That Thing You Do! (1996): Tom Hanks’ Likable Feature Directing Debut

Toronto Film Fest, Sept. 14, 1996–Two-time Oscar winner, Tom Hanks, follows the path of other accomplished actors of his generation as debutante filmmaker of That Thing You Do, an immensely likeable, sweet-natured tale of the quick rise to fame and just as quick demise of a small-town rock band.

Our Grade: B (*** out of *****)

Set in l964, this “End of Innocence” film provides a sanitized, Gump-ish look at a semi-mythical period, when boys were boys and girls were girls, with almost no intimations of the sex-drug-music subculture soon to burst upon the American scene.

A top-notch production, exuberant period music–and Hanks the actor in an important role–cunningly disguise a rather slight and inconsequential narrative. Result is a nostalgic crowd-pleaser that’s likely to win the hearts of both younger and older viewers, domestically and abroad.

It makes perfect sense that Hanks, who’s now at the prime of his acting career, would want to try his hand at directing. At 39, with two consecutive Oscars and five blockbusters in a row to his credit, he’s probably Hollywood’s most gifted and popular star. The best thing to be said about Hanks’ feature debut is that it bears all the elements that have made him a movie star: boyish charm, natural ease, comic precision, and above all, generosity of spirit.

While no threat–in quality or appeal–to American Graffiti, still the quintessential “End of Innocence” movie, and its many offshoots, That Thing You Do charts similar terrain, except that it’s set in 1964 (and not 1962). It’s arguably the last year in American history that could spin a veritably naive story, without being forced to acknowledge the era’s tumultuous events (political assassination, racial tensions, Vietnam) that just several years later would tear the country apart.

Hanks situates his tale right after Kennedy’s assassination, in February 1964, a month vividly remembered in pop culture for the landmark appearance of the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Script was apparently inspired by a true incident from the Beatles’ chronicle, when during a tour to Japan and Australia a sick Ringo was replaced with a guy named Jimmy Nichols.

Set in Erie, Pennsylvania, yarn begins in Patterson’s appliance store, where Guy (Tom Everett Scott) helps his very conservative dad sell TV sets, washing machines and vacuum cleaners, though clearly his heart has been set on music ever since he listened to a jazz album by Del Paxton (Bill Cobbs). Opportunity knocks when a local drummer breaks his arm and Guy is approached by songwriter Jimmy (Johnathon Schaech), guitarist Lenny (Steve Zahn), and the energetic Bass Player (Ethan Embry) to replace him.

What follows is an episodic chronicle that is as shallow as it is engaging, a collective portrait of the white boys in the band, from the early days, when they were called “The One-Ders” and performed in local pizza joints, to their rise to fame and ultimate collapse, all taking place in a matter of months.

Dramatic turning point occurs when the band is introduced to Mr. White (Hanks), a tough but savvy record executive, who immediately changes their name to “The Wonders” and methodically instructs them on how to dress, how to deliver a song, how to behave like celebs on talk shows. Under his guidance, their hit song rockets to the top of the charts and they go on a national statefair tour. Pic ends in dreamy land California, with the band appearing on Hollywood TV Showcase (modeled on the “Ed Sullivan Show”) and making a beach party movie, before disintegrating, with two of its members quitting the music world altogether.

The exploration of what happens to a provincial rock band that has only one hit song is nicely executed, though it takes a whole reel for the story to begin gathering some momentum. Indeed, all the emotional tensions, within and without the group, occur in the very last sequence, including a heartfelt breakup between talented individualistic songwriter Jimmy and his g.f. Faye (Liv Tyler), who has been the band’s unofficial fifth member–and its best audience. Miraculously, the energetic music and evocative settings manage to keep the slender yarn afloat whenever it threatens to reveal its hollow center.

Picture’s first half relies too heavily on the kind of montages that by now have become not only familiar but obligatory. Director Hanks and his producers, who include Jonathan Demme, must have realized the narrative is undernourished and that some characters, particularly the women, are underdeveloped, for they have given their movie a wonderfully brisk tempo, shifting the story from one locale to another with great ease and panache.

Ultimately, what’s lacking in the story department is more than made up for by the uniformly delightful ensemble and superb production values. The quartet of band players is credibly and winsomely played, with standout work from the handsome Scott, as the smartest member, who’s bound to become a major star; it’s safe to speculate that he represents a younger, idealized version of Hanks.

Helmer Hanks has made the fortuitous decision of not using the era’s famous hit songs as backdrop–or signposts. A tribute to such performers as the Shirelles, the Ronnettes, and Diana Ross, the score consists entirely of original songs, some written by Hanks himself. Adam Schlesinger’s winningly melodic title song, which is repeated so many times that moviegoers will be able to hum it at the end, was reportedly selected out of more than 300 submissions.

Without a doubt, pic’s most impressive element is its technical sheen, with radiant contributions from ace lenser Tak Fujimoto, composer Howard Shore, designer Victor Kempster, costumer Colleen Atwood, and editor Richard Chew.

A feel-good movie with comic verve and abundant charm, That Thing You Do served most fittingly as closing night of the 21st edition of the Toronto Film Festival.