Two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks follows the path of other accomplished actors of his generation as debutant filmmaker of “That Thing You Do!,” an immensely likable, sweet-natured tale of the quick rise to fame, and just as quick demise, of a small-town rock band. Set in 1964, this end-of-innocence film provides a sanitized, “Gump”-ish look at a semi-mythical period, when boys were boys and girls were girls, with almost no intimations of the sex-drug-music subculture soon to burst upon the American scene. A top-notch production, exuberant period music and Hanks the actor in an important role cunningly disguise a rather slight and inconsequential narrative. A feel-good movie that served as the fitting closing-night attraction at the 21st Toronto Film Festival, pic is a nostalgic crowd-pleaser that’s likely to win the hearts of both younger and older viewers, domestically and abroad.
It makes perfect sense that Hanks, who’s now in the prime of his acting career, would want to try his hand at directing. At 39, with two consecutive Oscars and five blockbusters in a row to his credit, he’s probably Hollywood’s most gifted and popular star. The best thing to be said about Hanks’ feature debut is that it bears all the elements that have made him a movie star: boyish charm, natural ease, comic precision and, above all, generosity of spirit.
While no threat in quality or appeal to the 1962-set “American Graffiti,” still the quintessential end-of-innocence movie, “That Thing You Do!” charts similar terrain.
Hanks situates his tale shortly after JFK’s assassination, in February ’64, a month vividly remembered in pop culture for the landmark appearance of the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Script was apparently inspired by a true incident from the Beatles chronicles when, during a tour to Japan and Australia, a sick Ringo was replaced with a guy named Jimmy Nichol.
Set in Erie, Pa., yarn begins in Patterson’s appliance store, where Guy (Tom Everett Scott) helps his very conservative dad sell TV sets, washing machines and vacuum cleaners. Clearly, though, his heart has been set on music ever since he listened to a jazz album by Del Paxton (Bill Cobbs). Opportunity knocks when a local drummer breaks his arm and Guy is approached by songwriter Jimmy (Johnathon Schaech), guitarist Lenny (Steve Zahn) and the energetic Bass Player (Ethan Embry) to replace him.
What follows is an episodic chronicle that is as shallow as it is engaging, a collective portrait of the white boys in the band from the early days, when they were called the One-Ders and performed in local pizza joints, to their rise to fame and ultimate collapse all in a matter of months.
Dramatic turning point occurs when the band is introduced to Mr. White (Hanks), a tough but savvy record executive, who immediately changes their name to the Wonders and methodically instructs them on how to dress, how to deliver a song, how to behave like celebs on talkshows. Under his guidance, their song rockets to the top of the charts and they go on a national tour.
Pic ends in dreamland California, with the band appearing on the “Hollywood TV Showcase” and making a beach party movie before disintegrating, with two of its members quitting the music world altogether.
The exploration of what happens to a provincial rock band that has only one hit song is nicely executed, though it takes a whole reel for the story to begin gathering momentum. Indeed, all the story’s emotional tensions, within and outside the group, occur in the very last sequence, including a heartfelt breakup between talented individualistic songwriter Jimmy and his g.f., Faye (Liv Tyler), who has been the band’s unofficial fifth member and its best audience. Miraculously, the energetic music and evocative settings manage to keep the slender yarn afloat whenever it threatens to reveal its hollow center.
Pic’s first half relies too heavily on the kind of montages that have become not only familiar but obligatory. Director Hanks and his producers, who include Jonathan Demme, must have realized that the narrative was undernourished and that some characters, particularly the women, were underdeveloped, for they have given their movie a wonderfully brisk tempo, shifting the story from one locale to another with great ease and panache.
Ultimately, what’s lacking in the story department is more than made up for by the delightful ensemble and superb production values. The quartet of band members is credibly and winsomely played, with standout work from the handsome Scott as the smartest member, who is headed for big things; he comes off as a younger, idealized version of Hanks.
Helmer Hanks has made the wise decision not to use the era’s famous hit songs as backdrop or signposts. Score consists entirely of original songs, some written by Hanks himself. Adam Schlesinger’s winningly melodic title song, which is repeated so many times that moviegoers will be able to hum it at film’s end, was reportedly selected out of more than 300 submissions.
Without a doubt, pic’s most impressive element is its technical sheen, with radiant contributions from ace lenser Tak Fujimoto, composer Howard Shore, designer Victor Kempster, costumer Colleen Atwood and editor Richard Chew.