The Score: Mapping the Music and Style of 'That Thing You Do!'
Sixties chic via the 90s and that one song over and over and over.
That Thing You Do could have been just as easily been titled That Thing We Did Was Be In A Famous Band For A Bit. The film follows the lifespan of some one hit wonders, The Oneders/Wonders (more on band naming later), and serves as a primer on how to be in a band destined to be split apart by petty rivalries, creative differences and yes, a woman. Sound familiar? It’s a musical tale as old as time, and That Thing You Do tells it in the perfectly adorable way that only Tom Hanks can. (Fun fact: Tom Hanks not only wrote and directed the movie but also co-composed much of the original music.)
The film is set in 1964 so everyone looks vaguely like a Bushwick hipster, but much cleaner and with shinier hair. Given that the era was fat with iconic music, there’s not much going on outside the fake songs of The Wonders and their fictional contemporarie ( although there are some pretty great Beatles references throughout). The Wonders are Guy/Shades (Tom Everett Scott), Jimmy (Johnathon Schaech), the unnamed Ethan Embry (cleverly billed as TB Player i.e. The Bass Player), Lenny (Steve Zahn), and Chad (Giovanni Ribisi). Tom Hanks is their eventual manager/oracle Mr. White, and Faye (Liv Tyler) is their sort-of Yoko, but much cuter and sweeter, because, you know, Liv Tyler.
I grew up watching That Thing You Do. It was released in 1996, and considering my mum and I had spent our first 12 years together dancing around the living room to Grease, it was a good time for us to add something new to our singalong repertoire. Don’t judge me: I challenge anyone to watch TTYD and not jump out of their seat every time the titular track is played to sing and dance. If you’re not entirely moved by the infectious theme, I would put good money on you having no soul. It’s a testament to “That Thing You Do” being the catchiest fake song ever that even after the band has played it for the eleventy billionth time, you’ll still, at the very least, be wiggling your butt in your seat.
Obligatory listening while reading...
One side note before we delve into the music and style of TTYD: after watching it again, I’ve only now just been struck by the startling realization that everyone in the movie has blue eyes. There is definitely some Tom Hanks level Illuminati shit going on here.
The main guy in TTYD is Guy. He works in his dad’s appliance store and has a penchant for turtlenecks and monochrome outfits. You instantly know he’s cool because he plays drums, and his dad really hates that. (All cool people have two things in common: musical talents and disapproving parents.) As we’re introduced to Guy, “Lovin You Lots and Lots” by the fictitious The Norm Wooster Singers plays, setting the tone of the movie at decidedly “cutesy” and setting up Guy as a regular, but passionate, good guy. The song was penned by Tom Hanks—it’s actually not bad, and pretty believable as a 60s radio hit.
Continuing in the Everything You Need To Know About Guy Patterson Before The Movie Actually Begins theme, Guy runs into his sassy girlfriend Tina, played by a young Charlize Theron. “Mr Downtown” by the fictional Freddy Fredrickson is playing, and it’s got a really suave sort of Dean Martin-y vibe about it, even though Guy is a bit of a dork at heart. Tina has a strong Betty Draper thing going on, and her perfectly manicured bob and color coordinated outfits scream “spoiled brat,” which will be a recurring but completely superfluous theme throughout the movie. Tina and Guy go home together and she gets horny when he yells out “I am Spartacus” (his lame byline), which is weird but I’m okay with it. Tina reveals that they’ve been going out for a year (in some fairly obvious/awkward explanatory scripting), but she still won’t sleep with him because you know, the olden days. Quaint.
Guy heads out to breakfast the next morning and we meet THE BAND! They’re trying to come up with a pun-tastic name like The Beatles, obvi. They are the most adorable band on earth, and deserve nothing less than a dad-jokeish pun for a name. They wear shirts that are clearly from the 90s, masquerading as the 60s. Those patterns could be applied to drapes. Or upholstery. Puce upholstery. Yum.
Do you see where this is going? Guy, being the killer drummer we know him to be, needs to get into this band somehow. So, moments later, Chad sustains an injury to his arm WHILE TRYING TO LEAPFROG A PARKING METER. It’s literally the lamest, lazier injury scene ever, but it sets up Guy’s induction into the band, and gives us one of the greatest lines in movie history, delivered perfectly by Ethan Embry: “Guys, Chad fell down.” Incidentally, this is also how men should wear cords.
Seriously, if Beyoncé had a song on this soundtrack it would go “Turtleneck. Turtleneck. Grindin’ on that turtleneck.” Tell me you wouldn’t grind on that turtleneck? While Guy wears a turtleneck, Jimmy reluctantly asks him to fill in for Chad. And so commences the beginning of the end.
Meanwhile, Tina goes to the dentist wearing this adorable outfit. Because, again, olden days.
The song! The first time we hear the titular track, “That Thing You Do” is in a garage practice. It’s way too slow. So slow that Guy is so bored playing it he gets a fat one for Jimmy’s girlfriend, Faye. But bear with me—the whole movie isn’t based on the success of this crappy ballad. With Spartacus come the winds of change—
In practice, Guy comes up with the name “The Oneders” for the band, which is ominous. It’s supposed to be a word play on “wonders” but unfortunately everyone keeps calling them the Oh-need-ers, which is a brilliant recurring joke.
The gig the band recruited Guy for is a talent show. Before The Oneders go on there’s a pretty terrible folk band playing, which is a reminder that folk music is fucking awful, and which sort of puts your complaints about Pitbull in perspective.
There’s an awkward moment between Faye and Tina at the gig. Faye is laidback and cool, Tina is uptight and princess-y—you can tell by their hair. Tina is complaining about the date because she doesn’t care about music and clearly doesn’t understand a male musician’s passion the way Faye does. In some ways I sort of sympathize with Tina’s brattiness here, because it will turn out that Faye’s blind support of Jimmy’s “art” is completely misguided, as so many women’s feelings for “tortured” musicians can be, whereas Tina ends up with a spunky dentist. ART REFLECTS LYFE, GUYS.
Now, back to the gig, and the most important moment in The Oneders' career: the first time they play “That Thing You Do” together for a live audience. Now with Guy on drums, he makes them go fast without any warning, which is probably also why Tina is so reluctant to schtup him. With the extra fast beat, the lethargic song we heard at rehearsal is transformed. If you’re human, this is the part where you punch the air and relent to the nagging urge to dance. They win the talent show, which is the olden day equivalent of 100k views on YouTube. Despite how great the gig goes, Jimmy is still pissed because the song was meant to be a ballad.
Afterwards, as Tina and Guy drive home, Tina just wants to bitch about Faye but Guy only cares about the music, man, especially because he’s now in the band for real. Faye is wearing this driving headscarf, and I enthusiastically motion to bring back driving headscarves.
At the next band practice, Faye and Guy flirt shamelessly while everyone else natters about The Beatles. It’s always jarring to me when movies mix a lot of fake things with one or two real things, not in the least because there are similarities in the rise and demise of the fictional Oneders and the real Beatles, even though TTYD compresses their career trajectory into the lifespan of one hit song.
It’s clear that Jimmy is obsessed with ballads because he’s a bleeding heart with many feels, but also because he’s a total narcissist and an alpha male control freak. The band plays “All My Lonely Dreams”, a drowsy ballad, at a bar, and no one is digging it, not even me. At least Faye looks divine as she swoons over Jimmy. Some heckler in the audience starts screaming “Play ‘That Thing You Do!’ We came here to meet girls and dance and we can’t meet girls if we don’t dance!” which is the olden day equivalent of trash talking in YouTube comments, I guess. They play the song, and for the first time they make a little cash, as well as a bonus from the bar manager who wants to give them an incentive to come back and play again. People were apparently calling their friends to come down and listen to them play “That Thing You Do”. It’s weird to me that everyone’s friend’s lived close enough to get to the bar before a three-minute song was done. Life before social media and Instagram video, amirite?
The band decides to record “That Thing You Do” and start selling records, which is a great career move for them, considering piracy and Spotify yet a big deal. Guy’s uncle, Chris Isaak, helps them record and agrees that the track is “swingin” but Jimmy still won’t let the ballad thing go. He wants to record “All My Lonely Dreams” in one take for the B-side, but everyone else thinks it's shit (which is it). More “That Thing You Do!”
Groupies had more decorum with their outfits in the 60s. That bow is precious.
The Oneders are playing another bar gig, and Tina makes a point of wearing her dancing shoes. The band plays a song called “Little Wild One” which is a lot of fun but still a little bit sleepy compared to “That Thing You Do.” The audience seems to be enjoying it, but regardless a fight breaks out, which is the obvious sign of a good show. Lenny yells out, “This means that they want an encore!” so the band keeps playing while Jimmy makes a cowardly retreat from the stage. And Faye, like all good band girlfriends, cackles through the riot like a banshee.
Finally a manager comes along, and he’s wearing a stupid shirt. Quite frankly, I’m disappointed it’s not Hawaiian print. This guy seems to get around in an RV—his “office”—and thinks The Oneders have a hit record. Before bands had MySpace pages I guess dudes just drove around town looking for cool bands to sign up?
It’s probably worth mentioning that Tina, the antithesis to the free spirit of 60s rock, continues to wear the most adorably clean housewife outfits to the dentist.
The first time the band hears “That Thing You Do” played on the radio ups the adorable level of TTYD to “cat gif.” As a result of the air time, their weird rape van manager gets them a “big” gig where they’ll play with “big” musicians in a “big” theatre in Pittsburgh, hosted by Vic Koss, who is a “big” deal and played by Kevin Pollack. The gig is a bit of a disaster as their mics don’t work, there’s awful feedback from the speakers and Guy’s cymbal falls down. NOOBS. Oh well, the path to glory is often fraught, and it would have been hard to believe they played the song perfectly every time anyway. I’ve seen bands live. I know how it goes.
As it turns out, the rocky start to the gig doesn’t matter because here comes fucking TOM HANKS to save the day. His name is simply “Mr. White.” He’s from Play Tone Records and he wants to take over management of the band, even though Guy is loyal to their original manager (which happens to no one, ever. Follow the money!), a nice guy who convinces Guy to go with Tom Hanks and Play Tone on a full-blown rock tour. Tom Hanks cleverly changes the band’s name to the plain old “Wonders” so people can pronounce it properly, while Jimmy is still trying to make fetch happen on the ballad front.
Mr. White gives the boys a wardrobe overhaul with matching suits, which have skinny ties and are sexy as all hell. He also gives Guy his shades, which transforms him into his creatively named band alter ego, “Shades.”
Meanwhile, back at the ranch: Tina, in a total non sequitur, is playing golf with her dentist.
On tour,the boys get to play with their idols, including Freddy Fredrickson whose song “Mr. Downtown” you’ll remember from the start of the movie. The song somehow seems less good and more cheesy when it’s sung by a middle-aged dude with fake tan in a glitter tuxedo.
The guys have to make an impression at this show. There’s a huge DJ watching and he might play them on “real” radio. They look great in matching red, and it’s a relief to see Jimmy out of his favored poo-brown ill-fitting suits. It’s about the right time in the film for a montage and, you guessed it... It’s MONTAGE TIME! The Wonders get played on the radio by the big DJ guy, and enter the Billboard chart at number 93. Ethan Embry gets a girlfriend, the band tours the nation to hordes of screaming fans and do cute TV appearances while continuing to climb the charts. Tina even makes a cameo in the montage when she hears them on the radio while at the dentist.
Playing to a 360-degree crowd, The Wonders play a song called “Dance With Me Tonight,” which should have also been a hit. I’m surprised it didn’t chart along with “That Thing You Do,” because it'll definitely make you shake your ass. Also, Lenny can now wag his guitar at girls and make them lose their MINDS, which is how you know your band is really famous.
Ethan Embry’s girlfriend’s band, The Chantrellines, gets some stage time; they serve as a fictitious-and-also-less-charismatic Supremes,. Their song, "Hold My Hand, Hold My Heart," sounds exactly like the Supremes, but without Diana Ross’ spleen-melting vocal.
The best outfit of the movie goes to Diane Dane at show rehearsal. It kind of reminds me of one of Cher’s outfits in Mermaids, which is the highest compliment that can be paid. There’s a weird moment where she flirts with Jimmy, a point that is never really followed through to any conclusion. Despite her killer outfit, her song, "My World Is Over" is boring and twee.
The Wonders’ record goes to #7 and they head for Los Angeles, which is the place to go when you’re on the up and up towards stardom. They have to contend with some full on FANMANIA, with women screaming, crying and climbing on their car. These fans are the Directioners of the 60s, sadly unable to start a Tumblr to show their fandom. Faye almost gets left behind, and Jimmy doesn’t notice. It’s good guy Guy that saves her, and goes on to look after her sick self while she’s in coach alone on the flight.
The boys are in a beach movie, which is a genre we sincerely need to revive. They fake play a fake song, “Shrimp Shack,” as Cap'n Geech & The Shrimp Shack Shooters. Good news fellas, says Tom Hanks: You get to keep the outfits, which makes me think of all the weird little sex games they could play. Jimmy is not happy, because Hollywood is eroding his art (again, said no one, ever. Follow the money!).
At their first introduction to Play Tone Records' headquarters Jimmy approaches big boss Sol Siler, who is devastating in hot pink. After being reprimanded for this rookie move, he tantrums and throws all his toys out of the stroller because he feels “alone” in his principles. While the others enjoy fame and luxury and are generally being chill bros, Jimmy wants to “do art” and comes off as an ass, but Faye keeps standing up for him because he’s “so smart”. She doesn’t seem to convincingly minimize his douchebaggery.
As the band begins falling apart, with Jimmy off having a cry somewhere, Lenny doing sex and gambling and Ethan Embry getting carried away with some army blokes, Guy goes to see some jazz and does some great jazz appreciation faces. I can’t reciprocate because I have exactly zero feelings about jazz, although I do like his jazz appreciation outfit of black turtleneck with a grey blazer. Guy finds out that OMG DEL PAXTON IS IN THE BAR. He totally fanboys out at the sight of this fake legend who is his fake hero. Del tells him, “Sooner or later something makes you crazy: money, women, the road... hell, time.” We begin to accept the inevitable—it’s the end of the road for The Wonders. The next day, we see just HOW in trouble the band is. Before a TV appearance, Lenny is crazy with sex, Jimmy is vomiting, and Ethan Embry is at Disney Land with the troops.
Note guest appearances from Tom’s son Colin Hanks as “male page”, and Bryan Cranston as an astronaut. In a Pretty Woman moment, Tom Hanks gives Faye carte blanche to get dolled up, and she looks divine.
In what is their final show, filmed for TV, Guy announces, “I led you here sir, for I am Spartacus.” The show goes great, but afterwards, things are still chaotic. Lenny needs cash. Jimmy is a complete jerk to Faye after a caption reading “Careful girls he’s engaged,” appears over his face during their television spot. Faye FINALLY realizes Jimmy’s a big fat phony and gives him a killer goddamn break up speech, leaving with all sorts of dignity while he continues to be a fucking buttmunch about everything.
Later in the recording studio, Jimmy wants to record his songs or NOTHING. When Tom Hanks tells him he’s under contract and has to toe the line, he quits the band like a petulant brat, singing a terribly penned “I Quit” song. If this was now, he’d do something clever like record his quitting and become an internet meme.
Luckily, the misunderstood Guy/Spartacus/Shades gets his last moment of musical glory as Del Paxton appears from literally nowhere with an invitation to jam. Guy plays drums with duck face and it’s kind of nice, even though he does a predictable jazz snare. And just when you thought things couldn’t pan out any better for ol' Guy, he gets a job at a jazz radio station.
AND he gets the girl. Who has amazing hair and the best liquid eyeliner ever. Who said nice guys finish last?
Kat George knows all the games you play, and is tired of it. She's on Twitter. - @kat_george