I’ve always liked this 1996 film that follows a one-hit band from Erie, Pennsylvania to the top of the record charts and then back down again as they fall apart. A few thoughts on re-watching the extended cut of the movie:
1. The movie has an innocence about it: small-town kids make it big. The characters have a wide-eyed wonder for much of the movie until they become disillusioned. Perhaps this is still the American dream for many bands: hope to get discovered by a local agent and then hit the big-time with all its benefits (fame, money, women, TV).
2. Though he is the last member to join, the drummer, Guy Patterson, is the main character who speeds up the tempo of the band’s hit song when it is still in its embryonic stages and tries to hold the band together as the pieces fall apart. Guy is likable. The extended cut includes move of Guy’s initial back story before he joined the band.
2a. The lead singer, Jimmy, on the other hand, is the brooding genius who can’t handle the demands of the road and just wants to record his next hit record.
2b. Faye, Jimmy’s girlfriend, is played by Liv Tyler and is a lovely girl caught in the band’s crossfire. (This is the only movie where I liked Liv Tyler’s acting.)
3. I like the music. Though it was written in the 1990s, it does sound like music from the 1960s. The title track, “That Thing You Do!”, is catchy and usually stays in my head for a few days after hearing it. Some of the other songs on the soundtrack are also good.
(According to Wikipedia, the title track was good enough in 1996 to merit airplay: “Written and composed for the film by Adam Schlesinger, bassist for Fountains of Wayne and Ivy, and released on the film’s soundtrack, the song became a genuine hit for The Wonders in 1996 (the song peaked at #41 on the Billboard Hot 100, #22 on the Adult Contemporary charts, #18 on the Adult Top 40, and #24 on the Top 40 Mainstream charts).”)
4. I don’t think the extended cut scenes add much. While it adds more nuance to some characters, particularly Guy, the in-theater version was snappier.
5. There are a lot of allusions/homages to the mid 1960s music scene. The Beatles are referred to often and a scene where the Wonders bike/run/skip on a map of the United States is very similar scene from A Hard Day’s Night.
6. I’ve been trying to think about the main point of the film. It could be viewed as sort of a slice-of-life retrospective about the heady days of rock in the mid 1960s but there are a couple of themes that run throughout the story that suggest there is something deeper:
a. The power of relationships over music and fame. While the band hits it big, it’s not the band that endures – it is the relationship between Guy and Faye.
b. The permanence/creativity of jazz compared to rock music. Guy is more interested in jazz when he initially joins the group to help them survive the injury of their original drummer. By the end of the film, he is still more interested in jazz. Compared to the fickle nature of rock (from nobodies to stars to nobodies all within a year), jazz is portrayed as having staying power.
c. The cycle of one-hit wonders that makes the music world go around. Toward the end of the film, their manager (played by Tom Hanks), suggests that this tale is a common one. The music machine takes innocent kids with hit songs, uses them for what they are worth, and then doesn’t care too much if they disappear. As long as there is another chart-topper in the works, that is all that matters.
After another re-watching, my liking of the film is confirmed: the catchy music plus the joy of seeing a small-town band hit it big plus the reality of what often happens when fame comes between people makes for an enjoyable two hour concoction.