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Looking Back At "That Thing You Do!"

Updated on June 30, 2011

Beatlemania got a second wave in the mid-1990s when the documentary series and three-album Anthology was released celebrating the legacy of the Beatles. Generations of music fans remembered the genius and magic of the Fab Four 25 years after their disbandment. Coincidentally, Tom Hanks' directorial debut was a tribute not to the band, but the spirit of the music and culture at the height of Beatlemania. Hanks’ latest directorial feature “Larry Crown” opens in theaters July 1st and it’s worth to take a look back at his first film in front and behind the camera.
Released in 1996, "That Thing You Do!" told the age-old rags to riches back to rags story of the one-hit-wonder phenomenon in the record industry. The Wonders (formally the often mispronounced "Oneders") from Erie, Pennsylvania had a hit song that skyrocketed to the top of the charts and propelled a group of young naive musicians into the spotlight. Yet, fame isn't as it's cracked up to be. Inner-band conflicts and the constant demands by record bosses ultimately ended the band mere months into their success.
The film featured little-known actors while Tom Hanks took a supporting role as Mr. White, their manager who signed them with the fictional PlayTone Records (the same name for Hanks' film production company). The film featured the breakout roles for Tom Everett Scott, as the charming percussionist Guy Patterson and Steve Zahn as Lenny, the goofy guitarist. Johnathon Schaech plays Jimmy, the leader of the group who is more focused on the music and not caught up with their sudden success. Ethan Embry is the un-named bass player who runs off to join the Marines during their tour. Liv Tyler, at the time known as the daughter of Steven Tyler, is the muse of Jimmy's songwriting and hired as the band's costume mistress so that she could remain on tour.

After an impromptu up-tempo performance of the title song (that was written as a ballad) at a college talent show, the band soon gained a local following. They caught the attention of PlayTone Records and immediately signed. In a matter of months, there were performing on prime time television to a national audience. And like that, the band implodes. Such is the fate of many groups throughout the history of rock n' roll.
While the story is nothing new, the point of the film was to capture that time period. Like "American Graffiti," it was that pre-Vietnam era where rock and pop music didn't concern itself with social and political issues. The Wonders were from small town Pennsylvania who made it to Hollywood (and were featured in a fictional beach party film as Captain Geech and the Shrimp Shack Shooters). Fame hit them fast and thus fell victim to the perils of show business, where there are no guarantees for success. What The Wonders endured are tame compared to your typical Behind the Music episode on VH-1, but the point of their portrayal was a light-hearted tale that represented the innocence of a young group of musicians.

What made this an enjoyable film in the first place was the terrific ensemble cast that made audiences fans of both the music and the behind the scenes interactions of down to earth characters. Their brief hint of success captured the "aw-shucks" mentality of young boys playing alongside their idols. Fame didn't have a chance to corrupt them. If anything, they got out early enough to explore their respective careers mentioned in the epilogue of the film. The Wonders' hit song, written by Adam Schlesinger of 90s alternative rock band Fountains of Wayne, represented that good-natured feeling that was nostalgic for Baby Boomers in the mid-90s. And it's a damn good catchy song. In true spirit of the early pop songwriting of the Beatles, The Wonders were being groomed as the American successors. The movie both references the Beatles' popularity at the time while it references the legacy of the Beatles: the instrumental montage scene of the Wonders' antics on tour while their single climbs the charts clearly reminiscences "A Hard Day's Night."

"That Thing You Do!" remains an enjoyable watch that leaves you in a satisfied mood. As the brainchild of Tom Hanks, whose acting and producing career pays tribute to the 1960s ("Forrest Gump," "From the Earth to the Moon," "Catch Me If You Can"), he sends a love letter to this simpler time period in American history. While moments of his filmography represents the horrors of reality (World War II, AIDS, child in an adult body), "That Thing You Do" is still a breath of fresh air.


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