“What is your favorite movie?” is a difficult question for me to answer. I watch so many that it’s hard to pick just one–it feels like a disservice to all the other great movies I’ve seen. Recently, this question came up and I provided my standard answer: Pulp Fiction.
Admittedly, it’s a very safe pick, as it’s critically acclaimed but arty/violent enough that it’s not every person’s cup of tea. I really do love it, though. I love the non-linear story. I love the dialogue. I love the characters. I love the soundtrack. I even love the violence.
But I started to think about that question and subsequently found myself in a sort of existential dilemma (if one can have an existential dilemma about pop culture). What if Pulp Fiction isn’t my favorite movie?
I started to think about the movies I could watch any time, the movies I have to finish if they’re on TV, the movies I physically and emotionally respond to. When I narrowed down the list, I confirmed my suspicion: Pulp Fiction is not my favorite movie. After much thought, because I’m the type of sociopath that will put “much thought” into which movie he likes the best, I think my favorite movie is That Thing You Do!
I write that with some hesitance because, as Roger Ebert put it in his 1996 review of the movie, it “is the first film written and directed by Tom Hanks, and not surprisingly it is as sunny and guileless as many of the characters he’s played: The movie may be inconsequential, but in some ways that’s a strength.” Although he admits it is a very good movie (he gave it three stars), he also concedes there’s a certain frivolousness about a movie centering around pop music in the premiere era for pop music, the 1960s.
But frivolousness be damned! I love it.
For those of you catching up, or for those of you too lazy to IMDB it, I’ll give you the basic rundown of the plot. It’s set in 1964 and focuses on the Wonders (formerly the Oneders). The story starts in Erie, Penn. when Jimmy (Jonathon Schaeach) and Lenny (Steve Zahn) ask Guy (Tom Everett Scott) to sit in with their band on drums, along with the bass player (Ethan Embrey, whose character is never named), because Chad (Giovanni Ribisi), their original drummer, broke his arm.
From there, it’s a classic one-hit wonder story. The band’s single climbs the charts as they tour the country. When it finally hits the top of the charts, they secure a performance on national TV. Soon after, tensions split up the band.
Okay, is everyone caught up now? Good.
To me, one of the most appealing things about That Thing You Do! is core group of characters. For the most part, they’re all archetypes of people I’ve known in real life. It took me a while to realize that, though, because the characterization is done well.
First, you have Guy. He is, well, that guy you know that seems too good to be true. Not only is he a cool (he listens to jazz!), talented musician, but he’s also an exceedingly gracious and empathetic person. Naturally, his girlfriend is distant and kind of bitchy and seemingly has no interest in Guy’s life. You, at some point in your life, have known this couple.
Then you have Jimmy who is the exact opposite of Guy. He’s a self-serious know-it-all, who leans on the “artist” crutch as an excuse to be an emotionally abusive dick to his friends and girlfriend. Speaking of, Jimmy somehow has a supportive and sweet girlfriend, Faye (Liv Tyler). However, to Jimmy, she’s just an emotional well to draw upon for his songs, while the rest of the time, which seems to be most of the time, he does whatever he damn well (puns!) feels like. You also know this couple.
It’s no wonder Guy and Faye end up together in what might one of the best movie kisses of all time.
The group is rounded out by Lenny, T.B. Player and Mr. White (Tom Hanks), the Wonders’ manager. Lenny is kind of a doofus, a guy who has made it to adulthood, somehow, without taking a single thing seriously. Zahn is great when it comes to this type of character. I don’t know if he was improvising, but he has some of the best lines in the movie like during the radio interview when he says Cap’n Geech and the Shrimp Shack Shooters was one of his major musical influences. T.B. Player is hard to like or dislike, but I think that’s a meta commentary on how most people view bass players.
Really it’s the music that makes the movie. Admittedly, I’m prone to liking movies that about musicians such as Cadillac Records, 24 Hour Party People or The Buddy Holly Story. And I’m also one of those weirdos who likes early Beatles stuff rather than Revolver or Rubber Soul era Beatles, so I was drawn to the Wonders.
Adam Schlesinger, Fountains of Wayne bassist, wrote “That Thing You Do” for the movie, and he couldn’t have done a better job. It’s three minutes of pop perfection. In fact, I watched this movie with someone once and she had a hard time believing a song so perfectly representative of the era was just made up for a movie.
To create one song of that caliber out of thin air is an achievement, but the Wonders play two other songs, “Little Wild One” and “Dance With Me Tonight,” which are equally worthy of praise. And it doesn’t even stop there! The music played by other Play-Tone bands on the tour also seems very authentic. Even the jam session between Guy and Del at the end of the movie is wonderful.
In addition to the characters and the music, the little things in the movie really get me. If you watch the scene at the talent show, the first time they play “That Thing You Do” fast, T.B. Player is having trouble keeping up with everyone else. Gradually, you see him become more comfortable and playing with a little more flourish.
Also, at the start of the movie, the band is playing with pretty average equipment. By the time they’re playing “Dance with Me Tonight” you see that Jimmy is playing a Rickenbacker, a guitar that sells for thousands of dollars nowadays, Lenny is playing what looks to be a Fender Jaguar and T.B. Player is playing a fancy model Fender Precision Bass–also not cheap.
While they’re playing the state fair circuit, you can see Future Farmers of America jackets in the background. As someone who went to the Wisconsin state fair a lot as a kid, I can confirm that you would definitely see those walking around.
Even the nod to the stupid beach party movies of the era is indicative of someone, the someone being Hanks, who truly cares about music and preserving a specific place and time as earnestly as he could. In the end, that is probably what draws me to That Thing You Do! When someone really cares about what he creates, it shows.
I guess I proved that by writing 1,000+ words on a fictional band.