Home Movies by Charles Taylor: Pure pop

Home Movies video columnist Charles Taylor on 'That Thing You Do!' directed by Tom Hanks and starring Tom Everett Scott and Liv Tyler

Published March 15, 1999 10:50AM (EST)

Browsing through a CD catalog a few months back I came across a listing for
a collection of Robin Luke, an Angeleno who grew up in Hawaii and had
one hit in 1958, the vaguely Hawaiian "Susie Darlin'." I didn't know
anything else by Luke but I adored that song and sent away for the CD. It
came -- the 31 tracks that constitute Luke's recording career fit onto a
single disc -- and with it a nice surprise in the liner notes: Luke is a
professor at Southwest Missouri State University's College of Business
Administration. Maybe you have to have heard too many tales of rock 'n'
rollers sliding into poverty or grinding out a living on the oldies circuit
to feel as happy as I did about one who escaped that fate.

Luke belongs to the small corner of rock 'n' roll inhabited by the
nonrebels, the nice suburban kids who started fooling around with music
alone in their bedrooms or in garages with buddies and found themselves
with a hit or two and a brief burst of fame before settling back into their
lives. They're the Ricky Nelsons who didn't come from showbiz families,
and I've always kept a place in my heart for them because they seem to
represent the populism of rock 'n' roll -- the exhilarating sense that it's
open to anyone who wants to be heard.

That's the story of Tom Hanks' "That Thing You Do!" which tells the tale
of four guys from Erie, Pa., who come
together, win a talent contest, cut a single that propels them out of their
town and into the top 10, then break up -- all in the course of a
summer. Hanks' debut as a writer-director is one of the sweetest of recent
American comedies, though it was barely noticed when it was
released in 1996. That could be because, unlike a lot of directing debuts
by other major stars, "That Thing You Do!" doesn't present itself as any
big deal.

That's as it should be, because the movie is about an ephemeral pop moment.
The Wonders (as in one-hit wonders) fall apart just as they hit their
height, and yet the movie is bittersweet because Hanks, who reveals himself
here as a true-hearted pop fan, knows the emotion and the freedom that
fleeting pop moments can contain. The hit song that jump-starts the Wonders'
career, "That Thing You Do!" (written by Adam Schlesinger of Ivy and
Fountains of Wayne) must play on the soundtrack a dozen times. But that's
part of Hanks' plan, which is to chart the life of a pop song over the
course of a movie, so that what's exhilarating at first is annoying by the
sixth time we've heard it and unexpectedly emotional by the 10th. In a
way, the movie is even more the song's story than the band's.

Working with Jonathan Demme's cinematographer, Tak Fujimoto, Hanks lavishes
love on all the trappings of mid-'60s middle-class culture: an appliance
store's gleaming products, Rexalls and lunch counters, neon signs.
Everything looks fresh and new and like some lost paradise. There's a gentle
irony in how, with hindsight, these middle-class institutions now seem as
pop as the music coming out of the radios the characters have stuck in
their ears. That's democracy in action, when a clock radio has become as
cool as "Surfin' Bird." At times "That Thing You Do!" could almost be a
love letter to all the American downtowns that now look like ghost towns.
(There's a further irony if you think of the way those boarded-up districts
have become havens for boho kids trying to start their own scenes, as if
they were shamans trying to invoke the spirit of hipness that, to their
parents, seemed nowhere to be found.) Rock 'n' roll movies earn trust based
on whether they get the details right. Hanks does. He captures the
sound of the white-bread pop that rock 'n' roll forced off the air, the
weird mix of family entertainment and shindig that characterized rock 'n'
roll tours playing state fairs and the precise tone of condescension
variety show hosts would direct to the pop band on the bill. (Anybody
remember Dean Martin introducing the Rolling Stones on "Hollywood Palace"?)

As a storyteller, Hanks has a nice unforced style. He brings off the running
gags with an almost glancing touch so that they catch you off guard. He's
generous-spirited as well. Characters consistently surprise you by turning
out to be benevolent. And Hanks digs actors. Steve Zahn, so funny as the
pothead con in "Out of Sight," is hilarious here as the Wonders' rhythm
guitarist, the wild card of the group. Zahn is a master put-on artist with
a mad gleam in his eye. He juices the movie up every time he appears,
sometimes just by making you wonder what he'll do next. As Guy, the
drummer, the smart one in the group, Tom Everett Scott has a nicely bemused
quality, and his scenes with Liv Tyler (as the girlfriend of the band's
resident "genius") are little charmers. And in the role of the Wonders'
manager, Hanks recovers the edge that he loses in other roles when he
becomes too intent on playing the decent American Everyman.

The meaning of the entire movie is contained in the wonderful scene when
the band's single is first played on the radio and, running and screaming
through the streets of Erie, each member converges on Guy's family's
appliance store, tuning the store's radios to their song and dancing and
shouting around the place, beside themselves with excitement. Hanks gives
it the perfect capper: Guy raising his arms to heaven and shouting, "I am
Spartacus!" Reminded of how a three-minute pop song can feel like a release
from slavery, you're inclined to believe him.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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