That Thing You Do! (1996)
I want something peppy, something happy, something up-tempo. I want something snappy.
It’s 1964 in a Pennsylvania town. The Beatles and the rest of the British invasion have taken over the pop radio waves and encouraged a lot of small rock bands to dream big. One such band is the Oneders (pronounced Wonders, but commonly as O’Needers). When drummer Guy “Skitch” Patterson (Tom Everett Scott) joins the band with Jimmy (Jonathon Schaech), Lenny (Steve Zahn), the Bass Player (Ethan Embry) and Jimmy’s doting girlfriend Faye (Liv Tyler) they inadvertently turn one of Jimmy’s slow ballads into a fast-paced pop song, and before they know it are touring the country with a hit song.
Why We Love It:
Tom Hanks writing and directing debut is one of my personal favorites. Hanks really captures the earnesty and innocence of a pre-LSD 60’s when bubblegum pop songs ruled the world. I saw this movie when I was 12 or 13 and was instantly captivated by its easy-going charm. Plus, as a young kid who hoped to be an actor/director/writer/producer one day, anything Tom Hanks put out in the prime of his career was sure to find itself in front of my smiling, anticipatory face.
Thinking back, that may actually be the reason I love That Thing You Do! as much as I do. The 90’s was Hanks’ decade. Starting with A League of Their Own (or Joe Vs. the Volcano from 1990) and ending with The Green Mile in ’99, everything the man churned out became a giant success. Three movies with Meg Ryan that showcased his charm, three Oscar nominations (which should’ve been five since Hanks was not nominated for Apollo 13 or Green Mile) and two wins (Philadelphia and Forrest Gump) and one instant animated classic that spawned a CGI revolution in Hollywood (Toy Story) were his legacy. When you stack all those in the span of 10 brief years, it’s easy to forget a movie like That Thing You Do! which had very little box office or critical success. It became the Tom Hanks movie no one talked about, so naturally I clung to it. But that was only why I first saw the movie.
Viewings 2-59 were brought on by various factors. 1. I worked at a Suncoast video store in 1999-2000 and it was in the VHS rotation everyday. 2. I briefly started writing pop music in high school and creative juices flowed especially well when that catchy tune was stuck in my head. 3. It’s great to watch when you’re drunk, for some reason, so it got some play from ’03-present day. 4. It’s on cable a lot.
5. The actors are terrific. Now, this isn’t necessarily saying the acting is terrific, but I love every performance in this film. From Everett Scott’s nerdy protagonist to Charlize Theron’s apathetic girlfriend role to Zahn’s endless supply of one-liners to Embry’s infinite bag of smiles and giggles to the only role I’ve ever enjoyed Liv Tyler playing. Every single performance in this movie is perfect. AND they get better every time you watch the flick.
That Thing You Do! is memorable because it has so many performances from actors who were just starting out and became something (Giovanni Ribisi, Theron, Liv Tyler), actors who should’ve probably been bigger than they got (Everett Scott, Schaech, Embry, and Steve Zahn to a degree), and some odd cameos thrown in for good measure (Chris Isaak, Kevin Pollack, Clint Howard, and Hanks’ wife Rita Wilson). And lest we forget the Man, who turns in a very winning performance as the band’s manager Mr. White and gives himself the coolest lines in the script (but gives the funniest lines to Steve Zahn–or maybe he improvised them, I have no idea).
6. The music is fun. I’ll always re-watch a movie if it has the added bonus of great music. It’s not a great soundtrack in a Forrest Gump or The Graduate sense, but it has personality. The opening theme is a nice head-bobbin’ track and the Wonders’ B-sides are pretty snappy as well. Every performer that the Wonders are on tour with: Diane Dane, the Chantrellines and Freddy Frederickson (all fictional artists in the “Play-Tone” catalog, a fictional label) and even Cap’n Geech and the Shrimp Shack Shooters get some play. Oscar winning composer Howard Shore adds some flavor to the score and it certainly doesn’t hurt that the title track is catchy enough and enjoyable enough that the viewer can stand a solid 5 full listens to the song in the movie (as well as countless beginnings and endings to the song throughout).
All in all, this is a lovable movie. This is “Movies We Love” not “movies that changed cinema” or “movies that provide a clearer understanding of life”.
Moment We Fell in Love
Easy: it’s the first time the band’s song gets played on the radio. The scene opens with Faye hearing the song on her portable radio (high. tech.) as she is putting stamps on envelopes she intends to mail (ha, “mail”…”stamps”). She screams and runs. She runs into the bass player outside who is shopping for military duds. They scream and run. They rush in to Guy’s family-owned appliance store. He puts it on the Hi-Fi. Screaming. Jumping. Jimmy and Lenny drive by and join the gang in full-jump-run-circle-dance-screaming mode. And the whole thing is endearing when it could’ve had every right to be annoying. It’s masterfully edited and energetic and Hanks absolutely nailed this sequence as director. It’s essentially the scene that sums up the movie best: these are simple people that play simple melodies but their enthusiasm and energy is infectious.
Ok, so I was drunk one night last year and sitting on my couch watching Encore. This happens regularly on weekends when I’m trying to find something to watch until the Cosby Show comes on at 4 AM. That Thing You Do! is on but it’s a scene I’d never seen before in any of my previous 59-73 viewings. Turns out I never knew there was a DIRECTOR’S CUT of That Thing You Do!(!) It’s about two and a half hours long and feels more like a rock and roll biopic as opposed to a fun romp through the Play-Tone galaxy. I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, just to people who liked That Thing You Do!, because it is a bit bloated in places and is missing some of the charm. But there are fun little nuggets like finding out that Tom Hanks’ character is gay. And if you’re like me, you’ll have someone awesome get it for you as a Christmas present (from Amazon) and geek out.