That Thing You Do! (1996)

that thing you do

“I led you here, sir, for I am Spartacus.”

The Scoop: 1996 PG, directed by Tom Hanks and starring Tom Hanks, Liv Tyler and Tom Hanks’ younger clone (er, Tom Everett Scott)

Tagline: In every life there comes a time when that dream you dream becomes that thing you do.

Summary Capsule: The Oneders Wonders, a group of young musicians in the mid 60s, record a hit tune and skyrocket to fame… maybe a bit too quickly. Can the band work out their differences, or will they end up as the one-hit Wonders?


Drew’s rating: I don’t say this to every girl, but I. Am. Spartacus.

Drew’s review: Like most people, I usually identify with the heroes of films. I don’t think that’s the result of massive ego on my part (well, not entirely) so much as the fact that filmmakers work hard to make protagonists relatable and engaging. With the exception of horror movies and some indie films, if the audience doesn’t like the main character, they don’t like the movie. I bring that up because while I do relate to Guy, the protagonist of feel-good period comedy That Thing You Do!, my favorite character is easily Lenny, the smart aleck who doesn’t take anything seriously and is prone to dropping random quips at any given time. Like Lenny, I too know the pain of making hilarious comments (shut up, they are so) to people who aren’t expecting them and don’t know how to react. This often leads to silence and incredulous “son, do you ride the short bus?” stares, but who cares as long as you and the invisible audience are amused? Of course, Lenny’s invisible audience actually exists, plus he’s slightly dim and a borderline pervert, so I am now starting to regret comparing myself to him. Let’s move on, shall we?

Our film begins with appliance salesman/drum enthusiast Guy Patterson (Scott) being asked by friends to play new song “That Thing You Do” at a talent show, in the wake of their original drummer breaking his arm. Guy agrees, then makes the rather ballsy decision to speed up the tempo of the song he didn’t write, by the band he’s not technically a member of, with people who are essentially paying him for his time. To his great fortune, rather than ruining the tune and getting everyone pissed, the crowd loves it. Soon Guy and the Oneders (that’s as in the number one), with lead singer Jimmy’s girlfriend Faye (Tyler) along for the ride, are playing at local bars and cutting a record. But after signing with manager Mr. White (Hanks), tensions mount for the newly rechristened Wonders even as “That Thing You Do” blazes up the charts. Jimmy wants to concentrate on more serious songs and make another record; their bass player (Ethan Embry) enlisted in the Marines and will be leaving soon; and smartass Lenny (Steve Zahn) is just looking to tune some pretty young thing’s guitar. If you can decipher my cryptic innuendo. Wink wink. With a TV appearance coming up that could launch them into national stardom, the boys have a choice: shape up or break up. Care to place your bets?

Confession time: I’ve been meaning to review TTYD! for years, but I could never figure out quite what to say. I think the issue is that while I really like the movie, it’s hard to put into words what I love about it. If pressed, I guess I’d point to the way the film portrays the boys’ totally unironic enthusiasm over their meteoric rise to fame. In his debut directorial effort, Tom Hanks does a nice job of getting performances out of his actors that convince the audience that yes, these are really clean-cut, naive youngsters who just stumbled onto a Billboard hit and are enjoying the hell out of it. I have to think that any musician, no matter how jaded or above-it-all he may be, experiences a hushed moment of disbelief upon seeing his first record. I’ll bet even Sid Vicious got choked up for a second before he went back to shooting up whatever was laying around. What TTYD! does and does well is to keep that feeling going, bringing you along for the ride with these small town kids who literally can’t believe this is all happening to them. There’s a wide-eyed innocence to the whole thing that appeals to me, and I’m guessing to the optimist in all of us… I don’t know many people who don’t like this movie.

Of course, you can’t achieve that effect without actors who can convincingly pull off awestruck joy, and it’s here that Tom Hanks made some really smart decisions. Sure, Tom Everett Scott pulls off the aw shucks leading man amiability, but it’s costar Johnathon Schaech who impresses by hitting all the right rod-up-his-buttons… with due respect, the guy just looks like a pretentious, artistic twit, doesn’t he? Compared to Reality Bites, it’s great to see a movie where Steve Zahn is really allowed to shine in that smartass way of his, and in anything he’s in, I will always see Ethan Embry as the boyish, slightly gawky nameless guy. What works is that these four guys have chemistry together, and — particularly in the extended scenes, see below — they actually seem like friends. As for my darling Liv, I find it ironic that Steven Tyler’s daughter always ends up playing the totally pure, innocent characters, whether it’s Corey in Empire Records or Faye here or Arwen in Lord of the Rings. Still, she has the looks for it, and mostly manages to pull off girl-next-door status. (I say mostly because there’s no one in the world who chases after a cougar when he’s got Liv Tyler waiting at home for him. That’s like stepping out on Scarlett Johansson so you can date Julia Roberts. Not happening.)

So there you have it- That Thing You Do! Combine the ’60s pop sensibilities of A Hard Day’s Night with the “hometown boy joins band and makes it big” vibe of Rock Star, strip all the sex and drugs cautionary elements from the latter, and you’re left with a funny, lighthearted romp that won’t blow your mind but probably won’t bore you to tears with the predictability of it all. It doesn’t aim to be the greatest movie ever, and it isn’t; but that said, far lesser films try to accomplish a great deal more all the time and fail miserably. TTYD! knows what it is, and what it is is a fun little movie you put on every so often to appeal to the hopeful kid in all of us. I will caution you that between the various snippets, you’ll probably hear the title song at least 4 times in total before the film’s over. Assuming you can handle that, there’s no reason not to see That Thing at least once.

John, Paul, George and... James the brother of John?
John, Paul, George and… James the brother of John?


  • In a running gag, Ethan Embry’s character is never named, being referred to throughout the movie simply as “our bass player.” Even in the text segment at the end he’s listed as “T.B. Player.”
  • The movie features numerous cameos: among them, Guy’s Uncle Bob is Chris Isaak, “Boss Vic Koss” is Kevin Pollak, and Ron Howard’s brother Clint plays the disc jockey. Two of director Tom Hanks’ family members also make cameos- son Colin escorts Liv Tyler to her seat at the Hollywood Showcase, and wife Rita Wilson is a waitress at The Blue Spot named Marguerite. (In reality, Wilson’s birth name is Margarita Ibrahimova.)
  • There are numerous references to Apollo 13, including Jimmy and Lenny’s last names being borrowed from astronauts Ken Mattingly and Fred Haise. Also, a marquee sign in Pittsburgh touts “Marilyn Lovell and the Geminis.” In real life, Marilyn Lovell was the wife of Jim Lovell from Apollo 13.
  • SPOILER! This might be total coincidence, but: the Bryan Adams song “Summer of ‘69″ talks about a band breaking up when “Jimmy quit, Jody got married.” In TTYD!, Mr. White says the words “Jimmy just quit” and then asks where Lenny is; this is immediately followed by a shot of Lenny getting married.
  • Right before the credits, brief text pieces explain what happened to each of the band members plus Faye.
  •  Most of us are familiar with That Thing You Do! in its theatrical cut, but in 2007 an extended edition was released, significantly longer (149 minutes compared to 108) due to numerous additional scenes. Nothing earth shattering, but they slightly flesh out some of the more minor characters (Tina, Guy’s sister) and show more interaction between the band members and Jimmy’s obsession with his other songs. Memorable added scenes include a riot at Villapianos; Boss Vic Koss kicking the band out of his dressing room (which explains why Lenny was defacing his poster in the theatrical cut); Guy walking in on the bass player in bed with one of the Chantrellines; and Mr. White talking with a drunken Guy after the latter’s visit to The Blue Spot. Notably, in this last scene White is heavily implied to be gay and on a date with his boyfriend (played by Howie Long), a subplot not touched upon in the theatrical version. Finally, Guy’s jam with Del Paxton plays out a bit differently, explaining why he’s carrying a box of tapes in a later scene and what causes him to end up where he does.
  • TTYD! parallels the career of the Beatles in many ways, from the music-themed spelling of their name to the message flashed on screen during their first TV appearance. (For Jimmy it’s “Careful girls, he’s engaged”; for John Lennon on the Ed Sullivan Show it was “Sorry girls, he’s married”.) Also, the Beatles’ first hit was a sped-up version of a slower ballad, “Please Please Me.” The scene where the band members are escorted into a limo and Faye is almost left behind was inspired by an incident that occurred in New York where a security guard refused to believe Cynthia Lennon was John’s wife and wouldn’t let her past to join them on a train. However, in real life the band didn’t notice Cynthia was left behind and she missed the train.
  • Supposedly Tom Hanks conceived the idea for the movie when he learned that the Beatles replaced a sick Ringo Starr with another drummer while touring Japan and Australia, and wondered what those three weeks were like for that drummer. The title song was written by Adam Schlesinger, bassist for Fountains of Wayne, as the result of a contest held by the studio.

Groovy Quotes

Faye: Guys, Chad’s arm is so scary. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything swell up so big, so fast.
Lenny: Hey, Jimmy… don’t take that personally, old man.

Jimmy: No, look — “The Oneders.” Lenny.
Lenny: Yeah, it looks like the O’Needers.
Jimmy: No, the… the Oneders.
Lenny: Got it. Looks like the O’Needers.

Villapiano: Know what that is?
Lenny: …Presidential flash cards?
Villapiano: A bonus. You know why?
Lenny: I have no idea.
Villapiano: To entice you back! The word is out on you O’Needers.
Lenny: Hey, that’s O’Nedders.

Lenny: Hi! I’m Lenny.
Female Fan: Hi.
Lenny: What’s your name?
Female Fan: Chrissy.
Lenny: Yeah, he’s got a very pretty girlfriend, doesn’t he?
Chrissy: Is it serious, do you know?
Lenny: Very serious. I’m single!
Chrissy: What about the bass player?
Lenny: He’s married!

Mr. White: Next, this “Oneders” with the O-N-E? It doesn’t work. It’s confusing. From now on you boys’ll just be… simply the Wonders.
Lenny: As in, I wonder what happened to the O’Needers?
Mr. White: That’s right.

Lenny: Diane Dane! Diane Dane! I had my first boy-girl thing I ev- it was for a picture of you on a record sleeve!
Diane: Yeah, charming.

TV Reporter: The biggest state fair in the entire world! Ah, talk about this latest record.
Jimmy: It’s our first record, we wrote it in my garage in Erie, Pennsylvania.
TV Reporter: I’ll wager that the kids and fellas here, and all the folks at the fair, are showing you a time like you never had.
Lenny: Oh, I’m not here with these fellas… I got a pig in competition over at the livestock pavilion, and I am gonna win that blue ribbon!

Lenny: So, how long have you, uh, worked here at Play-Tone?
Kitty: How long you been wearin’ such tight pants?

Jimmy: Diane Dane said, “Never trust a label,” and I’m beginning to believe her.
Lenny: Oh, I agree. I mean c’mon, they put us up in a first-class hotel, all expenses paid, while our record climbs the charts… buncha lying snakes.
Jimmy: I’m sorry I’m bugging you. I guess I’m alone in my principles.
Lenny: Come on! There he goes, off to his room to write that hit song, “Alone In My Principles.”

Lenny: Skitch… how did we get here?
Guy: I led you here, sir, for I am Spartacus.

Jimmy: Which one of you butts said we were engaged?
Mr. White: The same person who said you had class, Jimmy

Mr. White: You know Guy, Horace was right about you, you are the smart one. Lenny is the fool, Jimmy is the talent, Faye is… well now Faye is special, isn’t she? And you are the smart one. That’s what I think, anyway.

Faye: You know that, um, none of this would have happened if you hadn’t joined the band. And I mean that in a good way.

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