[Author’s Note: The abbreviated review presented below means no disrespect to Tom Hanks’s fine film. What you’ll read below was merely the opening act for the main review. This was one of those rare occasions when I covered more than a single movie in the same column. You’ll find some further reflections on That Thing You Do! In the Second Look section below. For the remainder of the June 1997 review, head over to Ivanhoe.]
A word of warning. The paragraph which follows has nothing to do with the movie I’m actually reviewing this month. It’s the product of a guilty conscience. I feel I owe it to all of you out there to tell you about a neat little movie you can rent out here….before I tell you about an amazing one you can’t.
Years ago, the first time I watched Tom Hanks in Big, I felt I was seeing a gifted actor in one of the best comedies since the days of Chaplin and Keaton. I’ve never changed my mind. I’m a sucker for humor laced with sentiment. One of my ideal double bills, after an inspiringly lugubrious pair of Bergmans, Welleses, Langs, Renoirs, or Tarkovskys, would be Big and Groundhog Day.
At the same time as I was admiring Big back in ’88, however, I was wondering if perhaps I was overestimating Tom Hanks’s talent. Maybe he’d just lucked out on a skilled director and an excellent scriptwriter. Now I know. It wasn’t luck. So what if he’s since won back to back Academy Awards for best actor. The clincher for me is his latest project: That Thing You Do! It’s the lively, rueful, entirely apocryphal story of the blazing rise and whimpering fall of a one-hit rock and roll band called the Oneders (that’s “Wonders”, not “O-knee-ders”). Hanks wrote the screenplay, directed the film, acted in it, and co-wrote some of the songs. Damn if he didn’t do an excellent job on all four counts. Nowadays, when it’s hip to make fun of the excesses of the Sixties, That Thing You Do! respects the past rather than smirks at it. Hanks meticulously recreates an early Sixties you can actually imagine growing up in—a small-town scene fired up by rock’n roll, unshaded by 90s-style cynicism or irony. Face it, Alanis Morrisette and Eddie Vedder are never going to give us “Be-Bop-A-Lula” or “Peggy Sue.”
That Thing You Do! is so true to its subject matter and its time that if someone didn’t tell you it’s pure fiction, right down to every lovingly faked background tune by every nonexistent star of the nonexistent Play-Tone label, those of you over 30 would probably be wracking your brains trying to figure out why you can’t quite remember the groups or the songs.
Thanks for the (fake) memories, Mr. Hanks!
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
A period gem. The early 60s as a lot of us like to remember them. The movie starts in a neon-signed furniture store full of now-classic vacuum cleaners, TVs, and radios, and goes on to wrap the audience up in the warm pastel glows of sock hops, state fairs, go-go dancing, and Beatlemania. An impressive directorial debut from Tom Hanks, who also wrote the screenplay, composed some of the music, and had a key role in the film. Perfect casting. Hanks as a somewhat smarmy, variably sincere, cynical, and very competent manager. Tom Everett Scott as the fireplug drummer & jazz aficionado who helps propel the Wonders to one-hit wonder stardom. Johnathon Schaech as the broody lead singer/guitarist whose egocentricity is massive enough to shut out even Liv Tyler at her most winsome & vulnerable. Steve Zahn as the band’s guitarist and irrepressible optimist, who’s destined to fly high and crash & burn as many times as his heart lets him. Ethan Embry as the bass player who’s America’s least likely candidate for Marine Corps training school. Bill Cobbs as legendary jazzman Del Paxton, the calm eye of the musical hurricane. Alex Rocco as the good-hearted, camper-based stand-in for the bottom of the music biz food chain. Obba Babatundé as the hip guardian angel we all need. And Charlize Theron in the very, very early days her impressive career.
It’s always a gutsy move when a movie relying on period music opts original compositions rather than using musical standards. The original music becomes another actor who’s got to make the audience buy into the story. The strategy worked perfectly for A Mighty Noise, and it’s a compete success in That Thing You Do! Perhaps the song-writing is even more impressive in the latter because the audience is going to hear the title track a lot, and if it doesn’t grow on you the film’s dead in the water. A big shout-out to Canadian composer Howard shore, who oversaw the film’s music. He’s since gone on to win three Oscars.
There’s some pain & heartbreak in That Thing You Do!, but the prevailing spirit is that of youthful dreams suddenly carried to rapturous, ephemeral heights. Although the band never gets to make another record, Hanks’s movie isn’t a cynical send-up of the music biz. It never condescends, never mocks. It’s honest without being moralizing or jaded. The appeal of Guy’s character is that both his passion for jazz and his sunglass-sporting, rock-drumming persona are equally genuine. The kid just wants to play. Music that lifts people up, whether it’s in cool jazz bars or on high school dance floors, is the breath of life.
Much of the movie’s spirit is captured by the long-running joke on the Oneder’s unfortunately-spelled original stage name (“Ladies and Gentleman…it’s the O-KNEE-ders!!). It brings a smile to my face every time I think of it. There’s the healing power of nostalgia—time passes and all those things which once seemed like life or death and as big as the world take their place alongside that 45 of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” or that seashell from a still-remembered girlfriend that’s packed away next to it.