Film Discussion

That Thing You Do! (1996) – Music in the Movies

Music and movies have frequently gone together. While cinema loves a good musical, often musicians have tried to make the move to the silver screen, and cinematic stories themselves have tried to capture the life of a musician through works of fiction or Oscar-calibre biopics. For Music in the Movies, Set the Tape will explore musical biopics, the mixed successes of attempts to make musicians movie stars, and tales that revel in the wonder of music and lyrics. 

A word of warning to anyone watching That Thing You Do! for the first time: be prepared to have its main theme song stuck in your head for days on end after watching it. Resistance is futile because there it will be, being played in a psychological version of the repeat button on Spotify. Let’s face it, how could it not replay constantly in one’s mind? It’s a great song; catchy, bouncy and full of exuberance, it is perhaps the best song from the 60s that didn’t actually come from the decade itself.

The concept of a one-hit-wonder is a fascinating idea to centre a film around. The history of music is filled with songs from musicians and bands that hit big, and yet the creators behind them seemingly could never recapture that magic again, leaving the one song to reverberate throughout history to be played forever more on radio stations, receive endless play on music channels, and maybe be used in some form as part of a movie soundtrack years down the line.

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One could have been forgiven for thinking there was more to The Knack than ‘My Sharona’, and yet that footnote in the history of pop music (according to Homer Simpson) is pretty much the only reason anyone knows who The Knack are. It helps that, problematic lyrics aside, it’s a banger of a tune.

It’s an important factor that makes That Thing You Do! sing (no pun intended). Its title song is a literal earworm that never gets annoying, although it might threaten to. It’s a song so filled with bounce and fun that you might be forgiven for thinking that the song and the film are based on things that actually happened.

They aren’t, and yet the script plays in a pool of storytelling tropes that one might expect to find in films that are relaying the stories of real-life bands: the accidental discovery of how to make the song work; the fateful accident that leads the band to its drummer who in the end is the vital ingredient to making the foursome creatively click; the inability to make the magic work a second time around; and their eventual disintegration just when it seems they might be taking off. Of course, none of it is real. The Wonders are a fictional creation, brought to life by director Hanks, and whose catchy career-defining song is the creation of the late great Adam Schlesinger.

© 1996 Twentieth Century Fox

The film itself is perhaps the most appropriate directorial debut for Hanks. If a film summed up the personality of its director perfectly, then it must be the one on which modern-day legend Hanks called the shots behind the camera for the first time. An actor who can do no wrong it seems, he is the quintessential modern American leading man who can appeal to everyone, whose films capture a slice of Americana, but is also unafraid to appear in films with a decidedly liberal edge in a way that seems to escape offence to anyone on the other side of the political aisle.

By this point in his career, the actor had gone from comedic leading man in the likes of The Burbs and The Money Pit to heavier critically acclaimed fare such as Philadelphia, Forrest Gump (both of which won him back-to-back Academy Awards, one of only two actors to do so) and Apollo 13. That’s not to forget becoming a romantic lead in Nora Ephron’s modern classic Sleepless in Seattle opposite Meg Ryan, reuniting with director and co-star five years later with You’ve Got Mail.

A lot of these were films that played into explorations of modern and historical America. Philadelphia got to grips with gay rights, AIDS and the ugliness of homophobia, while Forrest Gump and Apollo 13 explored various parts of the country’s recent past, such as the space race, Vietnam, and life in America under the auspices of various Presidents of differing political points of view, all played out to some of the most famous moments you’d read about in textbooks and saw in historical documentaries; not to mention superlative soundtracks, of which you could imagine The Wonders being a part of.

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We now think of him as a certain type of modern Hollywood star, effortlessly funny and dramatic, but with a warm centre that makes him feel like your favourite uncle that you never see enough of and who is always eager to impart wisdom and life-affirming lessons, all of which is flirted through a less patriotic and more universal sense of Americana.

That sense of wanting to explore Americana gets a subtle workout here and would do so again in a more expansive form with his epic television projects such as From The Earth to the Moon, Band of Brothers and The Pacific. That Thing You Do! might be on a smaller scale compared to the stories he would help tell on the smaller screen, projects that would help propel the notion that television was every bit as viable a medium as cinema is, yet it still retains a definitive Hanks charm.

If anything, it feels like a film he might have starred in himself in the late 80s or early 90s before more prestigious projects came calling. In Tom Everett Scott, the film even has a Hanks-style leading man, who in one scene manages to have time to flirt with a character played by Hanks’ real-life wife Rita Wilson. He has a laid-back charm, light comedic timing, but with a grounded serious flavour that almost feels like Hanks has gone back in time to pick up his younger 80s self to play the role.

© 1996 Twentieth Century Fox

The casting all around is spot-on, made up of then-upcoming talent, some of whom would go on to even bigger things (hello, Charlize Theron). The secret to making the film work is getting The Wonders right, and Scott, Jonathan Schaech, Steve Zahn and Ethan Embry have the right amount of chemistry and fun to make the film literally sing with heart, humour and eventual heartbreak. In the earlier moments the film may lay on the one-hit-wonder joke a little too thickly to suggest where it may go in its latter stages, but the pace and style and good-natured humour of the whole thing are so great that you cannot help but just go with it.

The moment they hear their song on the radio, thus prompting a never-ending run to switch on every radio they can, including in the electrical store where Scott’s character works, is the greatest ‘we made it’ moment in a film about making it as a musician put to screen. The film’s cast is so lovable and worth cheering for that you can’t help but smile and laugh along with them. Of course, it’s all set to the film’s main theme for what must be the fourth or fifth time it’s been played in the space of thirty minutes.

Admittedly, there is no real grit to the film. Despite breaking up and going their separate ways by its conclusion, this takes a bubblegum approach to the music scene. Hanks appears as their eventual manager, and one might think trouble might begin here, but instead he plays the role in a self-consciously cool manner that is, as always, quintessential Hanks, right down to a running joke where he keeps remarking on how good they look in certain colours.

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There is none of the psychological intensity of what Loretta Lynn had to go through in the latter stages of Coal Miner’s Daughter, the break down of one of the film’s central romance has none of the ferocious vitriol of New York, New York, and there is none of the grim domestic violence of Purple Rain or What’s Love Got to do With It.

Despite the realistic ending, the film is mostly a grounded fantasy of what it must be like to hit the road touring as a musician, facing an onslaught of adoring fans in the manner that The Beatles famously had to contend with, not to mention climbing your way up the Billboard charts. Perhaps The Beatles comparison is apt, because in a way the tone of this is somewhat similar to, if less experimental than A Hard Day’s Night.

Its frothy and upbeat nature remains a charm after all these years, still managing to be fun, funny, and with a touch of realism to offset any sense of whimsy that might go too far in that direction. After all these years, it remains a genuinely lovely and entertaining film, and a none more Tom Hanks one at that.

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