Ripping on musical one-hit wonders, Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do! is one of the best feature directorial debuts of all time.
When jazz drummer Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott) is asked by some friends to fill in for Chad (Giovanni Ribisi), he’s about to go on the ride of his life. It’s a simple plan, really. All Guy has to do is play drums for the night along side Jimmy Mattingly (Johnathon Schaech), Lenny Haise (Steve Zahn), and T.B. Player (Ethan Hembry). The Oneders–newly named but mistaken for Oh-Nee-Ders–perform at the talent show to great success. Much to Jimmy’s dismay, Guy drummers at a faster beat than anticipated. What was a simple ballad–“That Thing You Do”–becomes an uptempo rock song. The same thing happened to a similar song from The Beatles, “Please Please Me.” I wonder what happened to those guys…
The band’s rise is just beginning. As they rise, Guy’s girlfriend, Tina (Charlize Theron), wants nothing to do with him but would rather date her dentist. They get a regular spot to perform at a restaurant while bringing on Phil Horace as their manager. Meanwhile, Guy’s church music producer uncle, Bob (Chris Isaak), records their initial 45 rpm single. Eventually, the band meets with Playtone Records A&R rep Mr. White (Tom Hanks). He changes their name to The Wonders before he takes the band out on Playtone’s Midwest tour. It’s during the tour when we see Jimmy show that all he cares about his songwriting and making those songs a hit. His girlfriend, Faye (Liv Tyler), gets a back seat.
If there’s a turning point in the film, it comes just before the band heads off to California for their big TV appearance. When Jimmy pays no attention to Faye being caught by security, Guy comes to the rescue. Guy was already becoming close friends with Faye but come on, Jimmy! When she doesn’t feel so well on the plane, Guy is the one taking care of her! I think it’s safe to say this moment is truly when the band starts to fall apart.
Upon arrival in California, anything that can go wrong does. Jimmy doesn’t want to shoot their film appearance. He has all the makings of a diva but I love how Schaech plays him. The bass player is missing in action on the eve of their national television debut. Guy goes out to a jazz club and ends up meeting Del Paxton (Bill Cobbs). The performance goes as well as it can given the circumstances. It’s beautifully shot in that regard. The worst is yet to come because the band ended up calling it quits during their recording session the next day.
On the one hand, That Thing You Do! can be seen as a parody of the one-hit wonders of the time. On the other hand, there’s so much heart and soul in Tom Hanks’ screenplay that calling it a parody would be an insult. The members of The Wonders feel very real in that I honestly want to see what they’d be doing years down the road. Sure, we have the epilogue but who doesn’t think it would be cool to see The Wonders perform on stage again?
One can make the argument that Chad is the Pete Best of this situation. The only difference is that he breaks his arm rather than a session drummer fill in for him. Even though The Wonders are a one-hit band, they’re most definitely inspired by The Beatles. This becomes apparent through the costume design while the band is on tour. Even during the montage scenes, one can see the care in how much they aim for authenticity in these appearances. There are other examples too such as the aforementioned ballad becoming a faster song. While I have yet to watch the extended cut, a quick look online suggests that Mr. White is also gay like Brian Epstein.
There’s some blink-and-miss it cameos. Paul Feig has a turn as a KMPC disc jockey. The biggest surprise is Bryan Cranston making a cameo as NASA astronaut Gus Grissom. Contrary to the wording in the credits, the late Grissom is the only non-fictional character in the entire film. Actor-comedian Kevin Pollack plays Boss Vic Koss.
If the film’s soundtrack isn’t on the list of greatest movie soundtracks ever, it should be! There’s not a single song on this soundtrack that I would even bother to skip upon listening, which speaks to just how great these songs are. Where a film like Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story riffs on multiple musical genres, it does so for comical effect. This isn’t the case here. These songs feel as if you could turn on the radio at the time with the chance of hearing it at some point.
One year after a starring turn in Apollo 13, Hanks gives us a musical film for the ages in That Thing You Do!
DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER: Tom Hanks
CAST: Tom Everett Scott, Liv Tyler, Johnathon Schaech, Steve Zahn, Ethan Embry, and Tom Hanks