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“The true product was joy…unparalleled, unstoppable, undeniable joy…the joy to be alive! The joy to be young!”
That quote is the climax of Tom Hanks’ fanboy speech inducting the Dave Clark 5 into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. But that podium-pounding sermon wasn’t just about the near-forgotten band that once went toe-to-toe with the Beatles. It was testimony.
Consciously or not, Hanks was answering the question everyone in Hollywood seemed to ask when That Thing You Do! hit theaters: Why would Hanks, the biggest, most bankable star in Hollywood, make his screenwriting and directorial debut with this cute little music movie? And that’s where we say, if you asked the question, you missed the point. A point made perfectly in the film itself when “That Thing You Do!” is played on the radio for the first time. By the time the tubes warm up on the giant hi-fi and fill in the song’s backbeat muscle (a period-perfect touch that only hints at Hanks’ eye for detail), we’ve been yanked back to that first, euphoric moment when a song was the only thing in life that mattered. And that’s not even the movie’s climax.
Like the music it celebrates, That Thing You Do! is a movie you can dance to, and, like the film’s title track, you want to play again just as soon as it ends. It’s funny, slick and quoteworthy, with good-looking actors romping around a Mad Men-worthy re-creation of 1964 in all its iridescent glory. The snappy soundtrack plays like an oldies station beamed in from an alternate universe. But, like the best songs pumping out of AM radios and jukeboxes at the time, That Thing You Do! has a lot more going on behind the beat. Just as Phil Spector’s three-minute masterpieces snuck in a revolution of racial, sexual and generational politics behind his infectious wall of sound, Hanks shows the upheaval of the era in sly glances and off-handed allusions that never violate the spirited beat of his movie.
It’s also the best music biopic ever filmed, though one Hanks could only make by steering clear of anyone’s actual bio. The Wonders were never a band, “That Thing You Do!” was never a hit, Playtone was never a record company, and that’s exactly why That Thing You Do! rings truer and shakes with more pure, ecstatic joy than any film based on someone’s “inspiring true story” ever has.
Without the burden of biography—and all the legalities, fragile egos and record label politics that stand between revealing the truth and profiting from a legacy—Hanks could tell a story that facts would never allow. He could show the innocent exuberance of rock ’n’ roll’s early years right alongside the equally cynical motives that sold it to the world. And Hanks refused to choose sides. Instead, he makes the shrewder point that so much of the music we hold dear is the perfect storm of art and commerce and not the compromised victim of it. As if to drive that point home, Hanks personifies it in the role of Mr. White, the puppetmaster/A&R man who adds the One-ders to the Playtone galaxy of stars, changing the band’s name, look and lineup as he guides their hit up the charts.
Hanks presents the depth of Mr. White’s motives, manipulations and even the details of his private life through subtle gestures and economical glances. His script does the same, using simple moments to communicate years of backstory, off-handedly dropping hints where other movies would drop bombs. In fact, one of the true triumphs of That Thing You Do! is how all the change that America would so violently process in the ’60s is acknowledged with that same deft touch, not once escalating into tone-crushing drama or clichéd montages of newsreel footage set to old Creedence songs. To put it in the terms of Tom Hanks’ career, it’s the antithesis to Forrest Gump’s tick-the-boxes jog through post-war American history.
And, of course, there’s the soundtrack, which is key to selling the whole illusion of the movie. While the songs were all written (largely by Hanks, moving him in to Eastwood or, dare we say, Chaplin-levels of control) and recorded three decades later, they coalesce with the precise schizophrenic sparkle that defined pop music just as the Beatles were invading America. Cut loose from the anchor of history, That Thing You Do! creates ecstatic fans from scratch, song by song and scene by scene, and that’s the only way to make the audience feel what it’s like to love music—whether you’re on the stage or fighting your way through the audience to get closer to it.
Trunkworthy Bonus: To hear just how perfectly That Thing You Do! captured the sound of ’64, we paired the fake hits from the soundtrack with the actual hits that inspired them.