritz" soundalike that's also one of the 12 main videos (with different animation), but it fits their style to a T. All of this quirkiness and freneticism can get a bit wearying after a while, but in small doses it's lots of fun. DVD extras include Linnell and Flansburgh's straightforward, informative audio commentary; there are also bonus audio tracks, a live video, and more. --Sam Graham
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A clip-by-clip guide (in full color, unless specified otherwise):
1) "Dr. Worm" (1998): Fast-paced black & white clip with goofy cartoon sequences.
2) "Snail Shell" (1994): Cool clip, shot in Germany at what looks like an old-timey TV studio.
3) "The Guitar" (1992): Shifts between classy b&w and vibrant color; Flansy shares the spotlight with Linnell (who wrangles with a bass guitar) and guest vocalist Laura Cantrell.
4) "The Statue Got Me High" ('92): TMBG's first big-budget; the space motif cleverly builds on Apollo 18's CD packaging.
5) "Istanbul" (1990): Alternates between 2-D and 3-D animation; utterly bizarre.
6) "Birdhouse in Your Soul" ('90): Dreamlike; watch out for the "Stop rock video" signs!
7) "They'll Need a Crane" (1988): Shot in NY's Central Park; shifts between the Johns and some elderly gentlemen performing the song (color) and boating on a lake (b&w); classy, and as conventional as They get.
8) "Purple Toupee" ('88): Alternates between the Johns rocking out (b&w/tinted) and Coney Island carnival footage (color).
9) "Ana Ng" ('88): Shifts between the Johns in misery at their desks (b&w) and the Johns goofing off outside (color); features no lip-synch (!).
10) "Hotel Detective" (1986): Alternates between the Johns rocking out (Linnell on the sax, Flansy on a Bo Diddley guitar) and super-cute animated sequences.
11) "Don't Let's Start" ('86): Frenetic b&w clip filmed at the site of the '64 World's Fair in NY.
12) "Puppet Head" ('86): TMBG's exuberant, no-budget debut (colorful, but with some grainy b&w shots); and have I mentioned the boyish good looks of the Johns?
13) "Particle Man" (from the "Tiny Toon Adventures" cartoon series): A hilariously literal interpretation of the lyrics, set in a wrestling ring.
14) "Istanbul" (from "TTA"): Not as well-crafted as the Johns' own visual representation of the song, but actually funnier.
Generally, the imaginative, surreal clips are about using video as a creative outlet rather than as a mere marketing tool; hence, no selling of sex, and no straight "performance" clips. The various directors (including Flansburgh himself on "Dr. Worm" and "The Guitar"!) load these videos with witty visual surprises; the Johns supply utterly unique choreography, unbridled enthusiasm, charm, intelligence, and a refreshing lack of vanity. Among the DVD extras: The Johns' audio commentary is not especially insightful, but nonetheless amusing and filled with fun trivia; the 2002 live clip of "Why Does the Sun Shine" is notable only for the presence of Their fire-breathing tour manager; and the three audio tracks ("McGyver," "Your Mom's Alright," a 2002 remix of "Man It's So Loud in Here") are just okay. I recommend this disc to anyone who hasn't seen these fine videos yet, and anyone who has worn out their VHS copy. I suppose the coolest thing about this disc is that it gives you the option of watching the videos straight through (see the "watch all" option on the main menu), or of watching one clip at a time (see the "watch one" menu) in whatever order you want and however many times you want.
So enjoy the videos, the songs and the added features. Because the Johns' commentary, frankly, is disappointing. It's difficult to be insightful within a 2:30 to 4 minute timeframe, but Flansburgh and Linnell don't go much further than saying "there's that guy" and "here's where that thing came from." Flansburgh does admit to being difficult on the sets of the early videos, assuming some of Bernstein's decisions were "artistic betrayals," and apologizes on the tracks. The duo also forsake straight commentary on the "Snail Shell" video, singing a song over what could be their weirdest clip ever. The experiment doesn't quite work, but it's interesting nonetheless.
Still, the DVD really needed Bernstein or any of the other directors to comment on what was going on: Flansburgh and Linnell were used (and apparently saw themselves) as actors in these pieces, mostly doing as they were told and not adding much to the direction of the video. You need the guy with the pickaxe to explain how he broke ground.
One last thing: watch the "Why Does the Sun Shine?" home movie. Considering what happened in Rhode Island this month, you'll cringe watching a guy breathe fire on stage (and cringe even more when one of the Johns says "It's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission" on the commentary track), but the band is incredibly tight, loud and energetic. The next time anyone calls TMBG a nerd band, play that for them. If Flansburgh, Linnell and the Band of Dans are geeks, SR-71 needs to find their pocket protectors.
As for technical problems (like screen flickering black or menus not working well, which someone mentioned) I wonder if maybe it depends on your DVD player. The only thing I've noticed is that when I'm listening to the commentary track, the sound in the video occasionally goes out of sync with the picture (which is incredibly trippy).. but I have a cheap DVD player.
So, in short, buy this if you love all things TMBG; I think they did a great job. Let's keep our fingers crossed for a release of "Gigantic" soon.
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