Between “The Commitments” (1991) and “Almost Famous” (2000) there was another movie about the music scene that’s overlooked. And that’s surprising, since “That Thing You Do!” was Tom Hanks big-screen directorial debut and his first screenplay. You’d think with his visibility and with a very young Liv Tyler appearing in her fifth film it would have gotten more attention.
I missed “That Thing You Do!” when it came out in 1996, but now that it’s out on Blu-ray this musical comedy from Hanks (who also appears in the film) I find myself scratching my head and wondering why it isn’t more popular.
Call it a sanitized version of "The Commitments." It’s also a love letter to the Sixties and one hit wonders, filled with plenty of old-time products, signage, fashions, and attitudes—a richly atmospheric film about a time when every unknown rock group was hoping for the same meteoric rise as “British Invasion” pop groups like The Beatles, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, and Herman’s Hermits.
Guy (Tom Everett Scott) works at his father’s appliance store in Erie, Pa., but his love is music and his dream is to play the drums again in a band—this time a more successful one. He gets his chance when the drummer (Gioivanni Ribisi) from a local garage band breaks his arm and the group need a fill-in for a college talent show they’re competing in. Guy ups the tempo on the band’s only good, original song and forces them to snap it up, turning a ballad into a pop song that leads to better and bigger things . . . for a while.
Steve Zahn, Ethan Embry, and Johnathon Schaech play the other band members in this tale of a band’s quick rise and be-careful-what-you-ask-for complications. Chris Ellis plays a small-time promoter and Hanks a record-label exec, while Liv Tyler appears as the only female cast member to get much airtime. Charlize Theron was the first actress to audition and the first cast, but her bit part ended up on the cutting room floor and only appears in the 147-minute Extended Cut, which is also included on this release.
As with “The Commitments,” the film reflects the band’s personality. That Irish band was a little less wholesome and their music more raw, and that was the tone of the film. People got drunk, they threw F-bombs like anarchists, and they talked about sex as much as they talked about music. With “That Thing You Do!” the guys are more clean-cut and their music light pop—light entertainment, and that’s the best way to describe the film as well. There’s plenty of music—though because the One-ders (later renamed The Wonders) only really know one great original song until Hanks’ character gives them a solid B track, we mostly hear a lot of “That Thing You Do!” No wonder it became a musical hit the year the movie was released.
“That Thing You Do!” is rated PG for “some language,” but I couldn’t tell you what that language was. This is a squeaky-clean film with a wholesome core and nary a bad guy to be found—no drug use, either, and for a film about musicians, that’s quite a feat. But it certainly reflects that pre-hippie portion of the Sixties before The Beatles grew their hair out and shed their matching suits.
An AVC (MPEG-4) transfer @ 32MBPS delivers a solid picture with just a hint of filmic grain throughout and faithful reproduction of the slightly desaturated and quasi-pastel world that Hanks used to suggest the Sixties. There’s plenty of detail, but it’s hard for me to comment on black levels because there really aren’t many dark scenes to evaluate. I had no complaints, though, and saw no compression artifacts or irregularities. “That Thing You Do!” is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen.
The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1, with additional audio options in French Dolby Digital 5.1 and Spanish Dolby Digital Surround 2.0. Subtitles are in English SDH and Spanish. The timbre seems to lack weight at times, but the clarity is there and when all the speakers kick in the room fills with sound.
This Blu-ray comes with two versions of the film: the 108-minute theatrical version and the Extended Cut. The added footage doesn’t really contribute to the plot or character development in a significant way—just more random moments with band members that capture the flavor of the era.
Included are the same handful of bonus features that appeared on an earlier DVD release. In addition to a “Feel Alright” music video there’s a trio of featurettes in the 10-15 min. range: a fun press tour featurette on “The Wonders: Big in Japan,” “The Making of ‘That Thing You Do!,’” and an “HBO First Look.” The longest bonus feature is “The Story of the Wonders,” a 30-minute rundown on the characters with the actors giving their take on them. Like the other bonus features, it feels like a pre-release promo.
“That Thing You Do!” has an air of nostalgia and likeable characters that make us believe their story and their time, and a strong narrative backbeat to power this light musical comedy.