Tom Hanks' Unsung Tribute To Pop

“That Thing You Do!” was Tom Hanks’ highly publicized debut as a writer and director, but it turned out to be the 60th highest grossing film of 1996. Those two tidbits might seem incongruous now, as Hanks remains one of the biggest movie stars in the world. But the low key response to the film must have been even more confusing in the mid-90s, with Hanks coming off consecutive Oscars. He was an industry titan at the top of his game, so a Hanks-helmed, family-friendly pseudo-musical must have seemed like a sure bet at 20th Century Fox. Amazingly, it fizzled at the box office.

On its surface, “That Think You Do!” is something of a throwaway tribute to 60s pop. The theatrical cut is relatively light on character development and the actors spend most of the running time practically winking at the camera. It’s very bright and cheery and all but ignores the dark side of the music industry. Yet, the film rightfully found an audience on VHS and has continued to win over viewers on DVD and cable, eventually leading to the release of an extended cut in 2007.

Its place as an overlooked gem is attributable to many things, but none as much as the title song, penned by Adam Schlesinger (of Fountains Of Wayne) and performed by Mike Viola. It’s three minutes of timeless power pop with an irresistible backbeat and a chorus as memorable as any from the era it’s so lovingly lampooning. It’s rare enough that a pop song can carry itself to conclusion, let alone a full-length motion picture! The term “chorus” doesn’t even apply in any normal sense. The whole song is a chorus, teeming with golden hooks and airy harmonies.

It’s hard to know if the film would have hit such a sweet spot without its lightning-in-a-bottle theme song, but the rest of its style parodies are all on target, from Motown to surf rock. The cast – anchored by Tom Everett Scott, Steve Zahn, Liv Tyler, and Hanks – is electric, apparently having the most fun anyone has ever had on a film set. The result is absolutely contagious. The pace is relentless.

As far as “comfort films” go, “That Thing You Do!” deserves a primo spot on any music fan’s DVD shelf, hard drive, or Netflix queue. It’s not so light that you instantly forget it (although, rediscovering it every few years is one of its joys), but it’s not at all demanding and the film’s energy is unparalleled. It’s absolutely impossible not to smile when “The Wonders” hear their song on the radio for the first time, and Hanks does an incredible job in keeping up that sense of momentum throughout the movie.

★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

-J. Olson