There are so many reasons to love Tom Hanks’ classic musical That Thing You Do! Everything from the lighthearted performances to Hanks’ easy-going direction makes the viewing experience a fun bit of ’90s pop entertainment.
I missed out on the film in theaters. Despite growing up watching all things Tom Hanks — my family even went to the theaters to see The ‘Burbs on opening weekend! — particularly during the mid-90s where everything the actor starred in — A League of Their Own, Sleepless in Seattle, Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, Toy Story, Saving Private Ryan, etc. — turned to gold, I skipped That Thing You Do! because, well, the trailer sucked.
I can imagine this being a difficult film to market. It’s a Tom Hanks film, and the ads did their best to show that, but it’s not really a Tom Hanks film, and the ads suffer because of that. The Academy Award-winning superstar doesn’t appear until about 30 or so minutes into the flick and when he does, his impact is relatively minor. Hanks graciously steps aside and lets the young cast — led by Tom Everett Scott, Liv Tyler, Steve Zahn, Charlize Theron, and Johnathon Schaech, among others — do that thing they do and the results are damn near magical.
Reviews at the time were positive. Empire Magazine awarded the feature five stars, while EW’s Owen Gleiberman praised Hanks writing and directing and likened the “pop culture fable” to Diner and American Graffiti.
Yet, despite such high praise and Hanks’ seemingly indestructible star power, That Thing You Do! simply didn’t resonate with audiences. All told, the pic drew a measly $34.6M worldwide gross against a $26M budget and has mostly remained obscured by Hanks’ more successful ventures.
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This has to stop, people! That Thing You Do! is a friggin’ classic, and I don’t use that word lightly. As a slice of 1960s Americana, you can’t do much better; as a rock and roll, rags-to-riches-to-rags comedy-fantasy, there are few films that trump its style.
But, if that isn’t enough to convince you, here are ten reasons why That Thing You Do! deserve mention among the greats.
THAT MAIN SONG!
One of my close friends growing up hated That Thing You Do! Like, hated it. Her reason: the titular song drove her bananas. “I liked it at first,” she told me, “but by the fiftieth time they sang it in the movie, I was done.”
Written by Adam Schlesinger, “That Thing You Do!” is a Beatles-esque rock number that actually sounds like a Beatles-esque rock number that could have shot to the top of the music charts in the mid-60s. As many of the characters note, “It’s snappy.”
Sure, the tune soaks up quite a bit of screen time, but each time it’s played against a different backdrop which allows us to see the evolution of the characters. Compare the first time we hear it played in a garage at a much slower pace …
… to the last time we hear it played on an Ed Sullivan-esque TV show.
At this point, the band has changed significantly right down to the Bass Player who ditches the crew to take part in a Disneyland vacation. The song serves as an important thematic cue highlighting The Wonders’ journey from humble Eerie, Pennsylvania garage band to full-blown rock artists.
THAT STEVE ZAHN!
The entire cast of That Thing You Do! is terrific, which makes Steve Zahn’s scene-stealing turn as Lenny, “the fool,” all the more incredible. At the time, Zahn had appeared in TV shows like All My Children and films such as Crimson Tide, but That Thing You Do! gave him a chance to shine in the spotlight and the actor rose to the occasion and then some, leading to memorable performances in Out of Sight, Happy, Texas, Rescue Dawn and War for the Planet of the Apes, among many others.
THAT BREAKOUT SCENE!
As stated above, each presentation of the song “That Thing You Do!” marks the next step in the band’s journey. The second time we hear it comes during a high school performance in which Tom Everett Scott’s Guy Patterson makes a not-so-subtle change in the song’s tempo:
I love how the initial reaction by the rest of the band (and Liv Tyler) is shock, followed by a steady realization of how much better the song works at a faster, upbeat tempo. It’s a phenomenal moment in a great film.
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THAT RADIO SCENE!
Later, after meeting with an agent, we see the band members poking around town listening to the radio when the song erupts over the airwaves. Honestly, this is probably the best scene in the movie because it’s just so much fun and perfectly in tune with how one would likely react to such a thrilling moment.
Of course, the scene also marks the beginning of the end for the band, whose quick ascent to the top of the billboards eventually gives way to a merciless free fall once the egos take over.
This one may sound like a slight, but there exists a director’s cut of That Thing You Do! and … it’s pretty weird. There are a number of deleted scenes that interrupt pacing, add unnecessary character flourishes, and weird moments that simply do not work. Honestly, watch any of the deleted scenes on YouTube and then tell me editor Richard Chew doesn’t deserve more recognition for transforming that into pure gold.
THAT SHUT-UP BIT!
Admittedly, this one is minor, but holy hell is it great. Early in the film, the band, dubbed The ONEders, are preparing for their big debut at a high school talent show. To kill time while the band sets up, the night’s Emcee, played by I-swear-I’ve-seen-him-before-Mark Brettschneider, starts throwing out a few jokes while a classmate (played by that-guy-from-every-movie-ever) heckles him off stage, leading to a wild exchange that leaves me in stitches every time I see it.
THAT BEHIND-THE-SCENES STUFF!
There are a number of fun nods to 1960s Hollywood sprinkled throughout That Thing You Do!, including an obviously scripted on-air conversation between astronaut Virgil “Gus” Grissom (played by Bryan Cranston) and fictional TV host Troy Chesterfield (played by Hanks’ Bosom Buddy pal Peter Scolari), an Annette Funicello-inspired beach movie production (directed by Jonathan Demme, no less), and a rock and roll showcase concert in Pittsburg headlined by Boss Vic Koss (Kevin Pollack). These moments are brief but go a long way in establishing the fantasy world inhabited by our plucky heroes, who slowly come to see the fragile façade between their fantasy delusions and the realities of superstardom.
On a side, other cameos include Clint Howard, Paul Feig, Rita Wilson, Colin Hanks, and (in a deleted scene) Howie Long. To say nothing of Obba Babatunde’s brief but essential role as Lamarr, Alex Rocco’s bit as a sleazy producer, and Giovanni Ribisi’s comical turn as the band’s former drummer.
While the “That Thing You Do!” song dominates the film — serving as the band’s only hit — the other songs sung throughout are equally enjoyable.
THAT HAPPY FINALE!
Heading into That Thing You Do!, one has a pretty good idea of what to expect based on similar films of this nature. We know the band will rise before suffering a meteoric fall, as all musical artists are prone to do. Thankfully, Hanks keeps the film firmly planted in the realms of fantasy right down to the heartwarming finale that sees Guy and Faye live happily ever after with one another after suffering bitter breakups with their former partners. As Faye tells Guy, “None of this would have happened if it wasn’t for you — and I mean that in a good way.”
In the end, while The Wonders predictably fall apart, their journey at least exposed the best (and worst) of each of the band members. Sure, none ever find the magical success of that particular summer, but each goes on to live a happy, comfortable life made possible because of a simple rock ballad.
If only life really turned out quite this way.
THAT DEL PAXTON!
Another scene I absolutely love is Guy’s meeting with his drummer idle Del Paxton (Bill Cobbs). The duo bump into each other at a club one night and later take the time to record some improvised tunes in a studio immediately following the band’s breakup.
The sequence is the fantasy opposite to the old adage “never meet your heroes.” In this case, Guy’s interaction with Del ultimately charts a new course in a positive direction for the young man and leads to his and Faye’s eventual relationship, which perfectly sums up Hanks’ overtly upbeat dreamlike sense of — wait for it — ONEder wonder.
That Thing You Do! is less an inside look at the Hollywood music industry than it is a magical journey through a fictional universe we all want to believe exists, where the realities of war, crummy producers, drugs, racism, and the like operate in the peripheral, and love and hope stares us right in the face.
BONUS: THAT PATTERSON CLAN!
We only see one set of parents throughout That Thing You Do!, Mr. and Mrs. Patterson, who initially disapprove of Guy’s newfound success — they would rather he operate their family-owned appliance store — but come to enjoy their son’s stardom just as before The Wonders collapse. As played by Holmes Osborne and Claudia Stedelin, the Patterson’s only have a few brief moments of screen time, but their stern attitude towards pop culture in general perfectly captures the antiquated thinking that led so many young adults to the rebellious The Beatles. Music at the time offered an escape from an old-fashioned, conservative way of life, and forever changed the pop culture landscape for better or worse.
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