If you’re out there “doing that thing you do,” make time to revisit this old favorite.
By 1996, Tom Hanks had cemented a career as a leading man whose films raked in both the cash and the awards. So, what happens after a star conquers the acting world? Direct, of course! Hanks directed a few stray episodes of television prior to this, but in 1996 he made his feature-length directorial and screenwriting debut about a fictional band and their comedic misadventures that coined the phrase “one-hit wonder.” That Thing You Do! is a rollicking rock-and-roll story with a catchy earworm of a title song that burrows into the brainpain deep.
Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott) is enlisted as the replacement drummer for a local Erie, Pennsylvania band. With a song called “That Thing You Do,” The Wonders rocket up the Billboard charts. But what happens when success, as it inevitably does, becomes too much for them?
Hanks take a phrase anyone who knows music is aware of and presents a compelling origin story behind it. He draws from a band with more hits than there are in the heavens, the Beatles, for his fictional band The Wonders. Like the famous mop-tops Hanks’ band starts out under a different name, The Oneders, a name changed due to chronic mispronunciation of “O-Needers;” their drummer is replaced after a bad run-in with a parking meter; and a bevy of other little in-jokes to place them alongside the greatest band of all time.
Their distinction lies in that one song that puts them over the edge. Starting out as a slow jam, “That Thing You Do” is sped up for instant pop music immortality. Let there be no mistake, though the acting, story and direction are great, it’s the song that keeps That Thing You Do! recognizable twenty years later. It’s heard several times throughout, in both long and short-form, and yet it never becomes repetitive. In fact, the fun is hearing the different ways it’s performed – whether slow or with a scream, compliments of Aerosmith lead singer, Steven Tyler. It’s a song so instantly catchy, and so of the moment it can never be replicated…and therein lies the problem for The Wonders.
Each of the characters fall into stereotypes that, while not cookie-cutter patterns of specific tropes, are familiar. Protagonist Guy loves jazz and is the outsider drawn into the world of fame and fortune; Jimmy (Johnathon Schaech) is the pretty guy with an arrogant streak; Lenny (Steve Zahn) is our goofball, and Ethan Embry is the bass player (a character meant to be so unmemorable his character is called T.B. Player). As the group rises up the charts – reenacting scenes from A Hard Day’s Night, for another Beatles reference – each of their character tropes bubble to the surface: Guy just wants to play music, Jimmy has integrity and wants to write something of substance, Lenny just wants girls and money.
What prevents the film from devolving to cliche is the acting. Everyman of the 1990s, Tom Everett Scott was cast for his resemblance to Tom Hanks and it works! Scott is personable, laconic with a sly smile that belies all the personality you need. It’s telling that Hanks’ manager character Mr. White dubs Guy “Shades,” the drummer with mystique who hides behind sunglasses at night. The overemphasis on Guy, particularly towards the end with his love for jazz musician Del Paxton (Bill Cobbs) becomes cumbersome, but never enough to detract from the film’s fun.
Each of the characters have clearly defined goals, and like any good E! True Hollywood Story, it’s those individual causes that instigate their collapse. Simple problems like T.B. going off to Disneyland, never to return, bring up the need for quick replacements, while others involve relationships. Jimmy’s girlfriend Faye (Liv Tyler), is a quiet doormat who blindly follows Jimmy wherever he goes. A love triangle develops between her, Jimmy and Guy that’s the film at its most cliche. Tyler’s exuberance though is infectious, and 1996 was a great year for her between this and Stealing Beauty. Her 1960s hair alone left me jealous of her!
Just writing a retrospective article about That Thing You Do! turning twenty makes me feel old. When I discovered this in the fifth grade, I fell in love instantly. I wore my VHS copy out and was one of the few who absolutely needed the extended edition DVD – comprised of a few additional scenes, particularly with more of Mr. White. Maybe it’s the catchy song that appealed to a girl already obsessed with musicals, or the 1960s retro setting, but I’ve dreamed of Hanks returning to this time and genre. That Thing You Do! is a unique concept presented in the classic Hollywood mold, adhering to musicals of the classic studio era. If you’re out there “doing that thing you do,” make time to revisit this old favorite. (Admit it, the song’s been in your head since you started reading!)