Over the years I’ve had this really strange relationship with Tom Hanks. No dudes, I’m straight, okay? And get your minds out of the friggin’ gutter. This is an audience/performer kind of thing that’s strange because, while I’m not necessarily a Tom Hanks fan, his films are at the top of my favorites lists in a number of genres.
It probably took a while for me to recognize Hanks as a major talent because I just never really liked most of his early work … Bosom Buddies (1980), Splash (1984), Big (1988), weren’t projects I could get into. It wasn’t until Sleepless in Seattle (1993) that I really started warming to his films. Tom’s work with Nora Ephron and Meg Ryan will be the topic of another article, but I just wanted to reference the work where I really started feeling a connection with his acting talents.
My favorite of Tom Hanks’ contributions to the Cinema came in the form of a sweet little packaged confection that he wrote and directed in 1996, called That Thing You Do!
That Thing You Do! is the story of a little rock band from Erie, PA, called The Wonders. As in One-hit Wonders. They are a garage band that rises from obscurity after a burst of adrenaline from their new drummer, Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott in his break-out role), turns a sleepy little ballad into a run-away pop hit.
Set in 1964, the film captures a lot of the innocence still lingering in the United States just after the Kennedy Assassination, and before the escalation in Vietnam started dividing the country. It’s a pastel-colored world filled with hope, and possibilities, and, yeah, wonder.
The story told is Guy Patterson’s story, and we see the band, and their rise to the top of the Billboard charts through his eyes. There’s the added element of a love story between Patterson and the lead singer’s girlfriend, Fay, played to delicate perfection by Liv Tyler, that comes to a head as the band reaches the height of their success, and implodes at the same moment. Through the entire adventure they are guided by their all-knowing promoter/manager/matchmaker, Playtone music executive, Mr. White, played by Hanks.
Hanks’ conceived the film, and did an amazing job of realizing it. There’s meticulous attention paid to both period detail, and, as one would expect from a director who is an actor of Hanks’ caliber, great nuanced performances from the entire cast.
Also noteworthy is Steve Zahn‘s performance as Lenny, the lead guitarist. A basic party boy who learned how to play the guitar so he could pick up girls … and it worked. He gets most of the best comedy bits in the film, but rightfully so.
The self-titled pop song that drives the movie, “That Thing You Do!”, is also kind of remarkable. There is a book of songs performed in the film by The Wonders, as well as other artists in the “Playtone Galaxy of Stars” that are all faithfully created period pieces in a variety of styles. “That Thing You Do!” is played at least 4 times during the movie but, for some reason, as an audience member you never get tired of hearing it. It is a totally infections ’60s pop tune that lifts the film up and moves along with it throughout.
That Thing You Do! didn’t do big business at the box office during its initial release, with a domestic gross of only $25mm. In fact, I didn’t pick up on it until seeing on HBO after the threatrical run … A discovery a lot of people apparently made, as the film was a hit on pay cable for a couple of years. I’ve watched the entire film no less than a dozen times, and it never gets tired.
In 2006, Fox Home Video released, That Thing You Do! – The Director’s Cut (Two-Disc Special Edition), which I recently picked up. It includes an extended director’s cut of the movie which, while interesting as it fills in some back story, especially some revelations about Mr. White, it really doesn’t improve on the original story (face it, most, good, Hollywood narratives are lean … They tend to loose any cruft that isn’t essential to advancing the story. Rarely does a film benefit by adding the removed footage back in.) The bonus disk has got over an hour of features and documentaries, including a reunion with most of the cast, talking about the making of the film.