That Thing You Do! is a charming, nostalgic look at a fictitious pop group in the 1960s, as four fresh-faced lads from small town USA unexpectedly score a hit song, taking them from relative obscurity to overnight stardom. Written by Tom Hanks in his directorial debut, he also takes a supporting role in this 1996 film which blends humour and heartache as the band ride the wave of fame off their one-hit wonder.
The smart and sensitive Guy (a Tom Hanks doppelganger played by Tom Everett Scott) is about to be dumped by his almost-girlfriend, Tina (Charlize Theron, in one of her first Hollywood roles) when he is approached with the opportunity to join a band. The Oneders (pronounced the Wonders, but comically mispronounced as the O-Need-ers for the first half of the film) are in desperate need of a new drummer for a talent show performance after their usual fourth, Chad (Giovanni Ribisi), breaks his arm in a foolish mishap.
Joining lead singer Jimmy (Johnathon Schaech), lead guitarist Lenny (played with wry, comedic wit by the scene-stealing Steve Zahn) and bass player (the delightful Ethan Embry, whose character is never given a name, in a cheeky nod to that one seemingly anonymous member of every band) for a quick rehearsal in a garage, Guy is introduced to the title track as an easy-listening ballad. On the day of the talent show, however, Guy decides to set a much quicker tempo for the song, forcing the rest of the band to adapt their playing to match and the dance floor swells in response.
Jimmy, the talented, arrogant, self-appointed decision maker with the perfect Beatles quiff, is noticeably annoyed that he wasn’t consulted, marking the first of many clashes at the expense of his ego. But in this universe, the drummer is the star – the backbone, the timekeeper. And in That Thing You Do! it’s the nice guy who’s celebrated.
Hanks directs with a gentle, unforced touch, aided by his likeable cast. He steps out from behind the camera around a third of the way through the film as a slick and savvy industry manager, who guides the newly minted Wonders through rapidly escalating popularity as That Thing You Do! storms the charts, their fame crystallising with their first TV appearance. The bright, colourful set design and decidedly groovy 60s era costumes (thanks to designer Colleen Atwood) all add to the authenticity of this fictional yet familiar past, whilst Hanks cleverly peppers the script with cultural references and optimism.
Joining them through every show and tour is Jimmy’s girlfriend, Faye, played with wide-eyed innocence and suitable girl-next-door appeal by Liv Tyler. One of the standout scenes is Tyler and the rest of the gang joyously reacting as the band hears their signature tune on the radio for the first time – the kind of effervescent and joyful scene that only Hanks could deliver without a hint of derision.
The established conflict between Guy and Jimmy continues to face hurdles as their manager stacks the cards against Jimmy, who becomes increasingly at odds with his band mates and his girlfriend. As Jimmy becomes progressively frustrated at the levity of their rise in fame rather than revelling in it, cracks between the group and their individual ambitions begin to appear. At times mirroring the duality of the ridiculousness and reverence of their career opportunity, the seething continues as it sets up Jimmy as the group’s bad boy v the perennial good Guy. Or perhaps in this Beatles-esque universe, it’s Schaech’s Lennon to Scott’s McCartney.
It’s less sex, drugs and rock’n’roll and more a tale built on sentimentality tempered with a dose of reality. But for all the enthusiasm for the rise from obscurity to superstardom in this story, That Thing You Do! is also a sanitised cautionary tale about the many pitfalls of the music industry.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of this feel-good ode to the magic of music, with the soundtrack reportedly going platinum not long ago a just reward given the title track was nominated for best original song at the 1997 Academy Awards. Composer Adam Schlesinger, who passed away in April 2020 due to Covid-19, crafted a genuinely catchy, melodic and convincingly nostalgia track, with the power to drive a movie built on the notion that one truly great song can change lives.