THAT THING YOU DO ***
It is February 1967, when the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and revolutionized pop music. Guy (Tom Everett Scott), far more devoted to his drums than to humdrum work in his father's appliance store, is recruited by a garage-band for a one-night gig as replacement for the member who broke an arm. They play "That Thing You Do," composed by guitarist Jimmy. Guy's vigorous beat is a decisive factor in making the group win first prize.
The One-Ders foursome have a fifth member who is no fifth wheel. Jimmy's cahrming girlfriend Faye (Liv Tyler) is always around, helping enthusiascticcally, while bimboesque blonde Tina, Guy's girl, is more concerned with her looks than with the band. Later, smitten with her hunkish new dentist she will part from Guy. She is played by Charlize Theron, unrecognizable from her very different role as the Norwegian accolyte in "2 Days in the Valley."
The band goes on to local fame, gets more provincial celebrity after stranger Phil Horace, a small-time promoter, becomes their manager and puts their signature song on the radio. Then, realizing that he did all he could, Phil passes them on to Mr. White (Hanks) of Play-Tone Records. Rebaptizing them "The Wonders," Mr. White takes the boys on to bigger and better things.
That the movie has a slight subject cannot be argued, but this is no big deal since Hollywood makes so few think-films, hardly ever probes into Big Themes, and, except for special effects, makes pictures (from comedies to blockbuster actioneers) that are slight in content.
What's interesting about "TTYD" is the accumulation of details that don't shout at you, that may not even be noticed, yet build up to a very good debut of Tom Hanks as writer-director.
In no hierarchical order here are some good points scored by Mr. Hanks:
1) The music. The audience takes a nice shower in 60's groove music--not great but typical and right for the group. Guy's brief jamming with his idol Del Paxton (a black jazz pianist) is delightful.The title song, much repeated in different settings, gets increasingly better and more energetic. The songs are all original (some are by Hanks) and sound like authentic 60s, not pastiches.
3) The period look of the film. It is well-studied to plunge us into the mid-60s, from overall ambiance to details of artifacts. The Patterson Appliance Store is a cunning way to show us refrigerators, stoves, clock radios, TV sets, rabbit-ears and such. There's minute attention to items from dresses or "diamond"-studded eyeglass frames. Unlike films that lean too heavily and colorfully on period recreation, this one handles visuals discreetly,with no overkill.
4) The smitten audiences. Again, cleverly but not broadly weighed are the details about them. Note especially the excellently sketched flirtatious girl early on.
5) Tom Hanks himself. A real pro as the Play-Tone company man and as manager, he is forceful but not dictatorial, friendly but not gushing, cool but not cold, knows all about promotion. Calmly, without caricatural cynicism, he is upfront about his function, which it to make money for Play-Tone.
6) Un-cliched editing. In their first major appearance, in Pittsburgh, the band, subject to jitters, falling mike stands and sound-system glitches, fails in the afternoon performance. It's after this that Mr. White takes over. He sends them off to the evening session with advice not to get rattled if they don't do well. We don't see that performance which, in most films would be included as a small triumph. Instead, the movie says nothing but cuts to the next concert, in Columbus, Ohio. Also, the eventual new twosome of Faye and Guy is not heavily telegraphed.
7) The tour and California. A good montage parallels the Wonders' rise on the Billboard and carefully dosaged details of the boys' sartorial looks, self-confidence, character differences, and performances with back-up singers.
8) Hanks again. He does not try to catch the spotlight but by keeping his role to exactly what's necessary in relatively little screen-time, he manages the tour-de-force of being a big, functional presence--and to make himself quietly likable.
9) The cast. All are good. Guy (who does remind one somewhat of a younger Hanks) and Jimmy are interestingly handsome. Well sketched bits of personality and behavior. Jimmy may be the nominal leader of the group, but it is Guy who has the brains and is in the discreet limelight. Which brings me to...
10) Ringo's Revenge. Among the Beatles, Ringo Starr was less visible, adulated and important than the other three. Here it is the drummer who is central to the band.
11) Liv Tyler. In all her films, from many angles she bears an eerie resemblance to Ava Gardner, down to a miniscule strabismus that lends women's faces a touch of dreaminess: Karen Black, Madeleine Stowe,Jane Greer, etc.
12) The supporting cast and nice touches. In Erie, the first manager may make you think for a moment that he is out to exploit the group, but he turns out to be a good guy. At the L.A. hotel, African-Amercian doorman Lamarr is a humorous, sharp and debonair fellow whose short appearances are perfect. In the lounge, note the gentle, sly irony when waitress Marguerite starts telling her life story. Or one of the players who, having joined the Marines, naively does push-ups before uniformed soldiers. Note also the Play-Tone boss who is realistically coarse and not exactly pretty in pink.
13) Contrasts. As "artistic" Guy performs, his disapproving father reads the ad of a rival store: "Telemark. They got barbecue kits for $7.89. Open Sundays 12 to 6. What kind of world is this when you can't stay with your family on Sunday!"
There's more, like the movie's good, fast but not hectic pacing.
There's a fantasy side to the film. The young people are very clean-cut, their milieu seems free of booze, drugs, sex or four-letter words. Faye and Jimmy have been going together for two-and-a-half years, yet apparently only kissed a lot. All that adds a 50s tone to a movie set in the 60s, which may be anachronistic but adds to the film's charm.