What makes That Thing You Do! still so special over a decade since it was first released?
It wasn’t really a smash at the box office when it was originally released. Which is startling, especially considering it featured and was directed by Tom Hanks, who was steaming hot in 1996 after his two Oscars wins – for Philadelphia (1993) and Forrest Gump (1994) – not to mention his performance in the mega-huge Apollo 13 the year before the release of That Thing You Do! Add to this that the actual song, “That Thing You Do!” actually made the Billboard charts in 1996 (the tune got as high as #41 on the “Hot 100” chart), and on wonders (no pun!) why the film was not a bigger success at the box office.
The movie is the well-known fictional tale of the rise to fame of the Erie, PA-based band The Wonders, and their just as fast disbandment. The actors in The Wonders were superb and it is hard to remember at times that they are not an actual quartet. Add to this, we see the wheelings and dealings of their second manager, Mr. White (played superbly by Hanks), and the whole experience of what a one-hit wonder band might really have gone through in the 1960’s more that just a bit authentic.
The film was most likely saved by cable as HBO has rerun the film more times that it has re-run its own Real Sex series of shows. Eddie and The Cruisers (also about a fictional 60’s rock band) had the same luck when the 1983 movie (which bombed in theaters) came to cable in 1984. Add to it the massive success of the film's song “On The Dark Side,” and the whole world had Eddie and The Cruisers by the end of 1984.
While Eddie and The Cruisers is a great movie, That Thing You Do! has the last word on how to make a movie about a band from the 60’s. Hanks shows his brilliance for writing and directing a time-period film with such authenticity, that if the film had a grainier texture, a novice might really have thought it had been filmed three decades prior.
What makes That Thing You Do! work is everything. All the music written for the film has a Byrds/Beatles/British Invasion/Spector-ish appeal and genuinely captures all the original feel for the pop stylings that were so identified with that era.
The newly released Director's Cut (the DVD generously offers the film's new cut as well at the original movie) adds tons of unseen footage (which now makes the film really long) and, at times, give more of a risqué tone to the film. Where as The Bass Player (we never get to hear his name) seemed to have a chaste relationship with a member of a co-touring female trio (The Chantrellines) in the original film – we now see that he gets to know her carnally.
Also, when the band, The Wonders, plays at their residency at a restaurant (called Villapianos) early in the film, we witness, the last time they play there, their popularity, as well as the attendance at the restaurant, rise. But, the Director's Cut extends this seemingly successful scene with a bar room brawl that was dropped from the original. A great scene as the band (sans their lead singer, who quickly scrammed as the fight began) continued as a trio and keeps playing as a live soundtrack to the fight. It gives more a of a Blackboard Jungle feel to the film
The lack of a movie commentary from Hanks is all that stands in the way of making this a near perfect DVD re-issue. What American Graffiti did for the 50’s (in the 70’s) That Thing You Do! did the same thing for the 60’s (in the 90’s).