That Thing You Do!
The film follows the career of the Erie, Pennsylvania, rock band that formed in the middle of the British Invasion. Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott), son of a local appliance store owner and a good drummer who idolizes jazz, is involved in a shallow relationship with Tina Powers (Charlize Theron). He is asked by rhythm guitarist/singer Jimmy Mattingly (Johnathon Schaech) and lead guitarist/singer Lenny Haise (Steve Zahn) to substitute for their unnamed beat group’s regular drummer, Chad (Giovanni Ribisi), who has broken his arm, at that night’s annual Mercyhurst College talent show in an attempt to win the $100 first prize. Rounding out the group is the band’s never-named bass player (Ethan Embry). They are to play a ballad written by Jimmy, “That Thing You Do”, which they rehearse in a garage. At the suggestion of Jimmy’s girlfriend Faye Dolan (Liv Tyler), inspired by a comment from Guy, they adopt the name “The Oneders” (pronounced “ONE-ders”), but it is almost always mispronounced as the “oh-NEE-ders.”
At the talent show, Guy sets the beat substantially faster than its original ballad tempo. Although the rest of band struggles to keep up, everybody gets up to dance to it, they overwhelmingly win the $100 top prize, and they get their first paying gig, at a pizza parlor near the airport. After a fan requests their record, they enlist the help of Guy’s Uncle Bob (Chris Isaak), who records songs and sermons for churches and choirs, to record and cut the song on vinyl, which Faye sells at their gig. Talent scout Phil Horace (Chris Ellis) sees them play, buys a record and introduces himself to Guy at the appliance store. Based on Horace’s promise that he will get them radio airplay and performance bookings in big cities like Pittsburgh and Steubenville, Ohio, The Oneders sign him as their manager, despite Jimmy’s initial reluctance to assign rights to his music.
Horace is successful: the song is played three times in one day on WJET and they are booked at a gig in Pittsburgh sponsored by well-known mattress salesman “Boss Vic Koss” (Kevin Pollak). Although the first set is a failure due to a series of technical mishaps, Horace has secretly arranged for a record company A&R man, Mr. White (Hanks) to see the show. He is impressed by their record, buys the band’s contract, signs the band to his employer (the Play-Tone record label), changes the spelling of their name to The Wonders, and decides that Guy should always wear sunglasses on stage and be known as “Shades” as a gimmick. He also arranges for Faye to accompany the band as “wardrobe mistress.” At the same time, Tina (not very impressed with Guy’s newfound semi-stardom) falls in love with her new dentist and dumps Guy.
Alongside other Play-Tone artists, the band tours state fairs across the Midwest, and the single enters and climbs the Billboard Top 100. As the tour progresses, The Wonders go from being the opening act to the feature attraction, even earning band-specific stage decorations. Throngs of teenage girls mob the band at one tour stop. While on tour, Jimmy engages in an affair with aging siren Diane Dane (Chaille Percival). When the song hits the Top 10, the band is ordered to leave the tour in Wisconsin and head for Hollywood to meet Sol Siler (Alex Rocco), the owner of Play-Tone, for a promotional photo shoot. While leaving, security guards stop Faye from accompanying the group (similar to a real incident that happened to Cynthia Lennon in August 1967), but Guy comes back for her. On the airplane, White announces that the band also will be appearing in a major motion picture and, at Jimmy’s urging, doing a recording session for an album, while Faye comes down with a severe cold. Meanwhile, in Erie, original drummer Chad has taken Guy’s place as a salesman at Patterson’s Appliance.
The Wonders then appear as “Cap’n Geech and the Shrimp Shack Shooters” in a film, Weekend at Party Pier, that is actually a beach movie, and Siler turns out to neither know nor care anything about the record business, preferring to discuss himself. Jimmy becomes disillusioned and sulks. During an off day, the bass player abandons the band to visit Disneyland with a group of United States Marines, whose ranks he had previously committed to join. Alone, Guy goes to a jazz club, where he meets his idol, jazz pianist Del Paxton (Bill Cobbs), and drinks with him until closing time. The next day, experienced studio bassist Scott “Wolfman” Pell (Larry Antonino) joins The Wonders for a live performance on The Hollywood Television Showcase. During it, the words “Careful girls, he’s engaged!” are captioned on the screen beneath Jimmy’s image (an homage to “Sorry girls, he’s married!” to John Lennon on the Ed Sullivan Show, which is referred to in the film). After the show, an angry Jimmy rudely tells Faye and the rest of the band that he is not engaged and that he doesn’t intend to marry Faye. Hurt by Jimmy’s callousness and insensitivity, Faye ends their relationship.
At the recording session the next day, the Wonders learn that they are to record songs from the Play-Tone catalog for their album. White promises Jimmy one original song per side of the album, but makes it clear that he wants “snappy” material, not ballads. Jimmy promptly quits the band and walks out. Lenny never even shows up for the session (he went to Las Vegas with a Play-Tone secretary/Playboy Bunny the night before and then married her). White thanks Wolfman for coming, and Wolfman also leaves. With the departure of everyone but Guy, there are no more Wonders, and White declares the group in breach of contract. White reminds Guy that Jimmy is “the talent”, Lenny is “the fool”, but Guy is “the smart one”, and asks about Faye (whom White says “is special”), then leaves. Guy remains in the recording studio alone, as it was his first time in one, and his impromptu drumming catches the ear of Del Paxton, who is recording next door. The two record a jam session where Guy plays a drum routine entitled “I Am Spartacus” while Del improvises an accompanying piano medley.
Back at their L.A. hotel, Guy tells Faye that Del thinks he can make it as a session musician in L.A., and Faye and Guy finally declare their love for one another. (In the “director’s cut” of the film, the jam session results in a job for Guy at jazz radio station KJZZ, which had earlier interviewed the Wonders. That’s how Guy becomes a “permanent West Coast-er”.) In a written epilogue, Guy and Faye remain in Los Angeles, marry the following year and raise four children before moving to Bainbridge Island, Washington, where they found a music conservatory in which Guy teaches Jazz Composition. Jimmy rejoins Play-Tone and records three gold albums with a new band called The Heardsmen (which was Jimmy’s original choice to name The Wonders). Lenny manages a casino in Laughlin, Nevada, but he is now single. The Bass Player is awarded the Purple Heart for wounds sustained at Khe Sanh while serving in the Marines, and becomes a building contractor in Orlando, Florida.
From what I’ve read and seen in clips, the 60s were a big time for new, up and coming bands. This films captures the rise of a fictional group, but as fictional as the story is, one must wonder (pardon the pun) how rooted in reality it is.
The music takes center stage in this film, and could very well have led to a musical. It is fresh and boppy. You would never know that it wasn’t written in the era.
Tom Everett Scott, Ethan Embry, Steve Zahn, and Johnathon Schaebech did an excellent job of selling the fact that they were a band, and even better, that they were actually playing and singing. As a musician myself, I know how hard it is to fake such things, let alone make it believable.
Liv Tyler is the spark that really keeps this film going. As we’re watching the film we see her drifting from and being under-appreciated by her boyfriend, Schaebech, and developing a relationship with Scott. There is true depth to her character, and we see it all.
Tom Hanks did a masterful job of writing, directing, and acting in this film. This is a work he can be proud of.
I didn’t care too much for the fact that, as happy as the film’s soundtrack was, the film itself didn’t capture that same feeling. I don’t know if the contrast was done on purpose, but it just didn’t sit right with me.
Giovanni Ribisi starts off the film as the band’s drummer, but after he falls and breaks his arm, he is all but forgotten, especially once they start to get more and more successful. Also, it seems that “Shades” starts to develop an ego at the nationally televised performance and you can see it bother Lenny, but that’s as far as it goes. These are a couple of issues that could have been addressed to make the film a bit better, but I understand they didn’t for fear of making it too dramatic and/or lengthy.
This film was made during a time when it was still fun to go to the movies. There is nothing too over dramatic or dark about it. As a matter of fact, this very well could be a family film when you think about it, but there are some questionable topics that keep it out of that category and give it a PG rating, rather than G. Still, it is an interesting look at the rise of a fictional band in the 60s, and if nothing else, all will enjoy the soundtrack.
4 out of 5 stars