That Thing You Do (1996)

Director: Tom Hanks

Starring: Tom Everett Scott, Tom Hanks, Liv Tyler, Jonathan Schaech, Steve Zahn, Ethan Embry

Inspiration comes in many forms, typically when no effort is being made to look for it. For musicians who receive it, this can be the building blocks of something huge, something that will bring them true immortality. Jimmy (Jonathan Schaech) is a songwriter in 1964 whose ballad “That Thing You Do” is about to be given a snappy beat and turn into one of the most popular songs in the United States of America. But Jimmy is not the hero of this story. His career-minded focus and selfish behavior will make him the villain of the piece, if there are such things as villains in the movie “That Thing You Do!” Instead, the “hero” role goes to drummer Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott). Guy is a nice boy who works for his father’s appliance store in Erie, Pennsylvania. He would love to be doing something else, especially if music is involved, but he sees no future where that’s a possibility. Fortuitously, Jimmy’s band needs a new drummer, the old one having broken his arm. They perform, with Guy, at a Battle of the Bands competition… and they win. Soon, Guy finds himself touring the country with The Wonders. He’ll even get to meet and jam with his idol along the way. Just as quickly as it begins, the ride will come to an abrupt halt, but the music lives on.

Tom Hanks, who also plays the band’s manager, Mr. White, made his directorial debut with “That Thing You Do!” It was his third consecutive movie set either in or around the 1960’s, an era which obviously holds a great personal meaning for the actor/director. He’s reliving that part of his life through Guy Patterson, a character written as though Hanks could have played it. Actor Tom Everett Scott channels enough of Hanks to make this apparent, while leaving enough to make the role his own. If the movie had been made in the late 1970’s, when Hanks would have been Scott’s age, the nostalgia factor would not be as great as it is for a movie made in 1996. Everything that made the early 60’s what they were is on display, from the music to the fashion, the automobiles and the buildings. And the television sets. Can’t forget about those.

The movie marks the early point in several of its actors’ careers. Most impressively, it was made during a time before we really knew who either Liv Tyler or Charlize Theron were. Certainly, we knew that Tyler was the daughter of Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler, as well as the stepdaughter of Todd Rundgren (music was already in her blood!), but not much more beyond that. Although Charlize Theron’s part in the movie is not very big, and although there is nothing here to indicate that she will become an award-winning actress, Theron has an important part to play. She’s Tina, Guy’s girlfriend when the movie begins. But just like bands, relationships have multiple reasons why they don’t last. Her excuses are that she met a hunky dentist and is otherwise bored with The Wonders’ concerts. This will serve to help Guy move on from his boring life in Erie, PA just as much as his role in the band will. Tina may be gone, but there is always Jimmy’s underappreciated girlfriend, Faye (Liv Tyler). We know from the moment Mr. White begins asking personal questions of the both of them that he sees potential in a relationship between Guy and Faye. Really, if being a musician means you get to have both Charlize Theron AND Liv Tyler… Maybe I should invest in a drum set.

One of my favorite scenes in this movie,  in which no musical numbers are being performed, is the confrontation scene after The Wonders’ television debut. Jimmy is complaining about the caption on the live TV feed which, in reference to him, read: “Careful, girls! He’s engaged!” This in itself is a neat tribute to a similar proclamation made about the then-married John Lennon during one of The Beatles’ most infamous TV performances. The trouble is, Jimmy and Faye are not engaged, and it doesn’t sound like that’s something Jimmy will ever want. As Faye exposes Jimmy for who he really is, Liv Tyler reminds me of Judy Garland from “The Wizard of Oz,” the emotion in Faye’s eyes mimicking that of Dorothy Gale when she and her friend are at first denied an audience with the Wizard.

Lost in the shuffle of several award-nominated and award-winning films in his career, Tom Hanks delivers a loving tribute to the pre-Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band days of 1960’s rock n’ roll. The music alone is worth watching “That Thing You Do!” over and over again. The movie is a fantasy about dreams fulfilled and the hero who wins the girl in the end, but there is also authenticity in that so many musical acts over the years have seen their star rise and fall in the blink of an eye. No matter the reason why the fame does not last… and this is true of all entertainers… the final word can only be based on whether or not they continue to gain new fans long after they are gone.

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