Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

That Thing You Do! (1996)

[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.

Movie Information

Genre: Music | Drama
Director: Tom Hanks
Actors: Tom Everett Scott, Tom Hanks, Liv Tyler, Johnathon Schaech, Steve Zahn, Ethan Embry, Charlize Theron, Obba Babatundé
Year: 1997
Original Review: June 1997 (Part 1)


Senses of Cinema

This is the online edition of an excellent Australian film studies journal.  All articles, for the current issue and for back issues, and available in full and without a subscription fee.  The website also provides annotations on key films and profiles of the great directors.  The issue current as I’m writing this has 9 articles on Latin American Cinema Today, 5 articles on Cleverman and Australian Superheroes, 6 feature articles, a World Poll, a dozen Festival Reports, and 4 book reviews.  From the introduction to the site:                                                                                                                         

“Senses of Cinema is an online journal devoted to the serious and eclectic discussion of cinema. We believe cinema is an art that can take many forms, from the industrially-produced blockbuster to the hand-crafted experimental work; we also aim to encourage awareness of the histories of such diverse forms. As an Australian-based journal, we have a special commitment to the regular, wide-ranging analysis and critique of Australian cinema, past and present. Senses of Cinema is primarily concerned with ideas about particular films or bodies of work, but also with the regimes (ideological, economic and so forth) under which films are produced and viewed, and with the more abstract theoretical and philosophical issues raised by film study.”

Classic Film and Television

A hugely informative personal cinema website, with in-depth profiles of dozens of directors (some book-length), film lists, general articles, and loads of valuable links to other cinema-related websites.  No snazzy graphics here, but a true labor of love.  From the introduction:

“Welcome to the Classic Film and Television homepage. It is designed and written by Michael E. Grost, a film enthusiast who lives near Detroit, Michigan, USA.

This is an educational site containing reviews and articles about films and television, and articles on their writers, directors and photographers. It has much about Visual Style. I am an auteurist, and usually try to relate a film creator’s work to his or her total career as an artist. All the articles in this site are written by me. Estimated size: 3600 pages / 1,440,000 words.”

Now that’s (critical) entertainment!

Films Worth Talking About:

Cable Guy, Crash, Some Mother’s Son, Mission: Impossible, Trees Lounge, Walking and Talking, Flirting With Disaster, Welcome to the Dollhouse, The Spitfire Grill, Jude, Secrets and Lies, Breaking the Waves, Extreme Measures, Evita, Lone Star, Independence Day, Twister, Eraser, The Rock, Trainspotting, The Nutty Professor, The First Wives Club, Tin Cup, Michael Collins, The Pillow Book, Fargo, The Long Kiss Goodnight, The Craft, Emma, A Time to Kill, Striptease, Twelfth Night or What You Will

The Bigger Picture

Films:  A Mighty Noise, A Hard Day’s Night, Back to the Future [yea, I know, it’s the 50s not the 60s, but it gives me the same joy]

Music:  any Beatle’s album between 1963 and 1966, or the Capitol Records anthology The Beatles/1962-1966; The Monkees’ Greatest Hits, from Arista Records


The Word on the Street

Tom Hanks wrote and directed this paean to the glory days of rock n’ roll, an era in which even the wildest music still reflected a certain innocence, long since gone if not forgotten, before the advent of Metal, Rap and Grunge….It’s a lively, upbeat tale in which luck, talent and chance all play a part. Hanks presents the upside of making it in the music business, including the adrenaline rush of hearing one’s own song on the radio for the first time, as well as all the hoopla that surrounds those who happen to be in the spotlight at the moment. But he also shows the downside: The creative differences and in-fighting which plagues just about any band ever formed to some degree at one time or another, the personality conflicts and petty jealousies that are apt to surface at any time, and the reality of dealing with bloated egos, adoring fans and rude, insensitive record label executives who could care less about the talent that is putting the coins in their coffers, as long as they’re selling records.  [jhclues]

I resonated with this movie on many points. Let me give you one example. I was in a little band once and was something of the “muse” of that band. Something I always marveled at was how “the creative process” people talk about is actually a very simple and practical reality when you’re actually being creative. One of the sweet, simple high points of working up a number is the act of picking the tempo. If you’ve ever done this, you know what I’m talking about. Picking the tempo is a profoundly rewarding act, and of course that’s just one small aspect of the process. So the scene near the beginning of the flick where the drummer overrules Jimmy and establishes an uptempo beat to what was supposed to be a ballad is a profoundly resonant moment for me. And the direction and editing bring together an almost perfect picture of the very real and profound joy that this brings to people.  [rzajac]

Unless you were there. Unless you were of that age, that time and particularly if you were a male and trying to force your grimy little fingers into a “C” chord on a Harmony acoustic guitar that was semi in tunewell [sic?], you will not understand the depth that this movie has. This movie and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” capture something that was so real, so tangible but has slipped so completely away from any succeeding generations grasp that to try and film it’s time and moment seems impossible. And yet, Tom Hanks did it. I don’t know how he managed to grasp the era and the people so well as I thought he was a little too young for that time period. He nails this every boy’s fantasy with wit, wisdom and just a touch of sadness. The cast turns in, a spot on encapsulation of people that will be very familiar to any struggling band member from the period.  [moosenmoo35244]

In every life there becomes a time when that dream you dream becomes that thing you do.  [johenshaw]

“That Thing You Do!” is a perfect film about a group of guys in the mid-1960’s inspired by Thelonius Monk-type jazz and Beatles-esque pop music. With one hit single, they are catapulted to clean-shaven, teen idol stardom. The band “The Wonders” could easily have been the 60’s pop group “The Turtles” or “The Beau Brummels.” The film’s plot is fairly simple, yet it doesn’t veer off into the typical VH1 Behind The Music avenue of excessive sex and drugs. Matter of fact, they aren’t even mentioned….I really appreciated the “The Wonders” drummer relationship to “Dell Paxton,” a jazz musician that’s obviously a Thelonius Monk reference. Check them out jamming together during the third act of the film. Now THAT’S what I call truly remarkable music. The song “that thing you do” could easily have been a number one single in 1965. It’s a simple, hook-laden piece of popcorn that’s catchy on a near paranormal level. It was written by members of the modern pop/rock group “Fountains of Wayne.” One can only wish for more music such as this today. There’s enough innocence in it to guarantee parents’ wide-eyed approval … and just a bit of angst to attract the attention of hormone-raging teenagers the world over. ….Also … check out “The Beau Brummels.” Rhino Records has issued a great best-of package. One has to wonder if Tom Hanks had them in mind while writing the script. They had a few hits, though none will be as remembered as the poppy “Laugh, Laugh.” A true gem from 1960’s rock ‘n roll.  [TigerMann]

As a child of the 60s and a musician, I loved this movie from the first few minutes of it. The sets, the clothes, the music, and everything down to the small details is represented here to give a true feel for what the early to mid sixties were like, minus the politics and Vietnam. Before radio music became a commercially diluted and corporate industry there were “garage-bands” galore and many of the little-remembered names of the genre started out as such. The Wonders in “That Thing You Do!” could easily be a number of bands that were a one-hit-wonder (or two or three) and then just disappeared from the scene. Nevertheless, they all helped shape some of the best music of that era, and Tom Hanks perfectly represents that phenomena in this movie. If you remember the early 60’s fondly, you should truly enjoy this film and it will probably bring back fond memories. The depiction of Erie, PA during this time-frame is probably representative of many small to medium size American towns and certainly brought back great memories for me of better times gone by. The music rocks, the dialog is hip, and the love story rounds it out perfectly.  [hisown]