Pop Music Cinema & That Thing You Do! (1996)

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After spilling what most likely already amounts to way too much ink on pro wrestling movies, we here at Swampflix decided to collect all of our reviews & articles about the “sport” on a single page titled Wrestling Cinema. As time has gone on it’s become apparent that we have more than wrestling on our minds. We also like movies about pop music. From Björk to ABBA to KISS, movies about or featuring musicians are apparently a source of fascination for us, so we’re starting a Pop Music Cinema page to give those movies their own home as well. To commemorate the birth of our Pop Music Cinema page, I’d like to revisit one of the most delightful examples of the genre I can remember: 1996’s That Thing You Do!

The first feature film written & directed by America’s goofy uncle, Tom Hanks, That Thing You Do! is remarkable both in its effortless charm and in its perceptive mimicry & satirization of pop music clichés. The only film that’s maybe covered more pop music ground in the twenty years since its release is 2007’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. The difference is that Walk Hard, while gust-bustingly funny, is poking fun at the pop music biopic & all of its genre-trappings while That Thing You Do! proudly wears the costume of the pop music biopic, playing some jokes at its expense, but mostly honoring it through homage. It toes a fine line between honoring & making fun, between nostalgia & derision, between parody & the real thing. Tom Hanks wrote & executed a very funny, perceptive script with his first feature, something that he failed to do a second time with his back-to-college midlife crisis comedy Larry Crowne just five years later.

Part of what makes That Thing You Do! work so well is its succinct accuracy. Framed as the biopic of a single American, Beatles-imitating one hit wonder group, the story is more the biopic of every American, Beatles-imitating one hit wonder group. It follows the entire birth, rise, and fall life-cycle of the fictional group The (one hit) Wonders. The film opens with the band writing their signature song & trying to agree on a name for their group. They then win a local talent show that leads to a steady gig at a restaurant near the airport where their fan base swells to the point where they decide it’s time to cut a record. An upstart manager takes an interest in the band, gets their song played on the radio, and books touring gigs that eventually lead to them losing touch with the friends, families, and lovers they leave behind in their small town. The band bombs their first major concert, but lands an incredible record deal anyway and begin to tour with much bigger acts, groups they’ve idolized for years. While on tour their hit song climbs the Billboard charts in the inevitable climbing-the-Billboard-charts montage. They land opportunities to appear in movies & television until their popularity reaches a breaking point where their egos are far too oversized for the band to continue. They then dissolve & separate, the band of their dreams now a pleasant, but distant memory as they assume new identities as studio musicians & has-beens. As Tom Hanks himself says in the film, “It’s a very common tale.”

As cynical of a take on pop music as a business as all that sounds, the film is still remarkably celebratory. There’s an infectious nostalgia for the mic’d handclaps, groovy wardrobes, and shoddy Gidget movies of yesteryear. The hit song at center of the film is legitimately enjoyable, which is a great advantage since it plays at least a dozen times throughout the runtime- the same way you’d expect to hear a hit song repetitively on the radio. The cast (which includes Tom Hanks, Charlize Theron, Liv Tyler, Giovani Ribisi and a brief early glimpse of Bryan Cranston) is thoroughly likeable. Even Steve Zahn, who can grate on me in large doses, is nothing but charming as the world’s only lead guitarist who can’t seem to get laid. His brand of smart-ass comedy is the funniest it’s ever been; the way he sells lines like “A man in a really nice camper wants to put our songs on the radio!” are among the best moments of his entire career. It’s as if the entire cast and, by extension, the film itself borrowed Tom Hanks’ likeability as if it were a pair of shoes. The main protagonist, played by Tom Everett Scoott, borrowed so much that he even eerily looks like he could be Hanks’ offspring.

That Thing You Do!‘s central message seems to be encapsulated in the line “Ain’t no way to keep a band together. Bands come and go.” It’s smart to recognize, however, that when a band is in full glory it can be a magical thing. The ecstatic look on girls’ faces as The Wonders play on television, the excitement musicians feel when meeting their idols & living their dreams, and the inevitably sappy true-love conclusion to the story all make the fleeting, somewhat meaningless success of a pop group seem like the most important thing in the world. That Thing You Do! showed me that you can be critical of how a thing works on a fundamental level while still finding a deep appreciation for its benefits. It also taught me that Tom Hanks can be terrifying when he’s acting mean. It’s not the most important film about pop music ever made, but it is an immensely enjoyable one & it’s one that has a lot to say about what the genre means as an art form. I’m sure as time goes on that we’ll cover many films that have a lot to say about the genre as well. The nature of pop music seems to be be an endlessly fascinating subject for both folks behind the camera and the rest of us here in the audience.

-Brandon Ledet

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2 thoughts on “Pop Music Cinema & That Thing You Do! (1996)

  1. Pingback: Movie of the Month: Crimes of Passion (1984) |

  2. Pingback: A Note on the Repetition of “It’s a Lovely Life” in Crimes of Passion (1984) |

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