Documentary Roundup: Spellbound, Gigantic, Standing In The Shadows of Motown

Is it just a coincidence, or have documentaries enjoyed resurgence in popularity since Bowling For Columbine? I look through the film listings, and all that piques my interest lately are non-fiction offerings. I’ve seen three of ‘em in the last week, and there are so many more on my list: Capturing The Friedmans, Stone Reader, Cinemania, the forthcoming Fellini: I’m A Born Liar

Spellbound has ascended into the top twenty on recent box office tallies, a rarity for a documentary. Of course, it helps that the subject—eight 12-to-14-year-olds (out of a total of 250) preparing for and competing in the national spelling bee championship—has a special, far-reaching appeal. The film’s first half profiles the kids one by one. Their ethnicities, social-economical backgrounds and personality quirks form a richly diverse composite akin to the subjects Michael Apted gathered for his long-running Up documentary series. At one end of the spectrum is Angela, a gawky small town Texas girl born of migrant Mexican parents and Ashley, an independent but still pretty vulnerable African American girl from a Washington, DC housing project. At the other end, there’s Neil, an affluent Indian-American from coastal Orange County whose religious father hires a barrage of foreign language tutors to ensure his son’s victory, and Emily, a New Haven resident who casually talks of bringing the family’s au pair to the competition.

First time director Jeffrey Blitz allows us to get to know each child, and we see their homes, learn about their hobbies, witness their various means of preparation and study, and watch clips from the regional competitions they won. He makes all eight subjects seem worthy of our attention, from Harry, whose jittery, spazzy energy (and unforgettable facial distortions) blatantly command it, to small town Missouri resident Ted, whose humility and lack of pretension single him out more subtly. The kids’ family members are often just as impressionable, particularly April’s more-than-a-bit daffy but lovable mother and Ashley’s proud and outspoken single mom. No one comes off as a stereotype, either.

This individual introduction and build-up is crucial to the film’s second half, which finds the eight children competing against each other in the finals in DC. Because you’ve gotten to know the kids so well, you’re on the edge of your seat every time each one gets a new word to spell. You can practically feel their concentration, their anxiety, their surprise and elation at getting a word right, their despair and disappointment at hearing the dreaded bell that eliminates them from the stage. The film builds awesomely with the intensity of a sporting match (which, in their cerebral way, spelling bees are). It’s a fun movie, but also an important one—it paints a multifaceted, provocative, and informative portrait of the country through a specific cross-section of American youth. They all face different struggles but they're all singularly united by a common interest and challenge.


Flood, the third album by alternative/absurdist duo They Might Be Giants nearly changed my life when I first heard it in 1993. I had dismissed the Johns all through high school; they were too weird and nerdy for my tastes (though in retrospect I was never too nerdy for them), a band that only the AV club and drama students could love. But, after borrowing a dubbed tape of Flood from someone, I saw the (night) light. I simply succumbed to one clever, quirky, catchy oddity after another, re-playing “Birdhouse In Your Soul” until I knew every single word by heart. I rushed out and bought all their albums, saw them perform live twice, felt a little put off and underwhelmed at their burgeoning full band sound, and gradually lost interest. I still listen to them occasionally, and I enjoy their recent efforts much more than their mid-90’s dreck--the overlong, uninspired John Henry lowered the band’s stock for many older fans.

Gigantic, AJ Schnack’s lovingly assembled documentary about the duo, will appeal to everyone who ever bought an loved a TMBG record. To everyone else, it may seem like the fluffiest, most irrelevant music film ever. It doesn’t have the same “band’s place in the music industry” appeal and enthrallment of the Wilco film I Am Trying To Break Your Heart (although it touches upon problems TMBG faced when they signed to Elektra); nor does it possess the historical significance of a film like Standing In The Shadows of Motown. Instead, it simply tries to be the ultimate fan doc, and it very nearly succeeds. If you’ve ever hummed “Particle Man” in the shower to yourself, you’ll love all the rare archival footage (especially the early videos and the band performing “Birdhouse” with the Doc Severinsen Orchestra (!) on The Tonight Show (!)) and the visit to John Flansburgh’s Brooklyn apartment, home of the infamous, brilliant Dial-A-Song recording service.

Even non-fans may get a kick out of these things, but most of Gigantic gives new oomph to the word self-indulgent. Not only is it overlong, much of the recent performance footage (with the full “band of Dans”) doesn’t do the Johns any favors--you may disagree if you prefer the full band to the old tape-playlet enhanced shows. Just compare the recent, leaden stage rendition of “Don’t Lets Start” to the spry, energetic original video, and you’ll see exactly what I mean. The interview subjects also vary wildly; for every Syd Straw appearance (so bullshit-free but also so engagingly lost in herself that she steals the show), there’s a painfully long Sarah Vowell clip. She usually comes off well in her writing and This American Life pieces, but when given to oral improvisation, man, does she ever excel in pointless meandering babble.

Still, the Johns are such likable guys, and their achievement as unlikely pop stars so fascinating that Gigantic is a hard film not to like, though it’s often hard to love. You’ll leave it entertained, but unless you’re a die-hard fan, you’ll feel more than a little exhausted.


I resisted Standing In the Shadows of Motown when it premiered to rave reviews last year; catching up with it on video, I can see why it garnered so much praise. Like Spellbound, it’s one hell of an entertaining film. It profiles The Funk Brothers, a collective of (mostly black) Detroit musicians who played on many classic Motown hits from 1959 to the early ‘70s. It tells their story not so much through archival footage and old photos, but through a reunion of sorts of the surviving members. They visit the old Berry Gordy basement studios, tell stories about themselves and the collective’s deceased members (especially genius bassist James Jamerson), and perform old chestnuts on stage accompanied by the likes of modern vocalists like Gerald Levert, Joan Osborne, Ben Harper, and Meshell Ndegeocello. It suitably gives the long-ignored musicians their due, the recent stage footage is pretty decent (not mere oldies show) and most of the Brothers are genial, charismatic subjects. It doesn’t quite have the same thrill of Spellbound, for instance; it’s pretty standard PBS-esque documentary fare, and you won’t leave it feeling transformed. But it’s certainly as solid as the rhythm tracks these guys put down all those years ago for the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and so on.