An Appreciation of That Thing You Do on its 20th Anniversary

“I try and try to forget you girl, but it’s just so hard to doooo…”

It’s one of my favorite moments of pure joy in a film. A young rock band in 1964 Erie, Pennsylvania that has been slowly breaking in with a few gigs at talent shows and local restaurants, hears their song on the radio for the first time. The discovery is played first on Faye, the girlfriend of the lead singer, who is so stunned when she hears the song over her transistor radio that she runs screaming down the street, looking like a crazy person. She and another band member converge at the appliance store where their drummer works and before long, the broadcast is booming through the store as the four band members and the girlfriend dance rapturously to their own beat.

For my money, it’s one of the most endearing “Holy shit! We’ve made it!” scenes in film, and it’s one of the reasons that if I run across the film it belongs to on TV, I have to watch it.

That film is 1996’s That Thing You Do, the directorial and screenwriting debut of Tom Hanks. Today is the 20th anniversary of the film’s release. It’s the story of the Wonders (or “Oneders,” if you prefer), a one-hit wonder band that briefly becomes teen sensations during their quick assent and even faster fall from grace. The charming ensemble is led by Tom Everett Scott, playing Guy, the fill-in drummer drafted at the last minute before a talent show. Bored by the slow pace of the band’s ballad, Guy kicks up the tempo and a catchy pop hit is born.

Like many details in the film, this plot point is an allusion to the Beatles, whose early hit “Please Please Me” was also a sped-up ballad. For a movie that functions as a sort of tribute to sixties pop music, it’s notable that none of the the soundtrack is actually of the period. Often films set in that era mortgage emotion reactions on the backs of a licensed soundtrack, but every song heard was written specifically for the film. There are other acts that seem to be allusions to performers like Johnny Rivers and The Shirelles. Somewhat brilliantly, the soundtrack album composes its liner notes as if all acts appearing were actual bands of the era. It’s so straight-faced about this that years later, I met a girl in college who thought these were actual sixties legends.

But the real gem is the title track, which might even be more catchy than most of the hits it’s designed to pay tribute to. Considering the song is heard in full at three major points and in partial performances several more times, it’s a minor miracle we don’t get tired of it. In fact, it’s a rather catchy earworm, written by Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne and vocally performed by Mike Viola of the Candy Butchers. (Per a comment below, Mike and Scott Rogness trade lead and background vocals on Little Wild One also, which was written by the Gigolo Aunts.) Hanks had held open submissions for the title track and another submission “I Need You (That Thing You Do)” can be heard over the closing credits. The other Wonders tracks we hear are almost as enjoyable. (I lobbied my wife unsuccessfully for the ballad “All My Only Dreams” to be the first dance at my wedding.)

The cast is aggressively likable. Tom Everett Scott displays so much charm as Guy that I’m a little surprised that his career didn’t really blow up later. He’s worked steadily over the years and is always a delight when he shows up, but he still feels underused to me. Steve Zahn damn near steals the film as Lenny. Virtually every line of his is quotable and I’ve found that if I toss a random one out on Twitter, it doesn’t take long for several replies to boomerang back. Ethan Embry is also pitch perfect as the bass player, and one of the film’s running gags seems to be that he’s always there, but remains an oddball and an outsider to the group. (Watch carefully and Guy and Mr. White are the only two characters to interact with him in any significant way.)

Filling in the villain role is Johnathon Schaech as Jimmy, the bandleader. Most creative types probably like to think they’re “cool guy” Guy, but almost all of us have our “Jimmy moments.” From the start, he’s the serious one of the group, almost too serious, and the film plays that for a couple light laughs until it shifts gears to show “artistic integrity” can breed diva-ish attitudes. After several viewings over the years, I’ve come to wonder what an encounter between an older Guy and the band would be like. Would Jimmy own his mistakes or is he incapable of the growth that would lead him to admit fault?

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And then there’s Faye. I’ll admit, as a teenage boy a lot of Faye’s appeal came from the fact she was played by Liv Tyler in the “post-Aerosmith girl” phase of her career. She was one of the It Girl crushes you were legally required to have in the mid-90s. Her character is another one you appreciate more after repeat viewings. She actually makes Jimmy’s arc more credible because we reason that if a girl this good can support Jimmy, there MUST be more to him than meets the eye. If you mention Liv’s part in this film, most people remember the “I’ve wasted thousands of kisses on you” speech, but where Tyler really shines is any scene that requires her to play off of Scott. Their chemistry is often smuggled within scenes, hidden in other business. It’s done just lightly enough to make the Guy/Faye pairing at the end credible without tipping the film’s hand.

I’d call it “good writing,” but it’s really “good editing,” and the evidence to support that is available. It’s an interesting phenomena how longer cuts of films can take on a mythology of their own, even before anyone has seen them. The most notable example this year is probably how soon after the release of the two-and-a-half-hour Batman v. Superman, interviews circulated about a longer three-hour cut. Instantly, fans looking to defend the film took on the stance that this longer version MUST be better. When it saw release, that was certainly the party line. For me personally, the three-hour version is at least as flawed as the theatrical cut, proving that “more” isn’t always “better.”

That’s certainly true of the “extended cut” of That Thing You Do, which tacks an extra 40 minutes onto a film that runs for an hour and forty-eight minutes in its theatrical form. If you’ve ever watched the Deleted Scenes feature on a bluray and had the reaction, “Yep, I totally get why that was cut,” you might find this longer cut instructive. It’s one thing to see the extra shavings in isolation. It’s quite another to experience them reintegrated into the film in a way that fundamentally upsets the entire organism.

The Extended Cut isn’t just longer, but it has a slightly different feel and tone in places. This isn’t a case where major subplots were deleted entirely, or where reshoots created drastically alternate versions of scenes. It’s mostly the same film – there’s just more of it. What emerges is an interesting lesson in film pacing and the brevity you can find in strong feature writing.

Just to give you an example of where some of the extra minutes of fat are found, in the Extended Cut, it takes 44 minutes to get to that moment I embedded above, where the band hears their song on the radio. In the theatrical cut, that happens just past the 30-minute mark. That is almost perfect placement for the end of Act One if you were to follow some sort of Save The Cat paradigm. The next big turning point in the story is the introduction of Tom Hanks’s Mr. White. The Extended Cut makes us wait exactly an hour for this moment. In the Theatrical Cut, it happens at minute 38.

To put it another way, 22 minutes —over ONE THIRD – of the first hour of the extended cut is completely extraneous. The movie spends a lot of extra time in Erie, PA and early scenes give more focus to Guy and his girlfriend Tina. She’s played by Charlize Theron, and she appears MUCH more in this cut, mostly in scenes about her romance with the dentist she leaves Guy for. Scenes playing that beat keep popping up well after the point has been made.

It’s an interesting thing to note about the script Hanks shot – it’s overwritten in ways that I’ve seen in a lot of first-timer scripts. (And before anyone thinks I’m taking gratuitous shots at Mr. Hanks I will absolutely cop to being the King of Overwriting on my early scripts.) Sometimes it’s not until you’re in the editing room, or watching something with a restless audience that you realize, “Holy crap, I don’t need a LOT of this.”

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The Extended Cut lingers so much on two drawn-out scenes with Guy and Tina that the rest of the band isn’t introduced until the ___ minute mark. That’s a lot of real estate taken up to introduce the points that Guy has a girlfriend and that he works in his father’s appliance store. The first meeting with the band is also extended by a little bit and it plays slightly more stilted. There’s a bit about Guy tapping Faye’s bumper with his car, and him feeling so bad about it that he buys the band breakfast before going to sit over by the counter alone. In retrospect, it feels like a moment meant to set-up the chemistry between Faye and Guy, but it’s a moment that doesn’t belong in the scene.

As the scene appears in the theatrical cut, by removing the awkward bits that underline how much Guy isn’t a part of the gang, their banter with him seems to play with more familiarity behind it. Faye thanking Guy for breakfast as she leaves, a non-sequitur in the theatrical cut, unintentionally reinforces this. It implies a prior agreement to treat everyone, and thus a friendlier dynamic.

Seven minutes into the theatrical cut, Jimmy and Lenny are already at the hardware store asking for Guy to fill in. By that point in the Extended Cut, Guy is still the only band member we’ve met and he’s busy making out with his girlfriend on the sofa. It takes that version of the film over 13 minutes to get to this point. Following Save the Cat rules, the 13-minute mark should coincide with a major turning point in the story. Guess what happens 13 minutes into the theatrical cut?

That’s the moment where the band plays the talent show and Guy kicks up the tempo.

(I’m no fan of the formulaic approach Save the Cat is guilty of peddling, but its stance on pacing is worth being aware of.)

If I was going to give young writers and filmmakers a lesson in pacing, I’d have them watch the theatrical cut followed by the extended cut. Once you’ve seen the shorter version, you’ll marvel at all the extra chaff. Scenes play out well after they’ve made their point, such as the moment when the original drummer is injured. A riot at the pizza place is shown in greater detail and referenced in an extended discussion in a later scene, which is a lot of time to burn on a scene that makes no impact later.

Hanks’s longer version explains things that don’t need to be spelled out. There’s an extra scene added just to show Guy giving everyone transistor radios so they can listen for the song. Wisely, someone realized no one was going to ask, “Hey, where did the transistor radios come from?” and so we accept that Faye happens to own one.

It’s an educational exercise to spot these sorts of moments throughout, but they are the only flavor of restored scenes. The band’s show at the Pittsburgh concert hall is played as a significantly bigger deal here. They erroneously get the fancy dressing room belonging to the host, and there’s also a touching moment where they assemble on the stage well before the show and look out at all the empty seats. They have a slight celebratory dance there, and it’s played as much more of an “I can’t believe we’re here!” beat.

Why remove that? Pacing surely plays a part, but also by downplaying this gig, it makes their first show on the tour feel much more impactful as them hitting “the big time.” Delaying this gratification makes the release of that later scene more satisfying.

There’s another Faye/Guy interaction mixed in that sequence and it’s deletion is another smart moment. By cutting a lot of the overt chemistry between the two characters, we don’t watch the movie waiting for her to inevitably choose Guy over Jimmy. There’s enough left to make their coupling make sense, but not so much that we realize we’re seeing a love triangle.

Audiences today have a full century of film history to draw on. They’re savvy enough to fill in the blanks where they need to and are quite capable of getting ahead of a movie if it calls its shot too obviously.

When editing is done right, the audience never realizes anything was removed. If someone told you there was a cut of That Thing You Do that had 40 minutes of extra scenes, you’d probably assume there’s a lot of extra story and drama contained there. As we’ve discussed, this isn’t even near the case.

The most substantial change is the end. In the Theatrical Cut, Guy says that his idol, Del Paxton, thinks he has the chops to make it as a drummer and so he’s going to stay in L.A. In the Extended Cut, Guy records an interview with Del and leverages that to get a job with a radio DJ he met on their promotional tour. It’s that job he stays behind for, and Faye stays for him. The Theatrical Cut allows Guy a semblance of his dream, while the Extended version is a little more realistic and maybe a little less feel-good after seeing a two-hour demonstration of why Guy is a great drummer.

There’s something appropriate about Tom Hanks’s That Thing You Do becoming the film it was meant to be by picking up the tempo and being reshaped into something more “peppy” and “snappy” as Mr. White would say. The theatrical version is as infectious and joyful as the title track, and knowing the version that almost was makes me appreciate its simple brilliance even more.

Now what do we have to do to get a reunion concert?

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