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Why Every Musician Should Watch “That Thing You Do!”

For as long as it lasts, the viewer’s experience with The Wonders is appropriately balanced in its humor, nostalgia, and heartwarming missteps.

By Richie Angel

“Are you crazy? A man in a really nice camper wants to put our song on the radio! Gimme a pen. I’m signin’, you’re signin’, we’re all signin’!”

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From 1992 to 2000, Tom Hanks starred in the following films consecutively: A League of Their Own, Sleepless in Seattle, Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, Toy Story, That Thing You Do!, Saving Private Ryan, You’ve Got Mail, Toy Story 2, The Green Mile, and Cast Away. Each one is a fondly remembered classic from the illustrious career of America’s Dad, but perhaps the most overlooked of these is Hanks’s directorial and screenwriting debut in which he played the role of band manager both on and off-screen. Hanks even gave the cast a memorably warm but firm injunction about punctuality on a day when all the stars arrived late.

Tom Hanks behind the scenes of That Thing You Do!

That Thing You Do! examines The Wonders, a fictional 1960’s rock band that finds itself topping the charts when Guy Patterson (played by Tom Everett Scott) fills in for a friend’s injured drummer and picks up the tempo. As The Wonders soar in popularity, the eager rockers soon clash with dueling priorities, struggling to balance the spotlight with their craft, their relationships, and each other.

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What follows is a critically acclaimed synthesis of ingredients that deserves far more recognition from everyday film fans and especially musicians. For one thing, Hanks assembled a stellar cast of up-and-comers, including Liv Tyler (daughter of real-life rock legend Steven Tyler), Charlize Theron, and Steve Zahn in his funniest performance. The story is lighthearted and tightly written without being paint-by-numbers, instead capturing the familiar growing pains of a rising band that might as well be the one Bryan Adams sang about in his “Summer of ‘69.” Last but not least, there’s the absolute earworm of an Oscar-nominated titular song written by the late Fountains of Wayne bassist Adam Schlesinger. The movie is at least equal to the sum of its parts and culminates in an ending unexpected for its time and tone but recognizable to all who have traversed the unforgiving road to rock.

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The movie features lessons in onstage performance but reminds musicians that the show continues offstage as well. That kind of constant limelight can be alluring, but it can also distract and damage those who forget the people, habits, and dumb luck that got them where they are. No single bandmate has all the answers, and their respective battles can either bind or divide them—and that’s a choice. Musicians will recognize dilemmas from artistic integrity to backstage jitters, but easily the best inside joke arrives with the end credits when you realize that the bass player was never given a name.

For as long as it lasts, the viewer’s experience with The Wonders is appropriately balanced in its humor, nostalgia, and heartwarming missteps. It evokes the memories of gigs from long ago: both what you did wrong along the way and why you loved every second of it. And that’s why every musician should watch That Thing You Do!

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