MUSIC MOVIES & ME: THAT THING YOU DO! and the Joy of Making Music
This article is the first in a new series by Sarah Jae Leiber exploring "music movies" and all the beauty and frustration that comes with them!
There's no denying that music and film are inextricably tied. Most movies have scores or soundtracks or both-take the music out of the movie or change the music that scores a perfect scene and you suddenly have something very confusing on your hands. We take emotional cues from music in film. Music lets us know deep in our souls how a character is feeling without anybody having to say anything about it.
Most movies contain music, but there is a subset of movies that are about music-about the process of creating music, or the joy of sharing music with people you love, or the anguish that comes from an inability to communicate with the world via your music. Music stories are human stories. They're maybe the most human stories. I love them very much, and I'm grateful to have the opportunity to talk to you about them week to week. Check out my 2018 review of "Bohemian Rhapsody," which started it all.
Now that you're back from reading about how much I hated "Bohemian Rhapsody," let me talk to you about a movie I love. This series would not be legitimate (and it would not be mine) if I did not start out by talking about "That Thing You Do!", the 1996 film about the one-hit Wonders from director/writer/star/America's Sweetheart Tom Hanks.
I have seen this movie upwards of seventy times. I remember being about seven years old and listening to the title song upwards of one million times on my very first battery-operated MP3 player. I feel like the reason "That Thing You Do!" sticks to me so hard and so well lies in how pleasantly rewatchable it is. When I talk about this movie, a lot of times people will tell me that they've never seen it all the way through, that they've caught bits of it on TV dozens of times. But they always know the title song, and remembering it always makes their eyes light up.
"That Thing You Do," the song, was written by Adam Schlesinger, who played bass and wrote songs for power-pop darlings Fountains of Wayne. You know Fountains of Wayne from "Stacy's Mom," but you should know them for so many other things. Familiarize yourself with Schlesinger's catchy tunes and clever lyrics; it will come as no shock to you that the man is talented cross-genre. He also co-wrote the zillions of songs on "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" and "Pop Goes My Heart" from "Music & Lyrics," if that gives him more cred in your book.
Schlesinger wrote "That Thing You Do" as an exercise. The filmmakers commissioned musicians to write a conceivable, Beatle-esque, mid-sixties Pop hit, and we ended up with this perfect little song. From its heartbeat-imitating opening drum beats to golden-voiced singer Mike Viola (an incredible songwriter in his own right)'s lovesick wails set to joyous rhythm and sound, "That Thing You Do" strikes a chord because it knows exactly what it's doing.
The film's soundtrack is filled with these kinds of nostalgic bops: songs you recognize, even if you've never heard them before. Fictional bands and solo artists populate the tracklist. Songs from The Wonders (the band at the center of the movie) are reminiscent of shaggy-haired British Invasion-era bands like The Beatles and Herman's Hermits; The Chantrellines remind you of Motown girl groups like The Supremes; crooner Freddy Fredrickson (played by Robert Torti)'s "Theme from Mr. Downtown" sounds like Frank Sinatra on his best day. Tom Hanks himself co-wrote the song that plays over the opening credits, which sounds like the kind of thing you'd play in your late-fifties Thunderbird with the roof down. The music is exceedingly familiar and highly accessible to a wide audience-I was born in the late nineties, and this movie makes me feel nostalgic for a past I never lived.
It doesn't hurt that the entire cast and crew were dedicated to making the experience as authentic as possible. The actors who made up The Wonders (Tom Everett Scott, Jonathan Scaech, Steve Zahn, Ethan Embry, and, briefly, Giovanni Ribisi) all learned how to play their instruments for real in the weeks leading up to the shoot-they're playing for real in all of the performance shots, getting that real rush of adrenaline that comes from performing music. "That Thing You Do!" launched many of those young actors' careers; Liv Tyler also had one of her first starring roles in this movie. Charlize Theron started in this movie! It's her first film role, and they let her be funny!
The chemistry between the band members is electric from start to finish. When Scaech's primadonna singer/songwriter Jimmy clashes with Scott's cool-guy drummer Guy Patterson, you can feel it in your fingers and toes. Add in Zahn's irreverent Lenny and Embry's sweet, semi-anonymous unnamed bass player and you have all the passion for success and all the ego for failure. The Wonders are destined to fall; it's there in their name. But what a joy it is to watch them rise.
There is a scene in this movie where the band hears their hit song on the radio for the first time. It starts with Liv Tyler's Faye, who's mailing letters when her portable radio starts playing the familiar tune. She screams and runs away from the mailbox-and then quickly runs back to the mailbox to finish her task before meeting up with her friends in the band. As she collects band members, the music gets louder and louder. Finally, the whole band is together in Guy Patterson's family appliance store. The song is playing over the store hi-fis, on more radios than ever should be in the same room together, and the band is ecstatic. They laugh, they jump, they sing. They kiss, they hug, they scream, they run around in a circle. It doesn't matter that they've all heard the song one million times-it doesn't matter that we, the audience, have heard the song one million times. They know they've created something beautiful, and we get to watch it all happen. The song becomes a character in the movie, something we root for and wish success. The beauty of "That Thing You Do!" lies in music as a shared experience, as something that binds people together and makes them happy-so deliriously happy that they sometimes have to kiss a cardboard cutout to contain their energy.