That Thing You Do (1996)

Directed by Tom Hanks


That Thing You Do feels like a parody of every music biopic I’ve ever seen.  It’s predictable and playful and sets up all the ways the characters’ success can be undone, but then it mostly ignores those set ups and loses all momentum, choosing to end on a romance that never seemed to matter.

In a small town in Pennsylvania in 1964, we follow a kid named Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott) as he works at his father’s appliance store and dreams about playing the drums at night.  He has a few friends who are in a band (populated with familiar faces like Giovani Ribisi and Steve Zahn), and when the drummer breaks his arm, they need Guy to step in.

That night, while performing their only real song, Guy mistakenly (or intentionally) plays too fast, and the song is transformed from a somber ballad into an uptempo smash hit.  They play this song at a small talent show that looks sparsely populated, and yet their song is such a hit that people (who must have been hiding in the bathrooms) come flying out to the dance floor.  Immediately after they finish the song, a man comes out and offers them a paid gig.  When that goes well, they cut a record with Guy’s uncle.  Then they start selling those records like crazy, and suddenly a man shows up, eager to manage them.  He promises to get them on the radio in something like a week, and if he doesn’t, then he’ll quit.  Well… he does get them on the radio, and they perform at a show in Pittsburg where Tom Hanks shows up as their new manager, taking the baton from their previous manager who willfully gives it up (he introduced Guy and the band to the new manager, so it was his idea).

Suddenly they’re touring state fairs in the midwest until their new manager tells them their hit single has soared through the charts and now they’re going to Los Angeles to be on national television.

Now, at this point everything has gone remarkably well.  The band’s name is The Wonders, and they’re mobbed like the Beatles.  They dress in matching suits and Guy is given his own shades to help brand the band and give them their own unique image that somehow makes them feel even less unique.

There are a few plot threads that you might think will lead to their downfall.  First, the original drummer might be displeased that he’s kicked out of the band, particularly after they take off, but nope, Giovanni Ribisi cheers them on from their hometown (alongside Guy’s parents for some reason).  He never becomes an issue, and the possible conflict of his exodus from the group is completely unaddressed.

Second, lead singer Jimmy has shown signs of not liking the way the band is headed.  He doesn’t want to keep touring or making appearances on tv shows, radio stations and in movies.  He just wants to go back to the studio to record new music, hoping in particular to play some of his more somber, personally-meaningful tracks.  What’s ridiculous about this, when it finally boils over, is that it’s not that big of a deal.  Sure, I get that he wants to make less pop-friendly music, like their hit single (which he prefers to be played at a slower pace), but at one point the characters remark how it has only been two months since the band took off.  That’s hardly anytime at all.  His distress and disgust with the band’s direction would probably not be this strong until they had been doing this for years.

Third, I expected the band to find a new manager (Hanks) who could help them more than their first manager.  It felt like they might either sign away too many rights in their first contrast, but nope, instead everything works out perfectly.  Then it felt like maybe they’d be wooed by another manager, and there would be a falling out with their original manager (think Straight Outta Compton).  But there is no conflict here because it’s their original manager who introduces them to their new manager.  It would be like if you had a guy in a relationship with a girl he didn’t like anymore.  Then he found the perfect girl, but he doesn’t want to hurt his first girlfriend except then his first girlfriend takes him to the second girl and says, “go be with her.”  All conflict is erased.

Of course, ultimately the band does have a falling out but not because it felt like it was heading that way.  The band only dissolves because that’s what’s supposed to happen in these types of movies.  The band’s ultimate undoing (after a performance with their largest every audience), is that Jimmy’s girlfriend, Faye (Liv Tyler) breaks up with Jimmy because she feels unappreciated.  This is also after Jimmy gets made because the tv crew put the text “sorry ladies, he’s engaged” over Jimmy’s face (like The Beatles with John Lennon on The Ed Sullivan Show).  This is a dumb thing to get mad about, but Jimmy yells at Faye, saying something along the lines of, ‘we’re not engaged!’  It’s forced and unnatural drama.

Then Jimmy quits the band when they go record a new track because Tom Hanks tells them to stick to the uptempo pop songs.  Again, why don’t they simply talk about what they both want?  Tom Hanks, a great band manager up until this point, becomes kind of an asshole.  When Jimmy quits, the band is effectively dead.  Not just because Jimmy is the lead singer but because the other two band members have already left the band and not for any reason resembling reality.  One guy, already planning on joining the marines, found a couple other marines and went to Disneyland with them… the other band member fell in love with a girl and went to Vegas to get married.

So when Jimmy quits, it’s just Guy sitting behind the piano (he also plays piano apparently).  Tom Hanks’ character turns to Guy and implies that this is all his fault, as if Guy was the band leader all along.  Again, Jesus Christ, what happened to Tom Hanks?  He willed the band to collapse (for petty reasons), and now he blames it on Guy.  It feels like this was the manager’s ultimate plan, as if he secretly loathes his line of work and the teen sensation bands he had to work for, which, that would be quite interesting, but it’s never set up early on because Tom Hanks’ character wasn’t rooting for the band to fail.  And The Wonders made him a lot of money, so why would he want them to fail.  There is absolutely no harm done in letting Jimmy play his shitty sad song in addition to another pop song.  It’s so ridiculous.

Then the movie ends by having Guy play some songs with his idol, a Jazz musician named Del Paxton.  It’s a complete coincidence that they were in the studio at the same time, and later Guy tells Faye that Del thinks he can make it as a drummer in Los Angeles, so good for him, right?  Then the “magical black man” character, which has been in a lot of movies and exists only to give wisdom to the white protagonist, points out to Guy that he should tell Faye how he feels.  They kiss and get together in the end…… godammit, okay, yes there were indications of affections between Guy and Faye, but it was never anything beyond Guy showing Faye the least amount of concern and decency he could.  Like, this one time, you know, he asked her if she was feeling okay, and then when she was sick on the plane, he gave her a blanket.  That’s not a sign of love, it’s just a nice thing to do.

So the film ends with this union as if it was the central question the entire film, but I didn’t care about it at all.  It meant nothing to the overall story.

I’ve got a bunch of problems with this movie for reasons I’ve already mentioned.  I don’t care that the band dissolved, because we expected that from the moment they got any success.  And all the possible reasons for their dissolution were set up (group infighting about the band’s direction, trading in one manager for a second, possibly getting screwed over by the label, the original drummer demanding what’s owed to him, etc.).  Instead, the band breaks apart simply because Faye leaves Jimmy, and Jimmy isn’t allowed to record his own song.  THIS ISN’T REAL CONFLICT.  It all happens because the characters become dumber and dumber and more reluctant to talk to each other.  Tom Hanks’ band manager has no reason to be an asshole, but he is because that’s when the script needs the band to fall apart.

So the arc of the story is fine, and hell it’s kind of fun and playful, but it loses all momentum.  In some moments the story wants to be funny and lights (think of all of Steve Zahn’s scenes), and in other moments it wants to be taken seriously.  But none of the drama works.  And when this film is light and funny, it feels like an effective parody of this genre of movie (music biopics).  It’s funny and absurd that the band becomes so famous so quickly, so the script should’ve had more fun with that quick ascension to the top.  And I know this is a family-friendly film, so you know certain things won’t happen because they would be too dark, but I would have loved for this movie to embrace the satire a little more, maybe something like Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story which certainly wasn’t perfect but never took itself too seriously.  For example, maybe the story lasts longer than a few months and we see the one guy go to war and get killed.  Then the band turns to a completely new direction, toying with new drugs and a new sound.

Or maybe Faye becomes a Yoko Ono kind of character.  Hell, maybe we see the band split apart and go solo, I don’t know and I don’t really care.  The script felt hurried.  Everything was going too well for too long, so Hanks new his story had to suddenly unravel, and that unravelling felt so forced because it happened so quickly.  Then, once everything was broken apart (as his customary at the part of a movie), Hanks’ script again hurried to put the pieces back together so that the ultimate union and happy ending felt completely false.

This was a fun movie to watch, though, and I imagine it’d be a fun movie to watch and make fun of (playfully) with friends.  So much of this film is so earnest that it lends itself to mockery.  The performances, I will say, were good, and there was some good comedy.  Hell, just watching the 1950s-60s dance moves was funny enough, and I think the moment I laughed the hardest was when Tom Hanks’ character himself couldn’t help but rock out to the band’s performance.  It felt like a genuine moment, and it was, and that makes his ultimate asshole-ness much more out of left field and unnatural in the end.

So this movie is a lighthearted parody, but in the end it just becomes another movie in a long line of music biopics that begs to be satirized.  It’s like the story started out as the cool kid, looking at the teen sensation band movies and saying, “let’s make fun of those morons,” and in the end the cool kid was like, “man they’re having a lot of fun, I want to be one of them,” before greasing his hair back, putting on the jacket and harmonizing with them.


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