Wednesday, June 1, 2016

What-to-Watch Wednesday - That Thing You Do (1996)

Since watching the entire series of CNN's The Sixties, this small film from megastar Tom Hanks kept coming to mind, particularly when music became a focal point in the series.  That Thing You Do! is by no means a great picture.  In fact, it has barely registered in my thoughts since I first saw it back in the 1990s.  But, it does capture a sweet, innocent tone that we have come to associate with the early 60s, before the counter-culture movement got into full swing and before darker, grittier attitudes started to emerge on the social and political scene.

That isn't to say the film is nothing but nostalgia and light-hearted whimsy.  The story, about a small town band, the Wonders, that strikes it big with one hit song, takes a cold hard look at the flash-in-the-pan insignificance that many music groups of that era faced once their songs left the charts.  Where the movie finds its heart is by making us care about the four group members and the people who surround them so that we get caught up right along with them in the excitement and the joy.

One scene in particular captures this joy as they hear their song played on the radio for the first time.  It's done in a nonstop moving shot as first one character hears the song and then runs to the next to share the news and then the next and the next.  By the end of the scene, they are ecstatic and jumping around gleefully in the middle of a local store.  It is moments like this that make us like the Wonders and route for them to succeed.

That Thing You Do! was written and directed by Tom Hanks, his first directing effort.  His direction is sure-footed and shows a real love for the time period.  Also, he wisely cast the film with then-unknown actors, including Liv Tyler and Charlize Theron in early film roles.  These unknown, likable actors, more than anything, are what invest the audience in the story.  The kooky, young guys who make up the Wonders are believably blindsided by their sudden success and aren't quite sure what it means or what to do with it.  Through it all, they crack jokes, they fight, all without realizing just how fleeting their success will prove to be.

And, finally, there's the title song, the one that launches the Wonders into their sudden success.  Written by Fountains of Wayne bassist, Adam Schlesinger, the song does the nifty trick of actually sounding like a 1960s hit without becoming a cloying irritation from its repeated playings throughout the movie.  On top of that, the song also connects to two of the characters in the story.  It is one of the most masterfully written songs for a film.

Like I said before, That Thing You Do! isn't a cinematic masterpiece, but it is an enjoyable and well-meaning film.  A good, solid film from start to finish.

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