That Thing Tom Hanks Does!

That Thing You Do! was released twenty-five years ago this week. A charming and exuberant tale of the one-hit Wonders, That Thing You Do! is a perfect little gem of a movie and one of my personal faves.

That Thing You Do! was Tom Hanks’s directorial debut; he also wrote the screenplay and several of the film’s songs (more on the soundtrack in a bit), and co-stars in a decidedly supporting role, as The Wonders’ manager Mr. White. The film’s main star is Tom Everett Scott (who bears more than a passing resemblance to a young Hanks) in the role of Guy Patterson. Guy works in his dad’s appliance store by day and practices the drums by night. When a local band (Johnathon Schaech, Ethan Embry and Steve Zahn, who’s never met a scene he couldn’t steal) needs a temporary drummer for a talent show, Guy is asked to fill in. The band has yet to decide on a name, and they settle on The Oneders (pronounced “Wonders”‘ – Schaech’s Jimmy is a big fan of wordplay). Guy learns the band’s song, a ballad called “That Thing You Do”, but when the lads take the stage at the talent show, Guy’s nerves take over and the song becomes an uptempo number. Jimmy is pissed but the crowd goes wild, and The Oneders take first place.

Yes, that’s an absurdly young Charlize Theron as Guy’s disinterested girlfriend Tina

The band is asked to play at Villapiano’s, a pizza joint located by the airport. After a gig one night, Guy suggests the band make a record, and says he has a relative in the music business (his Uncle Bob records church music).

The band gains the attention of a local music manager, Phil Horace, who promises to get their song on the radio. In my favorite scene, Horace delivers, and the gang ends up at Patterson’s, dancing and celebrating. It is two minutes of pure joy, and I can’t get enough of it; my mom and I saw That Thing You Do! in the theater, and we could barely keep our butts in our seats.

Horace turns over manager duties to Hanks’ Mr. White, who offers the band a contract with Playtone Records and a spot on Playtone’s “Galaxy of Stars” tour, performing at state fairs across the Midwest (and wisely insists they change the spelling of the band’s name to The Wonders). Jimmy’s girlfriend Faye (played by the luminous Liv Tyler) is invited along as the band’s costume mistress.

Eventually, the band ends up in Hollywood, where they sit for radio interviews, co-star in the movie Weekend at Party Pier as Cap’n Geech & The Shrimp Shack Shooters and make an appearance on The Hollywood Television Showcase. The following day, the band is due in the studio to begin recording, but Lenny and TB Player are nowhere to be found (the former is in Vegas for a quickie wedding, the latter is at Disneyland with a group of Marines, whose ranks he’s joining at the end of the summer) and Jimmy quits the band after learning that his contract allows the record company to dictate what the band records. The Wonders, who have the #7 hit in the country, are abruptly defunct – the ultimate one-hit-wonder.

Hanks, whose burgeoning interest in the Apollo space program began when he starred in Apollo 13 the previous year and would culminate two years later with HBO’s masterpiece miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, makes several astronaut references in the film. To begin with, several characters are named after NASA crew members; for example, The Wonders’ lead singer James “Jimmy” Mattingly and guitarist Leonard “Lenny” Haise are named for Apollo astronauts Ken Mattingly and Fred Haise. There’s also a scene in the Hollywood Television Showcase sequence where host Troy Chesterfield (Peter Scolari, Hanks’s Bosom Buddies co-star) interacts with Gus Grissom (Bryan Cranston!). And finally, several of the film’s cast members would go on to co-star in From the Earth to the Moon, including Zahn, Cranston, Chris Isaak, Clint Howard, Chris Ellis, Kevin Pollak and Mrs. Hanks herself, Rita Wilson.

Now, about that soundtrack. The main event is the title track, The Wonders’ one hit. Written by Adam Schlesinger, the late, great bassist and songwriter for Fountains of Wayne, the song is beyond catchy (which is precisely the point). Fun fact: the producers put out an industry-wide notice looking for a ’60s pop song called “That Thing You Do”. They received more than 300 submissions, with Schlesinger’s tune being the favorite. Deservedly, Schlesinger was nominated for an Oscar (the film’s sole nod) and a Golden Globe (he lost both awards to Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber for “You Must Love Me” from Evita). The song was also a hit on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #41 (the album itself reached #21 on the Billboard 200).

Other songs on the album include the Bacharach-esque “My World is Over”, sung by diva Diane Dane; the surf rock “Voyage Around the Moon” by The Saturn 5; “Hold My Hand, Hold My Heart” by the Supremes-ish Chantrellines; and “Shrimp Shack” by the aforementioned Cap’n Geech & the Shrimp Shack Shooters. All of the songs are credited to the fictitious artists from the movie.

While it didn’t make much money in its initial release ($35 million globally on a $26 million budget), That Thing You Do! found a passionate audience on home video. Recent cast reunions (including a virtual watch party hosted by Rolling Stone in 2020) have thrilled the film’s fans on social media. The film remains a timeless (ahem) wonder that’s as delightful now as it was twenty-five years ago.

3 thoughts on “That Thing Tom Hanks Does!

  1. How did I forget how great this movie is? That scene where they’re on the radio just radiates joy! So sad right now that it’s not currently available on any of my services for free-adding it to my list of must-watch-when-it’s-available, but I may have to bite the bullet and pay for it, I’m that excited…

    Liked by 1 person

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