Follow TV Tropes


Film / That Thing You Do!

Go To

1996 comedy movie written and directed by Tom Hanks, who also appears in a starring role.

It's 1964 in Erie, PA, not long after The British Invasion. Reluctant appliance salesman / fervent amateur jazz drummer Guy "Skitch" Patterson (Tom Everett Scott) is drafted into a garage band formed by friends Jimmy Mattingly (Johnathon Schaech) and Lenny Haise (Steve Zahn), as a one-time favour — their original drummer broke his arm the day before the big local talent competition.

Naming themselves the 'One-ders' (as in Wonders) on the sound-for-the-time logic that a Punny Name worked for The Beatles, the band intends to perform a slow ballad written by Jimmy and Lenny called "That Thing You Do". The night of the comp, however, Guy leads them off at a much faster tempo than they'd rehearsed, giving them no choice but to transform it into a snappy pop number. Auteur Jimmy and easy-going Lenny are both upset (as is their nameless bass player)... until they see the crowds dancing in the aisles.

The new version takes off, earning them a gig at "that Italian place down by the airport" and inspiring them to make a recording to sell at the door. Eventually this attracts the attention of a local talent scout, who in turn introduces them to Mr. White (Tom Hanks), a record company executive who thinks he can take them to the top — but only if they agree to change their name.

With their record zooming up the charts, hordes of screaming fans greeting them at every stop on tour and a gig on The Hollywood Television Showcase, the sky's the limit for the newly renamed Wonders... until they start trying to cope with success.... and Guy develops a not-unreciprocated interest in Jimmy's girlfriend Faye Dolan (Liv Tyler).

That Thing You Do contains examples of:

  • The '60s: The film is set in 1964.
  • Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder: With Guy touring with his band, Tina eventually starts a relationship with her dentist.
  • Affectionate Parody: Of those early-1960s One Hit Wonders formed after the success of The Beatles in the United States, and The British Invasion that resulted.
  • All Drummers Are Animals: Mr. White banks on this, playing up Guy as the "bad boy" of the Wonders. In reality he's probably the sweetest and most grounded member of the band.
  • Ambiguously Brown: Jimmy, who clearly has at least some Hispanic in his ethnic makeup — which may be why, late in the film, Mr. White insists that the band re-record their hit in Spanish. (Or, more likely, it's just another Beatles reference, as the Beatles recorded "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "She Loves You" in German.)
  • And Starring: Tom Hanks, due to directing the film and playing the band's manager.
  • Arc Words: Guy is fond of quoting "I am Spartacus" from, well, Spartacus (which had come out four years before the In-Universe date), which serves to nicely describe the movie's arc.
  • Berserk Button: The local talent show host doesn't take heckling well:
    Emcee: How do you sell a chicken to a deaf man?
    Heckler: You're a jerkhead!
    Emcee: 'Hey! Would you like to buy a chicken?!'
    Heckler: Eat my shorts, Captain!
    Emcee: SHUT UP!!! [away from mic] I'll kick your ass.
  • Cool Shades: Mr. White gives Guy a pair when he signs the band, and renames him 'Shades' in the process. "Wear them at all times. They're your trademark." When a reporter later asks why he's always wearing them, he can only awkwardly say "Well, I am the drummer."
  • Creative Differences: In-Universe, this is why the band eventually breaks up in a nutshell: the bass player enlists in the Marines (which given the time period probably means Vietnam) and is replaced with a Playtone session bassist, Lenny elopes with a groupie, and then Jimmy Rage Quits over being ordered to do a cover album instead of original songs.
  • Doing It for the Art: In-Universe.
    • According to the epilogue, Guy becomes a music professor at a conservatory.
    • Of the One-ders/Wonders, Jimmy is the one who is most into the band as an opportunity to create art, being the one who worries over contracts, nags Mr. White about cutting an album, and so on. Of the others, Lenny is clearly more interested in having fun and enjoying the pop-star life while it lasts, Guy is more into jazz and is not overly invested in the band itself, and the bass player seems to view it more as a hobby before he fulfills his true calling of joining the Marines.
  • Earworm: the one-hit Wonders' one hit, "That Thing You Do" .
  • Everyone Has Standards: Each person in the room, even the session bass player who is only there to fill in and has no emotional connection to anyone in the band, is thoroughly disgusted with Jimmy's incredibly harsh break-up with Faye. Mr. White's expression makes it clear he thinks Jimmy is nothing but a piece of shit.
  • Excited Show Title!: Based on an Excited Song Title in-universe.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: Downplayed, since the movie itself is set over a fairly common span of time for a film. However, in terms of what happens to the characters, they undergo a roller coaster rise-and-fall from obscure garage band to local celebrities to nationally famous pop band to breaking up to back to relative obscurity in what is only a couple of months at most, making it this trope from their perspective. In particular, the band has broken up literally the day after playing their big national TV gig.
  • The Face Of The Band: Invoked Trope; Mr White gives Guy a pair of Cool Shades to make him stand out.
  • Fake Band: Pretty much every band or singer shown or mentioned in the film. Averted with The Wonders themselves, as they all were taught how to play their instruments.
  • Family Business: Guy's family owns the appliance store where much of the first half of the film takes place in.
  • Five-Man Band: Played in two configurations:
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Del chuckles when Guy says he's in a band, telling him that he's been in dozens of bands. They get together and break apart. Guy should have taken that as a warning.
    • The band's name in all of its iterations (One-ders, Wonders) is itself a pretty big clue of what their eventual fate after "That Thing You Do!" is going to be.
  • Four-Philosophy Ensemble:
    • Guy, calm and has great adaptability on situations (The Realist)
    • Jimmy, The Perfectionist and highly critical of almost anything (The Cynic)
    • Lenny, prefers to empathize than actually stating what's in his mind (The Conflicted)
    • The Bass Player, team player but makes no secret to the band that his enlistment is his priority (The Apathetic)
    • Faye, The Heart of the group (The Optimist)
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble:
  • Garage Band: At the beginning of the film, the Wonders (as they will eventually be known) play on cheap instruments and rehearse in a garage.
  • Gender-Equal Ensemble: Guy's family consist of him, his father, his mother, and his sister.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Jimmy’s nose is clearly put a little out of joint by the fact that “Shades” comes to exceed his popularity and starts to be seen as the face of the group, despite the fact that he is the leader of the band. There are also some hints that he is not entirely oblivious to how Guy and his girlfriend are getting closer, but being generally neglectful of Faye he seems less concerned about this.
  • Groupie Brigade
  • The Heart: In addition to being Jimmy's girlfriend, Faye is also the band's biggest fan and champion, and despite not actually playing an instrument Guy and the others clearly treat her as being a fundamental part of the unit because she's the one who inspires and encourages them. Telling, the band barely lasts another day after Faye and Jimmy break up.
  • Hospital Hottie: Tina's dentist is a Hunk. She eventually gets on with him due to Guy touring with the band.
  • Insufferable Genius: Jimmy. Even Mr. White states it. He's the only member of the band to continue producing pop music, although Faye and Guy end up as music teachers and open their own school.
  • Irony:
    • Despite all of his bitching about the studio system, Jimmy's next band, "The Heardsmen", sign a lucractive contract with the same studio, Playtone Records.
    • Guy, who was the member of the band who joined last and was only supposed to be a temporary stand-in for the original drummer, ends up being the only member of the band who doesn't quit for some reason.
  • It Is Pronounced "Tro-PAY": A running gag about the band's name; it's supposed to be pronounced "ONE-ders" (as in a pun on 'Wonders'). It's usually pronounced "Oh-NEE-ders". At one point, an exasperated, but apathetic Lenny corrects the restaurant owner at their first gig: "Hey, that's 'oh-NEH-ders...'"
  • Jerkass: Jimmy. Broadly hinted throughout — he tries to weasel Lenny out of his writing credit for "That Thing You Do" in the first ten minutes of the movie — gradually building to an epic case by the climax.
  • Jerkass Façade: Minor case; Mr. White acts like a typical hard-nosed studio executive, but is a pretty decent guy when all is said and done. Of course, he's played by Tom Hanks, so this is probably to be expected.
  • Love Triangle: Part of the tension of the movie stems from the love triangle between Jimmy, Faye and Guy. Although it's Jimmy who thinks that marrying Faye would be bad for the band, and his dumping her for this reason is seen by the other band members as rather tasteless.
  • Magical Negro: Lamarr, the the doorman at the Ambassador Hotel, who directs Guy where to meet his idol and encourages him to pursue Faye.
  • Myspeld Rökband: Parodied. No one can pronounce "the Oneders" correctly. Jimmy's next band is called "The Heardsmen". Fortunately, that band's name isn't phonetically confusing.
  • No Name Given: The band's sweetly nerdy bass guitarist (played by Ethan Embry) is never actually named in the film — another nod to the ephemeral nature of the band. In the epilogue, he's finally identified as "T. B. Player"... that is, The Bass Player. (Embry himself decided his real name was "Tobias Player.")
  • One-Hit Wonder: In-universe, the eponymous song becomes one of these. There's a clue in the band-name; the 'One-ders' (i.e 'One (Hit Won)ders'). Lampshaded by Mr. White.
    Guy: But we still have a hit record.
    Mr. White: Yes, you do. The one-hit Wonders. [smiles at Guy] A very common tale.
    • Interestingly, "That Thing You Do!" peaked at #41 on the Hot 100, just short of One-Hit Wonder status.
  • The Pete Best: In-universe. Chad, the drummer who broke his arm the night before the One-ders took off. He ends up taking Guy's place at the appliance shop when the band goes on tour.
    • The incident is a great example of a Funny Background Event. Apparently parking meters and slippery hands don't mix.
      T.B. Player: Guys ... Chad fell down.
    • To a lesser extent, T.B. Player, given that he's replaced just before the band's national television debut.
  • Punny Name: "One-ders", "Heardsmen", "Chordvettes"...Jimmy seems to have a real fondness for these.
  • Rage Quit: The last straw for Jimmy is being told by Mr. White that they're going to get to do a second album finally, only for him to dictate under terms of their contract that it will be a cover album rather than original songs. Jimmy quits the band instead, leaving Guy the only original One-der left.
  • Re-Cut: In 2007 an "Extended Edition" DVD was released with more than half an hour of additional scenes. Both cuts of the film are included on the Blu-ray release.
  • Romantic False Lead: Tina for Guy, Jimmy for Faye.
  • Running Gag:
    • The mispronouncing of "One-ders" as "Oh-nee-ders." Lampshaded when Lenny snarks, "HEY, that's Oh-NEH-ders." Mr. White puts a stop to it when he becomes the band's manager.
      Mr. White: From now on, you're "The Wonders".
      Lenny: As in, "I wonder what happened to the Ohneeders?"
    • Mr. White telling them, "You guys look great in [color of suits the band is wearing today], have I mentioned that?"
    • Guy leaving the "Patterson's Appliance" sign on in the first half of the movie.
  • Ship Tease: The band's original drummer and Guy's sister are paired for much of the film's latter half, though nothing came out of it (or rather, whether or not something came out of it wasn't shown).
  • Shout-Out:
    • Tom Hanks is a big fan of the Apollo program. Several characters have names which are references to astronaut characters in Apollo 13 (Haise, Mattingly, White). And astronaut Gus Grissom is a guest on The Hollywood Television Showcase, which is itself a Expy of The Ed Sullivan Show and Hollywood Palace. Additionally, one of the bands that plays on the soundtrack is called "The Saturn Five".
    • Numerous to The Beatles and other pop music acts of the early 1960s. Guy also name-checks several jazz artists at one point.
      • The "CAREFUL GIRLS, HE'S ENGAGED" is a direct reference to The Beatles' performance on Ed Sullivan, when John Lennon had the subtitle "SORRY GIRLS, HE'S MARRIED."
      • Mr. White expecting the band to re-record "That Thing You Do!" in Spanish may be a shout out to the Beatles' re-recording of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "She Loves You" in German (as "Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand" and "Sie Liebt Dich").
      • There's a scene where Sol Siler addresses Mr. White as "Andy". Andy White was the session drummer used on the second (hit) recording of the Beatles' "Love Me Do".
      • A Beatles allusion only the truly obsessive fans caught: There's a scene where Faye almost gets detained by security because the guards don't know she's with the band, but Guy sees what's happening and tells them to let her through. That really happened to John Lennon's first wife, Cynthia, once (Lennon, being who he was, didn't notice, and she ended up missing the outing as a result).
      • Another slightly oblique Beatles Shout Out; "That Thing You Do" starts off as a slow ballad, but when Guy ups the tempo of the drumbeat, turning it into a quick-paced pop song, it becomes a very popular #1 hit. Something similar happened with "Please Please Me", which was originally written as a Roy Orbison-style crooner, but it didn't really click with the band and the producer until they sped it up a bit — and it ended up becoming the Beatles' first ever #1 hit.
      • The bass player disappearing and being replaced by a session player for the live TV broadcast and for (what would have been) their first album recording refers to two incidents within the Beatles career. The first is to the recording of "Love Me Do", where Ringo Starr (who had recently been hired by the band after Pete Best was fired) was not allowed to play on the recording by George Martin, who had already hired a session drummer and did not want to rely on an unknown. The second was during the band's 1964 world tour, when Ringo (again) fell ill and was unable to play, requiring the band to temporarily hire another session drummer (Jimmie Nichol) to fill in for him. The latter is also alluded to by Faye falling ill when the band travels to California and missing several of the gigs they do.
    • There's a montage/Music Video sequence of the "Play-Tone Caravan of Stars" that's straight out of The Monkees.
    • The Wonders have a cameo role in an Annette Funicello/Frankie Avalon-style teen film, Weekend at Party Pier. The character of "Goofball" in the movie could just as well be named "Gilligan".
    • Lenny is apparently a big fan of Bonanza and The Beverly Hillbillies.
  • Shown Their Work:
    • All the actors that make up The Wonders are actually playing their own instruments and singing, the result of months spent rehearsing as a de facto band prior to filming. (Asked about the many reps of the song throughout the movie, Tom Everett Scott pointed out that "We had to hear it a lot more than anyone else!")
    • The film does a very good job of getting period details such as cars, clothes, and signage right. The guitars are also correct — at the beginning the boys have appropriate garage-band instruments for the era, and later they get equally appropriate upgrades.
    • In the talent show performance of "That Thing You Do," where Guy springs a faster tempo on the rest of the band than they'd rehearsed, Jimmy and Lenny are believably "behind the beat" for most of the first verse and don't really get in sync until halfway through the song.
    • During his argument with Faye after the TV appearance Jimmy is shown changing his guitar strings. This is a good idea for anyone planning on recording the next day (as he is) since it will give it a "fresher" sound.
    • Casey Kasem and Dick Clark both said that "That Thing You Do!" would have been a smash hit had it been released in the '60s.note 
    • The talent show is set at Mercyhurst College, which is a very real school that still exists to this day. In fact, it's not at all surprising that Mercyhurst would host a music talent contest, given the school's emphasis on the arts. Whether this was a lucky coincidence or a case of Tom Hanks showing his research, however...
  • Solo Side Project: Guy Patterson (the drummer) works on his jazz chops during the band's big tour.
  • Spoonerism: Star-struck at meeting his idol Del Paxton, Guy blurts out, "You are my biggest fan."
  • Stealth Pun: During the interview with at the jazz station, the DJ asks "which artist popped your cherry" and the bass player said the Chantrellines. In the extended edition, he is seen as having spent the night with one of them.
  • Straight Gay: Mr. White in the extended DVD version. This, perhaps obviously, mirrors the Beatles' manager Brian Epstein, whose homosexuality was something of an open secret.
  • Take This Job and Shove It: Done in song during a recording session, no less.
  • Tempting Fate: Naming your fledgling band "The Oneders/Wonders".
  • Thing-O-Meter: The local contest is determined by an "applause-o-meter" where a homecoming queen (or something) moves her arm in response to audience encouragement. When the Wonders "break the needle" she whips her arms from one side to the other, clearly defining them as "Wicked".
  • Variety Show: The Hollywood Television Showcase, an Affectionate Parody of (or Homage to) The Ed Sullivan Show and Hollywood Palace.
  • What Did You Expect When You Named It ____?: They've got one song, which is a runaway hit, and you want to call them the Wonders? It's even lampshaded by Mr. White when Jimmy quits:
    "Yes, you still have a hit record... the one-hit Wonders. A very common tale."
  • What the Hell, Hero?:
    Guy: Why couldn't you have dumped her in Pittsburgh?
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: In a notable aversion to many bands from the 60's, none of the Wonders become addicts or die young. Hanks said he wanted to show what happened to a band that simply broke up due to conflicts from the members personalities without any outside interference.
    • "Guy and Faye Patterson were married on April 30, 1965. They raised four children in Venice, California, before moving to Bainbridge Island, Washington. They founded the Puget Sound Conservatory of Music, where Guy teaches Jazz Composition."
    • "James Mattingly II and his new band, The Heardsmen, made three gold records for the Play-Tone label. He is a record producer in Los Angeles, California."
    • "T.B. Player served two tours of duty in Vietnam, receiving a Purple Heart for wounds sustained at the Siege of Khe Sanh. He is a building contractor in Orlando, Florida."
    • "Leonard Haise is the manager of the Golden Eagle Hotel & Casino in Loughlin, Nevada. He is currently single."