Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Twenty-Six


#26 — That Thing You Do! (Tom Hanks, 1996)
Innocence without naivete is a wonderful thing, and that’s exactly the tone Tom Hanks strikes with his directorial debut. After a string of major successes at the box office and back-to-back Best Actor Oscar wins, Hanks used his freshly minted authority to get some studio dollars for a sweet little story about a rock’n’roll combo from Erie, Pennsylvania that rides two-minutes-and-45-seconds of pop nirvana all the way to teen sensation status at right around the time The Beatles were first acquainting American ears with the sound of thousands of girls screaming in unified, backbeat-fueled bliss. At the time of its release, Hanks talked about his affection for all the American bands that had a taste of success before being swept aside for the British Invasion. His script lovingly recreates the the musical free-for-all of the early sixties, when the playing field was even enough that cooking up a great hook and finding a way to get it pressed onto a record was sometimes all that was needed to gain membership in the galaxy of stars making the radio airwaves shimmer and shine like never before.

That Thing You Do! could easily have turned cutesy, wallowing in dead end nostalgia. Certainly Hanks and his collaborators pack it full of appropriate detail, from the gleaming household beauties in the showroom of a family-owned appliance store to the caravan of music performers touring county fairs to the songs that fill the soundtrack, ingenious pastiches of every style and sound elbowing for attention in that less stratified era of pop music. Hanks doesn’t embalm and venerate this past, he simply depicts it with deep attention and gratifying thoroughness. It’s fun to watch the film cast back to a completely different era of entertainment, when the hottest band on the charts appeared on something like the Hollywood Television Showcase, slotted in between a plate spinner, an astronaut fumbling through a comedy routine, and, just maybe, an elephant that plays the harmonica. Importantly, Hanks also focuses on the emotional weight of the scene, the way it fits into the story he’s telling. The set dressing contributes mightily to the feel of the sequence, but it still plays a supporting role to the bigger picture, notably the sense that the group is hitting a peak and about to tip over into inevitable decline.

More than anything else, That Thing You Do! is filled with joy. There’s a knowing cynicism in place as well–Hanks never pretends the record executives see these fresh-faced musicians as much more than the catalysts for short-term gain–but the overall vibe of the film is built on the exuberance of discovery, youth, and sudden freedom. That’s exemplified by the scene in which “That Thing You Do!,” the song by The Wonders, makes it unexpected debut on the radio, and the scattered band members convene on the store where the drummer works to exult in the moment together. There may be a happier scene in another nineteen-nineties movie. If so, I haven’t seen it. Hanks is something of a beacon of good-natured appreciation for the pleasures of life himself, so it’s not a particular surprise that he shares that blessed optimism with his characters, letting them live in a world primarily shaped by that sensibility. Even if they’re not destined for lifelong stardom, their flash is worth watching and purely irresistible. The big movie star in the director’s chair makes sure of that.

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