ROCK AND ROLL SCREENINGS (Take 10: That Thing You Do)

That Thing You Do (1996)
d. Tom Hanks

[NOTE: This review if for the theatrical release of That Thing You Do…The director’s cut now available as an extra on some DVD packages is a classic example of more amounting to less.]

Except for a couple of key moments, That Thing You Do, Tom Hanks’ breeezy homage to the garage band ethos of the 1960s, exists entirely on the surface. And that’s fine, because, this time, the surface carries a real story and because great care is taken to present it in all its glory.

My favorite moment on that surface, comes when Steve Zahn’s guitar playing wiseacre and general layabout who can’t get a date, hits on the receptionist at the record company his band, The Wonders, has been signed to, and not only ends up with a date, but a quickie marriage in Vegas to a former Playboy bunny who doesn’t forget to hang on to her cigarette for the wedding photo.

If that doesn’t make you laugh, this movie’s probably not for you.

If this movie is for you, then by the time you reach that scene, you’ve been treated to literally hundreds of sharply observed details of Life in America during its most recent Great Upheaval. For once, the focus is on the lives that the maelstrom was meant to disrupt and discard, rather than the movers and shakers. It’s like an inversion of Baby It’s You (the greatest movie about the Sixties).

There, the future is always present–a permanent, nagging challenge to all the conventions that were about to be cast aside. Here, the future doesn’t matter. Not the nation’s future, or–despite an American Graffiti-style coda (to speak of movies that carry the weight of the future) to catch us up on what happened to everybody–those of the characters themselves.

That’s appropriate, too, because, beyond those under-the-skin moments I mentioned (about which more in a minute), all the characters are on the surface of the surface.

They could be anybody.

And that was the Rock and Roll America genius of the garage-band moment itself. The idea that anybody–literally anybody–might have a great record in them. In Garage Band America, it happened over and over, enough to generate enough entries on the Billboard Hot 100 (which plays a prominent role in threading the plot together in That Thing You Do)  to fill it for at least a week, but cult-like devotion–even to records that didn’t make the chart–that has lasted and grown over half a century and, occasionally, in the manner of all great American passions, reached extremes about equal parts ridiculous and sublime.

If you laughed at the Playboy bunny holding a cigarette while she married the guitar player of the latest national sensation, The Wonders, from Eerie, P-A in Vegas, then this movie’s for you, even if it doesn’t transcend antecedents like Graffiti and (I’m told) The Commitments. It’s a story worth telling from more than one angle, and this telling doesn’t overplay its hand.

It may be so careful in that last respect that it can’t help representing a shallower take than those others. Such accusations have been made and they aren’t without merit.

But it cuts deeper than its main intention on a couple of levels:

One is the reminder (not always kept at the forefront of the Garage Band Narrative, especially when it’s being referenced as a forerunner of something Really Important like Punk) that, in every band who made it, there was at least somebody who wanted to make it–wanted to live something closer to a dream than a reality without forgetting that it’s the people stuck in boring old reality (be it your dad’s appliance shop or the military) who make all dreams possible.

Two: Those key moments I mentioned above, both of which belong to Liv Tyler.

Once, when she’s the first person to hear the band’s song come on the radio for the first time and takes off down the streets of downtown Eerie, P-A, with a fusion of personal and communal joy that is no longer possible and barely imaginable in this land our dreams have made.

And then, near the end, as the joyride comes crashing down and she finally says You stay away from me to the boy whose love she lost to the band’s brief moment of glory because, in The Wonders, he was the one who wanted to make it.

Those are moments any good actress would treasure–what they meant to Liv Tyler, the daughter of people (Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler and groupie extraordinaire Bebe Buell), whose lives represented the willful abandonment of the cultural norms so lovingly portrayed here as completely as Trump Tower’s golden toilets define the obscenities of excess, is anybody’s guess.

I hope she’s proud of them. They’re more than enough to keep That Thing You Do from floating away on a sea of nostalgia–and to make it worth watching forever.


Are we having fun yet?…Actually, this decade was better than I thought…at least at the top.

At least if you don’t bring none of them boring old morals into it.

Still dreading the post-millennium.

1990 The Grifters (Stephen Frears) (and what a way to open a Decade of Decline!…over Bad Influence, Metropolitan and Pump Up the Volume)

1991 The Doors (Oliver Stone) (over Robin Hood (Patrick Bergin version), JFK (Oliver Stone’s one good year!) and Point Break (still Kathryn Bigelow’s best)

1992 The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (Curtis Hanson) (over One False Move and The Player)


1993 Gettysburg (Ron Maxwell) (over Schindler’s List, The Fugitive, Groundhog Day, Matinee and The Wrong Man)

1994 Fresh (Boaz Yakin) (over Barcelona and Ed Wood (Tim Burton’s best…by miles))

1995 To Die For (Gus Van Sant) (over Mighty Aphrodite, Sense and Sensibility and Toy Story)

1996 Grace of My Heart (Allison Anders) (over Freeway, Jerry McGuire and That Thing You Do)

1997 Wag the Dog (Barry Levinson) (over Grosse Pointe Blank, Jackie Brown and The Peacemaker)

1998 A Perfect Murder (Andrew Davis) (over Shakespeare in Love, Croupier and The Mask of Zorro)

1999 The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella) (over Ride With the Devil and, by the thinnest of margins, Dick…if only because “the nineties” was not a decade that deserved to die laughing)

Next, the new millennium…feel my heart go pitter-patter.


The Bangles/The Bangles

Prompted by a combination of fondly recalled eighties-era MTV browsing (especially a certain combination of Vicki Peterson, a fringe-mini, a guitar and “Walk Like An Egyptian”) and a cheapie deal on Amazon, I finally found myself in possession of The Bangles Greatest Hits on video. Popped it in and found it all up to snuff.

Not much art in anything except the music (which I already had plenty of in various other formats). But the one-two combo of “Walking Down Your Street” and “In My Room” finally allowed me to put my finger on them.

They were the one great eighties’ band for whom the seventies need never have happened. I mean, you could have set them down in 1966 and they would have fit right in.

I think I missed the obvious for so long because so many people used to say the same thing about the Go-Gos. Since I knew that wasn’t really true (though I always understood how Charlotte Caffey’s occasional, mind-bending nods to classical surf guitar could create confusion), I think my mind threw up defenses that were almost bound to remain in place long after they were needed.

I might have cottoned sooner, except that I somehow missed the “Walking Down Your Street” video back in the day. In that one, they play a contest-winning garage band (long before That Thing You Do turned the concept into pure pleasure) who get to appear on some Shindig-style show with Little Richard–and then proceed to eat up his stage time while he frets back-stage.

After that, the hipster psychedelia of the “In Your Room” video–which was the other thing besides that fringe-mini that I really wanted to test my memory against–finally made sense.

All this in the midst of the chiming guitars, the perfect harmony and the tightly edited, high-class soft-core money shots gleaming forth one after another.

Totally awesome.