When I think of the quintessential baby-boomer movie star, I think most immediately of Tom Hanks. Throughout his long and illustrious career, he’s managed to take roles that most often embody the American postwar existence, from hapless astronaut in Apollo 13 to Cold War lawyer in Bridge of Spies to both homefront and warfront challengers in A League of Their Own and Saving Private Ryan, respectively. And then, of course, the title role in a film that spanned all those years in one neat package, Forrest Gump, directed, appropriately, by the quintessential baby boomer director, Robert Zemeckis. Who needs a history book, kids, you can just turn to Woody the Cowboy for a panoramic view of the last 50 years?
So it didn’t come as al that a surprise for me when Hanks took over the directorial reins for the first time 1996 and made That Thing You Do!, a paean to American pop music in the mid 60s that was clearly influenced by a little band know as the Beatles. Thing chronicles the meteoric rise and not-so-meteoric fall of a fictional group know as the Wonders (originally the One-ders), who start out earnestly enough but fall prey to the trappings of fame and fortune. And what makes the movie such a pleasure to view is the giddy joy that director Hanks imparts into his work – every frame resonates with the passion he has for his material, from the immaculate attention to the period detail of 1964 to the electric sensation his characters (and we) feel upon hearing their title tune for the first time. It’s not just a celebration of this band but a full-throated salute to this phenomenon known as rock and roll, which, along with TV, is probably the greatest cultural touchstone of the boomer generation.
We begin in the modest hamlet of Erie, Pennsylvania, and we don’t waste any time with the very beginnings. There’s a band, and they have a song, and they need a drummer. (Their original percussionist takes a nasty fall and busts his arm.) Enter Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott), who begrudgingly signs on, despite the fact that his heart belongs to jazz, not rock. But he’s hot with the sticks, and when he gives their song an uptempo lift, they win a local contest and record their song as a 45 record. Things pick up when they find a manager, who gets bigger venues for them to play, until finally – the Big Time – a scout for a major record label, Del Tone, signs them up and whisks them away to Hollywood. TV, movies, more songs, a recording contract all follow, but tension within the quintet starts to show. Jimmy, the lead singer, wants more creative control; Lenny can’t stay away from the women; T.D., the bassist, will soon join the Marines but already feels a part of the military; and Guy seems to be falling in love with Faye (Liv Tyler). In the end, all go their separate ways, but the scout (Tom Hanks) functions as a spiritual guide for the young drummer, telling him he’s the “smart one,” and blessing him in his future endeavors.
It’s clear from the casting of Scott as Guy, the drummer, that Tom Hanks’ work is, to a great degree, autobiographical. Scott is pretty much Hanks’ doppelganger as a young man (he’s got all the mannerisms uncannily down pat), and you can’t help but be reminded of early-80s Hanks with every shot. And Hanks’ role as scout/producer is pretty much a replica of his current self (an authoritarian but with a heart of gold and filled with sage wisdom), so in addition to the period commentary we also get a profound statement of lifelesson – the young heed the advice of their elders, particularly when they screw up and need advice more than ever. And whatever you do, don’t leave Liv Tyler all alone in a coffee shop before you go after your dream.
We’ve, of course, seen this formula before, most recently in the great film The Commitments. But it works, and it also likely reflects the reality of countless one-hit-wonder bands from the era (and today too), who had their 15 minutes of glory before retreating to the obscurity from whence they came. It’s a human story – one we can all too easily identify with – and it reveals the desire within us all to be popular, very popular, in as short a period of time as possible. Yet, it’s also indicative of a flaw in the human psyche: that we can never really appreciate success once we have it. We always want more, and that tends to be our downfall.
Philosophical meditation aside, this is a fun film, though, and this was such a labor of love for Hanks that he released an extended director’s cut as part of the DVD I watched. I, course, watched this version (I saw the original version when it came out), and what amazed me so was how good the excised footage wasl not of it felt extraneous to me at all, and the “epic” length was necessary to tell the full arc of this story. A good chunk of the cutting room scenes have to do with Guy’s would-be love interest, played by Charlise Theron, a superficial glamour goddess who prefers the company of her hunky dentist, but that stuff is funny. And because every scene is so lovingly crafted and handsomely mounted (I just loved looking at all the 60s furnishings and devices), it’s almost a crime not to ket any of it see the light of day.
Of course, this was still 1996, and any extended running times were reserved for the “important” films (Braveheart, Schindler’s List, etc), so Thing had to settle for an average 107 minutes. I remember liking it then, and appreciating its craftsmanship, but now I more appreciate the human elements, and I think it’s because there’s more of it. That and because I’m older.
Hanks as a writer too must be commended. His lines ride the balance between golden Hollywood crowd pleasing and idiosyncratic realism, a balance you need to attain for this sort of product. Once in a great while I felt a tad manipulated, but Hanks keeps the show going, and makes up for it with an incisive jab at show business here, an arresting dialogue there. And sometimes – silence – as when the band walks up on stage and faces an empty, 2,200 seat auditorium for the first time.
And let’s not forget the song, played several times throughout but maddeningly hummable. It passes the test – it could definitely have been a hit song. Probably even better than most.
Catch the director’s cut of this one. You won’t regret it.