Joy. That’s the best word I can use to describe this underrated gem. That Thing You Do! is 108 minutes of pure, unfiltered joy. Tom Hanks’ directorial debut turns 25 this year so we felt it was the perfect time to revisit this fun and entertaining film about one hit wonders and rock and roll.
The premise for That Thing You Do! is pretty simple. Set in the 1960’s, the film follows the meteoric rise, and subsequent fall, of a fictional rock and roll band – The Oneders. (Changed to The Wonders due the confusing nature of the previous spelling.) There is nothing groundbreaking about the plot or the story devices. What sets the film apart and has made it a cult classic since its less-than-auspicious release in 1996, is the sense of fun and joy that saturates the film. Tom Hanks writes and directs the film with a loving and gentle playfulness. There is no angst or darkness in the film. It’s light, energetic, and above all, positively happy. For that reason alone, I would highly recommend it. But, the film is much more than that.
Every character is perfectly cast. All four members of The Wonders, Tom Everett Scott, Johnathon Schaech, Ethan Embry, and Steve Zahn, seem tailor-made for their parts. Yet, not only are they well-suited for their roles, they are very believable as a rock and roll band. Most films that feature fictional bands do a poor job of convincing the audience that the actors are actually performing. That Thing You Do! does not have this problem. The “live” performances are a highlight.
But the main cast doesn’t steal all the spotlight. The supporting cast is fantastic as well. Liv Tyler, Tom Hanks, Charlize Theron, Kevin Pollack, and many others add texture and color. Bill Cobbs, playing fictional jazz superstar Del Paxton, is particularly wonderful and brings another dimension to a film already stuffed-to-bursting with life and style.
But absolutely none of that matters if the music doesn’t work. Thankfully, the music is better than anyone could have dreamed. The theme song, That Thing You Do! feels timeless from the opening notes. It’s the perfect distillation of every great pop-rock song of that era. I promise you, it will get stuck in your head.
Yet, regardless of the premise of the movie, the music is no one hit wonder. 60’s era music saturates the film, all of it conceived, written, and produced for the movie. It transports the audience back to that time so effortlessly, it almost feels impossible. Standouts include, “Dance with Me Tonight”, “Mr. Downtown”, and “Hold My Hand, Hold My Heart”. Since the release of the film, the soundtrack has sold 1 million copies, proving just how integral to the film the music is. (Interesting side note: Rick Elias, Christian musician, Ragamuffin, and friend of Rich Mullins, was instrumental in writing and producing many of the songs.)
That Thing You Do! didn’t really achieve the success it deserved when it was released on October 4th, 1996. But since that day 25 years ago, the film has firmly established itself as a classic. Tom Hanks described it as “…just this unspooling of very recognizable moments that sparked joy.” And frankly, I don’t think I could say it any better. That Thing You Do! feels like a movie we have always loved, even from the first viewing. It is nostalgia and timelessness mixed in equal parts creating something better and more fulfilling. That Thing You Do! is joy on the screen and that is something worth celebrating.