That Thing You Do

Rated – G
From left: Embry, Zahn, Hanks, Schaech, Tyler, and Scott.

What a delightful surprise! Tom Hanks, in his first major role as film writer and director as well as player, has taken a question we've all asked–"Why are there so many musical 'one-hit wonders,'"–and answers it with a charming upbeat story that could be a send up of all those "Elvis gets discovered and becomes a big star" plots, but turns out to be less, and much more, than that.

Tom Everett Scott plays Guy, a 1964 army vet returned from a tour in Germany to work in and probably eventually inherit his father's appliance store in downtown Erie, Pa. (Scott looks so much like Hanks, incidentally, that for the first half hour I was expecting a flash forward to Guy's character at middle age, played by Hanks.) Other members of the band are played by Johnathon Schaech (Jimmy, the songwriter-lead singer); Steve Zahn (Lenny, the lead guitarist), and Ethan Embry (the bass player, who joins the Marines). Liv Tyler plays the remaining lead character, Jimmy's girlfriend, Lee.

When the drummer of an aspiring local rock band set to play in a fraternity talent show falls off a parking meter and breaks his arm (no kidding–hanging on parking meters was a major pasttime among Pennsylvania youth of the era), Guy is asked to fill in. He does, the band wins the $100 prize with Guy's pepped-up beat, then wins a gig at a pizzaria "out by the airport," and gets a single cut by an uncle of one of the members' whose business is recording church groups and sermons. They get airplay on local radio stations and an invitation to join a touring rock concert at a Pittsburgh theater, and get signed to a major record label all within a couple of weeks.

Far from being the older Guy, Hanks' character is the Col. Tom Parker (Elvis cliches are inevitable in such a story) who signs them up and gets them a summer-long tour of state fairs. As they tour, their single, a pop tune that could be a musical cross between "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "Ferry Cross the Mersy," and any 1964 hit by the Four Seasons, entitled "That Thing You Do," climbs the charts. When it reaches the top 10 they interrupt their tour to make guest appearances in a beach movie and on the Hollywood Parade of Stars TV show.

But in going to Hollywood they risk "going Hollywood," and the up-to-now unspoiled Pennsylvanians encounter their first temptations once the stakes get high. I won't divulge more of the plot, except to say that it finally sank into my skull about this time why Tom Hanks had named this group the "Wonders." It was very timely, considering that Dion and the Belmonts' "The Wanderer" was still well remembered by everyone and it wasn't unusual for a group to take their name from a previous hit song. One of the funniest running jokes in the first half of the movie is the group's desire to use the clever spelling "Oneders," but they keep getting mispronounced, even by professionals, as the O-nee-ders, so finally give in to the less ambiguous spelling.

And another clue to what this movie is really about is that Hanks purposely picked 1964, the year between the JFK assassination and the buildup in Vietnam to all-out war, also the year of the "British invasion" of rocknroll, the "last year of innocence" in American life. The movie captures this beautifully, as symbolized nowhere better, in my opinion, than an exchange between Lee and Guy: Lee asks Guy if his ex-girlfriend was a good kisser. "Yes," he replies. Then after a pause: "It would be ungentlemanly to elaborate." And he means it!

This kind of niceness gives That Thing You Do its winning charm. There are several moments when you think, "it's gonna get down and dirty now," but it never does. Though ultimately a redemptive history wearing the guise of tender romance, there's not a single bedroom scene. But there are lots of hearty laughs, abetted by equal amounts of nostalgia for a kinder, gentler time. An excellent movie for the whole family.

Twentieth-Century Fox has mounted an exceptional web page for Internet fans, with lots of color, movement, interactive play, and even clips of the movie songs, at http://www.thatthingyoudo.com/.

© Jon Kennedy 1996
All photos © by films' respective releasing companies.