Friday, November 09, 2007

That Thing You Do!

In the summer of 1996, I lived in Michigan City, Indiana. I had nothing to do in the afternoon after summer school got out, so I spent my time in the dollar movie theater. I would go to two, sometimes three movies a day until I had seen virtually every movie the theater was showing. I would buy however many tickets I needed and take advantage of their free refills on soda and popcorn and have a great old time for about 10 bucks. One of the best movies I saw that summer was "That Thing You Do!"

Written and directed by Tom Hanks, "That Thing You Do!" opens in 1964 Erie, Pennsylvania. Jazz drummer wannabe Guy Patterson, played by Tom Everett Scott, has just been discharged from the army and he's working for his father at Patterson's Appliances in the kind of downtown area that we just don't see anymore. Guy's friend Lenny (Steve Zahn) is in a band with no name and they find themselves in need of a drummer for a college talent contest when their timekeeper Chad breaks his arm playing leapfrog over parking meters. Guy quickly learns their song, and inadvertently names the band, the One-ders.

The band, led by James Mattingly III (Johnathon Schaech) wins the talent contest because Guy steps up the tempo of their song so that the college kids will dance to it, and they gain the attention of the owner of a spaghetti restaurant called Villapiano's, who hires the band to play at his restaurant for $100. After the session, a fan asks where he can get the record of their popular song, and that sparks the band to make one of their very own. When the record gets noticed, a small-time manager signs the band and gets their song on the radio. The rest is a whirwind of sudden fame, fast money, and inflated egos, as the band's record climbs the charts.

Without giving any more away, I think Tom Hanks did a remarkable job writing and directing this movie and appears in a minor supporting role as big-time record producer Mr. White. I'm amazed that he has't directed another. The movie has charm, wit, and some very young up-and-coming talented performers, like Giovanni Rabisi and Charlize Theron. Great attention is paid to the period, as the sets and wardrobe reflect the still-hopeful time of the mid-1960s, before Viet Nam was a household word and man had landed on the moon.

The hit song that the band records really could have been a hit song in that period. It hits all the right notes. It's a good thing, too, as it is played roughly ten times throughout the movie and strangely, it never gets tired for me. In fact, if you listen to it carefully there are subtle differences in each playing, as the band becomes more refined and experienced. If you really watch this movie (and I have seen it at least 50 times. That is not an exaggeration.) you can also see how the band upgrades their musical instruments as they grow into their roles as national sensations. The matching suits of different solid colors and the slightly longer hair reminds one very much of the Beatles at the time.

The performer who really steals the show, I think, is Liv Tyler. Liv plays Mattingly's girlfriend, Faye, and I think that the 60s look really suits her. She may have been born 20 years too late. She evokes the innocence of the age very well, and I think this was her best role to date, despite the fact that it was one of her earliest.

There are movies that I can't help but watch whenever they appear on television. Mel Gibson's "Payback" is one, as is "Tommy Boy" with Chris Farley. But "That Thing You Do" just continues to charm me every single time I see it. I'm still amused by the fact that The Bass Player literally goes through the entire movie with no name. Since he is one of the four band members, I have to think that Tom Hanks lost some kind of bet to have chosen to make a movie where one of the main characters has no name. The coolest thing is that he succeeded.


Martin said...

Jim, we always enjoy "That Thing You Do". The One-ders is one of those terms we use any time someone has a group with the "Wonders" in the title.

Michael O'Connell said...

Here’s a weird moment of harmonic convergence for you. Friday night Tim was over here as we were blocking out the last couple of pages of the second Nice Guy issue. In this issue there’s supporting character—and a pretty major one—who’s referred to in my script as “Glasses Girl”. I never gave her a name. On purpose. And I mentioned to Tim that that’s a fun thing to do, like with “T.B. Player” in That Thing You Do. You get all the way to the end without realizing you never heard a name.

I think it was less than an hour after this that I found this blog entry of yours. Creepy, hmmm?

This movie is one of my favorites of all time, and it’s difficult for me to put a finger on exactly why. Like yourself, I must have seen it fifty times, easy. I just can’t resist it when it pops on cable (which happened the day after I read this entry), even though I own the DVD. I never get tired of it. I not only enjoy it each time, but seem to find something new each time, too. I mean, it’s not a perfect film, by cinema standards…by that I mean it’s not some four-star Oscar contender, and it’s a got a few (surprisingly few) clunky first-time director moments. And yet, I’m hopelessly in love with it.

Maybe it has something to do with the era. Hanks decided to take us to a time almost moments before America’s loss of its innocence. The loss was beginning, but the change hadn’t quite kicked in. It was the time of the space program; of variety shows; of beach blanket movies and Bonanza and shiny new washing machines available in avocado. Hanks showed us his own memories of ’64, and he remembered the good times for us. Sort of a frozen moment of innocence before the tough times began. It was a fun place to get taken to.

Maybe it’s the subject matter. Everybody loves a good “rags to riches” story, and we love to be able to feel like it’s us suddenly getting yanked out of our normal lives and propelled to stardom. Come to think of it, I wonder if it was this movie that subconsciously planted the tale of “The Lounge Axe” in my head:

Sort of a similar tale, but set, instead, in the late 80s/early 90s, during the final days of hair bands and the dawn of grunge. Anyway, I loved all the behind-the scenes star stuff of TTYD, which all felt very real, and made me feel like I, too, was on tour with the other start of the Play-Tone galaxy.

Maybe it was the casting. It’s funny how that, even now, the only star they can really plug when advertising this film is Liv. Just before it started on HBO that last time I saw it, the announcer was talking about “Coming up next, Liv Tyler in That Thing You Do”. None of the bandmates have really hit it THAT big. But I love them all. Tom Everett Scott was great in this. After this, I think the only thing I saw him in was (UGH!) American Werewolf in Paris, and then an ABC lawyer drama (“Philly”) that quickly got cancelled. He needs more work. I’ve became a huge fan of Ethan Embry….the aforementioned T.B. Player. My favorite work of his (outside of this) was in Can’t Hardly Wait, where it was great to see him get a leading role, and in great smaller roles like Empire Records (with Liv, again). And I’ll always love TTYD because it was the place where I first discovered Steve Zahn, one of the funniest actors working today. He’s done some really amazing stuff (most memorably in Out of Sight)…okay, and made some bad film choices along with them…but he’ll still always be Lenny to me (“Hey…that’s Ah-Nedders…”). I’m a monster Giovanni Ribisi fan, and this was really his first film after a very prolific television career. I loved the character of Chad, and how, after Guy became his replacement in the band, he ended up becoming Guy’s replacement in the Patterson family. I was ecstatic to see Hanks casting Peter Scolari in the film, since I was such a huge fan of both of them when I was obsessed with Bosom Buddies, even if it was only a fairly small roll in this one. Charlize Theron (who I’d already been stunned by (and not for acting reasons) in Two Days in the Valley that year) was perfect and quietly hilarious as the superficial and bland girlfriend. And up until this film, I hadn’t really cared for Liv Tyler at all. She was just that daughter of Steve Tyler who showed up in the Aerosmith videos (which always struck me as kind of creepy. Hey, I know what! Let’s put my daughter on a stripper pole!), but in this film, I totally fell in love with her, and she was really the soul of the film in many ways. By the way, while Hanks has been waiting for his next big screen directorial offering, he has still been directing, along with his producing, in things like From the Earth to the Moon and Band of Brothers. Particularly in Earth to the Moon, I love how he brought his people—including people from TTYD—along with him, such as Zahn, Scolari, Kevin Pollack (“A KING-SIZED show!”), Chris Ellis (“I don’t want to waste any more of your time”), Holmes Osborn (“Go ahead, go bang on your bongo drums”), Clint Howard (“Del Paxton in the high school band”), and, of course, the lovely Mrs. Hanks herself, Rita Wilson (“Look at you. You’re no good to me now”). Though thinking back, one of the most memorable rolls in TTYD had to be the one played by Sean Whalen as the band’s “biggest fan” (“They made a record? Neat-o!”).

I keep meaning to put together a list, for the film section of my web site, of my favorite movie scenes of all time. This film has two of them. First, what I call the “genesis scene”, or the moment of creation at the talent show. And second, the “radio scene”, when their song first hits the airwaves. Classic, irresistible Americana, man. Love that scene, and love this film. And still love the song! The only thing that angers me about the film is knowing that somewhere out there, there’s more of it! I was a big reader of Entertainment Weekly back in the 90s, and I remember, before this film came out, a little article about Tom Hanks being in the middle of a marathon editing session trying to get what was about a 3.5 hour film down to 90 minutes. Yes, I’m quite sure that would have been too long of a film (even for me), but just knowing that there were so many additional scenes with all these characters I love so much…and I don’t get to see them! The film didn’t do terribly in the box office, but it also didn’t do well enough to merit a director’s cut, which is what I really want. I have this secret fantasy where, after I make it big in Hollywood, I’ll get to meet Tom Hanks and tell him of my desire to see the big cut of the film, and he’ll invite me to the screening room is his mansion to watch it (while Rita serves us cocktails and lights my cigar). I’ll keep holding out for that. But until then, I’ll continue to stop flipping channels the minute I spot this title on the guide, and visit with the Wonders (as in, “I wonder what happened to the Oh-NEE-ders”) again and take that brief but spectacular ride to the top with them. Kudos on your being smart enough to obsess over this movie like I do, my friend. It’s almost embarrassing how much wiser (and better looking) we are than other people, isn’t it?