Whatever Happened to the Oneders?
That Thing You Do!
There are a few movies from when I grew up that are stuck with me. I know everyone has their favorites, ones that they saw when they were younger and now they're indelible parts of their life experience. For me it was a select few films that had characters, in one way or another, I could identify with. Dazed and Confused is up there just because who wouldn't want to be a slacker in the summer after high school (seeing it in the year between when I finished high school and started college helped that vibe). Empire Records is on the list, too, because it's a bunch of teens working retail at a music store and that wasn't far off from the experience I had, as a teen, working at a video store. And then there's That Thing You Do!.
This one was a fave of mine not just because I liked the music (it's retro, of course, but made by an at-the-time modern band, perfectly tuned to appeal to the actual audiences watching the film) but also because I could identify, I think, with the main character: the drummer who gets into a band and slowly watches it fall apart. As a drummed myself I've been in a number of bands, all of which have eventually fallen apart. That's what bands do. The movie is fun, and funny, and it had a great vibe, but it's that chronicle of the band, with the honesty to note, "shit, every band eventually dies." That struck a (no pun intended) chord.
The film follows Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott), a jazz drummer who, at the start of the film, hadn't been in a band in some time. He spends his days working in his father's appliance store, Patterson's, and his nights playing jazz on his own in the store's basement. That changes, though, when a former band-mate, Lenny (Steve Zahn), comes by the store to get his friend into the band. Their previous drummer, Chad (Giovanni Ribisi), managed to break his arm right before they were going to play in a battle of the bands, and Guy is the only drummer they can get on short notice. He quickly learns to play the drum part on their ballad, "That Thing You Do", and then he goes with them to perform.
Only thing is the long, slow ballad bores Guy so he decides, on the fly, to play his part at double-speed. The rest of the band has to try and keep up, much to the chagrin of songwriter and lead singer Jimmy (Johnathon Schaech). Despite this (really, because of it), the song wins the battle of the band. The crowd goes while for this fun, up-tempo number. A restaurateur hires them to play his Italian joint. That then leads to a smell-time manager finding them and bringing the band on... only to then sell their contract to Mr. Amos White (Tom Hanks) of the Play-Tone Record Company. Suddenly their song starts racing up the charts, their band, The Wonders, becomes a nationwide sensation, and everything is coming together for the group... right up until it all falls apart.
The thing about That Thing You Do! is that, despite it being a movie about a band it doesn't follow the usual biopic format. The band does eventually break up, but it's not over drugs or alcohol or anything else. Ego is what destroys the Wonders, and frankly that's far more honest, and more interesting, than any other reason the script could have come up with. This is a film all about the journey, and while the ending might, more or less, be expected -- I mean, "One Hit Wonder" does make their band name rather on the nose -- the journey is a whole lot of fun.
In fact, I'd argue that the journey could have been longer and it wouldn't have hurt the film at all (there is an Extended Cut of the film that, at some point, I need to watch, just for that very reason). It's fun seeing the guys go from a dinky little garage band to suddenly having not just a few fans but an actual hit song. I could, frankly, have watched these guy take their time seeing all that there was to see on their rise from regional hit band to nationwide smash success. The journey with them is that good.
Much of that credit has to go to three specific performers. The first is Scott as the drummer. The actor was on the rise when this film came out, leading to a few hit movies in a row (this, along with An American Werewolf in Paris, One True Thing, and Dead Man on Campus. He's a dependable lead here, likable and sweet in a dorky way. It works for the character, for sure. He's balanced out by Zahn's Lenny, the jokester of the group. Leo can always be relied on for a one-liner, some dumb zinger that makes you laugh despite yourself. These are the band-mates you care about.
And then there's Faye, played by Liv Tyler. She's the girlfriend of the lead singer, Jimmy, but she's also the unofficial fifth member of the band (there's also an unnamed bassist, played by Ethan Embry, but he hardly counts). Faye comes along for the ride, eventually becoming their costume mistress so she can travel along. She add brightness and sweetness to the film, and also gives the flick its eventual romantic plot line (and no, it's not with her boyfriend). Faye is played fantastically by Tyler, who was seeing her own meteoric rise at the time (this was her first decent hit, but soon after she starred in Armageddon and, well, meteoric is the right term there for that massive success). Part of the reason this film works is that, right when the band ends, Faye finds new love and Tyler plays this whole aspect of the character to a tee.
Really, there's just so much to like about this film that it's hard to pick out anything that doesn't work. Much as you end up hating Jimmy, there's no argument that his prickish performance by Schaech suits the character perfectly. He's the heel, even if you aren't initially supposed to realize that, and as the film progresses you learn just how much of a heel he really is. It works to the story, his ego offsetting the glee and joy the others in the band feel. While they're all along for the ride, he feels like he has something he has to do. His music is his life, man, and that means he doesn't end up enjoying the success they find. Really, he can't see the forest for the trees when it comes to how big his band becomes.
Okay, I do have one gripe, and it's just one. Guy is really obsessed with calling himself "Spartacus". He riffs on his drums and calls it "I am Spartacus". He says it to his friends repeatedly, and they always give him a look like, "the fuck are you on about?" It's a weird character trait, and I think it's meant to be funny, but frankly in all the times I've seen this film (and that's more times than I really should admit to) it's never played for me. One little off note in the whole production.
Other than that, though, the film does really hold up. It's fun, it's bright, it's poppy. Yes, it's snappy. It was a fun film for me back when it came out, and all these years later it still works. It's a film I can put on and just enjoy despite all the times I've seen it. It just works and will remain one of my faves no matter the year. Just gotta admit that.