That Thing You Do! (1996) is Tom Hanks’ tribute to the slew of rock ‘n’ roll bands that followed in the wake of the Beatles’ phenomenal worldwide success. Record companies in the 1960s were desperate to find the American equivalent in the hopes of making the same kind of profit. The result was a lot of one hit wonder wannabes. Hanks’ film (his directorial debut) is a fictionalized account about one of these bands.
After their regular drummer (Giovanni Ribisi) breaks his arm, a band approaches one of their friends to fill in. They rehearse for a talent show, playing the one original song, “That Thing You Do,” a slow ballad-type deal. However, at the show, the overly enthusiastic drummer speeds up the tempo and the crowd eats it up, breaking spontaneously into dance. They easily win the show and realize that they are onto something. Guy (Tom Everett Scott), the drummer, becomes a permanent member of the band and they call themselves the Oneders (bad idea) and start playing gigs in their home town of Erie, Pennsylvania. Jimmy (Jonathan Schaech) is the good-looking singer and primary songwriter. Lenny (Steve Zahn) is the wisecracking guitarist who is interested in picking up girls. The bass player (Ethan Embry) doesn’t say much and is content to go along with what everybody else wants to do.
Guy uses his family connections to allow the band to make a record, a single of “That Thing You Do” and it transforms them into a minor local sensation. The Oneders soon get their song played on the radio and their popularity only increases. They meet Mr. White (Tom Hanks), a slick executive from Play-Tone Records, who signs them to his label. He changes their name to the Wonders, changes their look to smart-looking suits and takes them on a whirlwind promotional tour across the country. Along for the ride is Jimmy’s fun-loving girlfriend Faye (Liv Tyler) and, to a lesser degree, Guy’s uptight girl, Tina (Charlize Theron).
Hanks does a nice job of recreating the time period, complete with vintage cars, outfits and hairstyles but doesn’t dwell on them too much or draw unnecessary attention to them. Best of all, is the music. The band’s hit song is indicative of the era’s pop music (think of it as the whitebread flipside to the Dreamgirls’ music), a catchy three-minute ditty that sticks in your head. Hanks also captures the youthful energy of these young guys – the rush of playing in front of an appreciative audience that loves their music and the excitement of hearing their song on the radio for the first time. He is also successful in conveying the dynamic between the band members and how it changes over time, especially after they enjoy national exposure and success. Predictably, it affects them in all kinds of different ways. Hanks shows how success can spoil a band. Egos get inflated and this often leads to conflicts within the group. There is also the pressure to follow up a hit with another and another so that the record label continues to make money.
For his directorial debut, Hanks wisely doesn’t try to bite off more than he can chew. He keeps his ambitions modest and isn’t too flashy with the camerawork. He understands that nothing should get in the way of the story or the characters. However, his script does show a lack of experience as little things, like a repeating gag of Guy proclaiming, “I am Spartacus,” wears thin very quickly.
That Thing You Do! is an affectionate, nostalgic look back at simpler, more innocent times, just before the country became mired in the Vietnam War and the social and political climate changed radically and with it the music. Hanks recaptures a time when hundreds of screaming teenage girls would mob the bands that they worshipped, a time before the Internet so that music was promoted via the radio which had the power to make or break a band.