Recently I’ve seen a lot of films about music, musicians, and the like. There’s Llewyn Davis, who seems to have talent and yet gets little recognition for what he does. There’s the street musician in Once, who also has a lot of talent and we like to think that he makes the big time, although the film leaves his fate open-ended. One is steeped in melancholy and the other has a raw beauty. Tom Hanks directorial and screenwriting debut That Thing You Do! seems to have very little in common with those films except in that features music. But that deserves some explanation.
Hanks’ film is a nostalgic trip for anyone wanting to get sent back to the 1960s via the 1990s. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable little romp that revolves around a group of typical teens in Pennsylvania, who go from a small time talent show to one-hit wonders touring the state. But that’s exactly it. They’re one hit wonders, who lack the talent of older more experienced musicians. In reality, they’re just a group of kids, still wet behind the ears, and just excited for the ride they are about to embark on. Even over the course of the film, their one smash hit, the eponymous “That Thing You Do!” can feel repetitive, and it is easy to realize that this is not the type of music that real connoisseurs want. It’s for the masses. The shrieking girls and the guys who want to dance with the shrieking girls. It’s certainly superficial, and yet there’s something quaint and at the same time infectious about it.
We can readily get behind this little band christened The Oneders and modified to The Wonders for easier pronunciation, because they’re a lovable bunch. Their members include appliance seller-turned flashy drummer Guy (Tom Everett Scott), lead singer and serious-minded Jimmy (Jonathon Scaech), the jokester Lenny (Steve Zahn), the “other guy,” and, of course, the ever-present Faye (Liv Tyler).
In many ways they shadow The Beatles. They ditched one drummer for a better one. They both lost their first bass player. Their first hit took a ballad and sped it up to great effect. The little similarities are undoubtedly put there by Hanks, but with all the similarities it only serves to point how different these boys are. They’re not going to end up music royalty like the lads from Liverpool. And that’s okay.
We can get satisfaction out of their first airplay on the radio or the genesis of a romance that we were always expecting. In a way this film is like a lesser American Graffiti even going so far as giving its characters an epilogue. It takes us back to that time and place, makes us feel good, and gets a few of us nostalgic for the olden days. Although, the old televisions and dishwashers don’t exactly look like fun now.
But lets get back to that romance. The film Starter for 10 had a similar enigma when it came to the blond or the brunette. I suppose you could call it a trope, but on one side you have the primped and provocative Charlize Theron and on the opposite side of the spectrum is Liv Tyler, who acts as the honorary fifth member of the Wonders. She is constantly faithful and encouraging in the boys rise to the top, and they are better because of her. That’s the kind of girl you’re supposed to get and the right guy gets her.
Note: I watched the version of the film with 39 minutes of added footage and what it really did was develop these characters a little further so you grow to appreciate them even more. Otherwise I’m sure the original cut gives you the same narrative so either version is probably fine.