REVIEW: That Thing You Do!
Produced by: Jonathan Demme, Gary Goetzman, Edward Saxon
Written by: Tom Hanks
Edited by: Richard Chew
Cinematography by: Tak Fujimoto
Music by: Howard Shore
Songs by: Tom Hanks, Adam Schlesinger, Rick Elias, Scott Rogness, Mike Piccirillo, Gary Goetzman, Howard Shore
Starring: Tom Everett Scott, Liv Tyler, Johnathon Schaech, Steve Zahn, Ethan Embry, Tom Hanks, Obba Babatundé, Holmes Osborne, Charlize Theron, Bill Cobbs, Giovanni Ribisi
If there were any two comedies that resonated with me as a kid as being truly “great” versus merely “entertaining,” those movies were Groundhog Day and That Thing You Do! These were movies I would watch when I was bored or when I was doing chores or when I was in a bad mood or when I was in a good mood – or when I was just really in the mood for some truly great movies, period. These were also two of the few movies that everyone in my family could agree upon to watch together and be contented with while growing up, which, if you know my childhood, was something very significant.
Recently, I personally have been going through a rut, which is partly why I have been slow to write a new review since my last one. When I get in those moods, it’s hard to become motivated to do anything. I’ve been intending to review a few movies lately. I saw Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter just this past Thursday at the last theatrical showing in my area, and it was fantastic. I also got a rare invite to hangout this weekend and watch Interstellar, too, which was originally going to be a viewing of The Tree of Life, which are both movies I’ve been intending to review for a while, too, though they’re quite a bit more complex, so… you see where my lack of motivation kicked in there. I decided this past Sunday to instead look to my DVD collection and figure out what to watch from there. Singin’ in the Rain stood out as another film I should do sometime, as it’s also one of my all-time favorites, but it was already 10PM, and that movie is kind of long. “You should still review something musical,” I told myself, beginning to scan through my shelves again. And that’s when I spotted it: my very old copy of That Thing You Do! And suddenly, I grinned. “Perfect,” I told myself, as I popped the disc in to watch it for the first time in who knows how long.
The film is the directorial debut of Tom Hanks, who also costars in the film as the manager of a fictional band in 1964, a year in which Beatlemania reached a peak in America when they performed on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9. This band, initially calling themselves The Oneders before changing it to The Wonders due to some pronunciation confusion, sounds pretty similar to The Beatles, too, but it’s early enough in their contemporary’s career for them to eke out a single Billboard climbing hit, “That Thing You Do.” Though they have plenty of other great songs, it’s this one-hit that everyone wants to hear over and over again, and it’s ultimately also the song that would wind up being the catalyst for The Wonders’ disintegration as a band, becoming yet another footnote in music history as “one-hit wonders,” as so many other musicians do, too.
Yeah, I know that might not sound like the most uplifting movie ever, and it’s certainly a far cry from wish fulfillment movies that so desperately want us to believe the false notion that if you just believe in yourself, you’ll accomplish every dream you’ve ever had. The great thing about this film, though, is in how the film presents it as not just the story about a fictional one-hit wonder band, but also a group of people who had an extraordinary, if short, experience that, for many, would never have even been a once in a lifetime opportunity, and, in the light of that grand spotlight, their true destinies and values came into focus, be it fame and fortune, artistic integrity, personal relationships, or some combination of these.
… What? … No, I really don’t think I’m over analyzing this. That being said, however, I’ve always stood by the principle that a good message does not necessarily make for good art – for that, you need great presentation, as well. That Thing You Do! has that down, too. The movie is just an absolute delight with its character dynamics, all the thoughtful story and world building, and some truly fantastic era-appropriate music created just for this film.
At the center of it all, for example, is Guy Patterson, a jazz enthusiast who works in his father’s appliance store who plays drums in his spare time and becomes the substitute drummer for the band when the regular one breaks his arm right before the college talent show that propels the band on their fateful journey. Played by Tom Everett Scott, Guy’s sensitive and amiable goofball personality (kinda like Ringo, who was also brought in as a replacement before his band made it big) makes him a perfect focal point, and the little crush thing he has going with Fay, the girlfriend of Jimmy, the self-centered lead singer and “talent” of the group, is made all the sweeter and engaging thanks in large part to Scott’s own likability as an actor and his chemistry with Liv Tyler, who is also, quite frankly, a fount of adorability here. Even when the inevitable relationship change-up happens, you can’t help but be happy for the couple.
Johnathon Schaech, Steve Zahn, and Ethan Embry round out the band as the lead singer/guitarist, lead guitarist, and bass player, respectively, and they’re all great in their roles, too. Schaech gets the thankless job of playing the self-serious asshole, while Zahn plays the clown of the group who provides the film with plenty of its humor, and Embry plays that one band member in the group whose name you can never remember because the other personalities are just that much more marketable. Playing the band manager and producer Mr. White is Tom Hanks himself, a wise businessman who nonetheless seems to actually care about the artists he ushers into the spotlight.
As important as the lead characters are, just as important are all the seemingly peripheral elements, particularly the setting of the film, which replicates that mid-1960s look throughout, and populates it with a galaxy of fictional musical stars for these characters to interact with – jazz musicians, a girl group that sounds like it’s been produced by Phil Spector, a Tom Jones-like crooner who begrudgingly sings a novelty song that happens to be the theme song to some in-universe spy TV series or movie, and a self-absorbed diva all feel like they have a personal history and fandom, and they come complete with actual, fully composed songs that sound like songs that would have played on the radio back in the day. And then you’ve got the songs from The Wonders themselves, which are great pop rock songs that are easy to listen to even apart from the film, even beyond the title track. These are genuinely great songs in their own right that stand apart from the film as songs you’d like to listen to on their own rather than just throwaway songs that the filmmakers were content with just having snippets of to play within the film. It even includes a couple tracks from Jimmy’s post-Wonders band, The Heardsmen, just for good measure, but my personal favorite non-Wonders song is the girl group track, “Hold My Hand, Hold My Heart” by The Chantrellines. In the context of the film itself, though, it just makes this feel all the more like a real, lived-in world, which just enhances the whole experience.
I really don’t have any real criticisms of this film to mention here. Anything I could point out would just seem petty and are easily overlooked in favor of all the other things the film does right. About the only negative thing I can really say at this point is that I’m just mad that my very, very old DVD disc is apparently so old that the disc has seemingly warped to the point where the last chapter didn’t play last night, so my revisit of the film was incomplete. No matter, though, as I have seen this movie so many times in the past, I remember pretty much every bit of the parts I wasn’t able to watch this time around. It’s also a great excuse to finally upgrade to a Blu-Ray, even if the video quality is reportedly not great. (The film, despite great reviews at the time, is not exactly remembered by many, and so I doubt Fox would be kind enough to remaster it.) Seriously, though, this is one of the most joyously entertaining modern musicals that you could ever watch, and given the amount of attention that went into all the details of the film, it’s a tremendously impressive debut for Tom Hanks as a director, too. (Let’s hope he can put Larry Crowne behind him and do something similar again in the future.) That Thing You Do! is one of those great films that’s also pretty much guaranteed to put you in a good mood by the film’s end, no matter what mood you were in before.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4.5 / 5