In 1964, in Erie, Pennsylvania, any group of kids who had access to a set of drums, a couple of electric guitars, and a garage formed a rock & roll band. It might have happened everywhere, but it definitely happened in Erie, Pa. I know. I was there. And now I've been gone long enough to recall it all with misty-eyed nostalgia. Which means that Tom Hanks' rose-colored view of the ephemeral fame and fortune of a band of Fab Four wannabes hit just the right note with me. In his first effort at directing a feature film, Hanks chooses his material wisely and writes it with witty, beguiling charm. His script is sweetly engaging and brimming with unabashed goodness -- so much so that it could have been disastrous had Hanks not salted it with plenty of wry comedy to cut the sugar. You get the feeling that That Thing You Do!
is sort of a Tom Hanks omnibus, peppered with bits of his past (check out the cameos!) and pieces of his personal vision. So it is no coincidence that the lead character, Guy Patterson (not to mention Tom Everett Scott, who plays him), bears a striking resemblance to his creator. The film follows the story of the rise and fall of Erieites Guy, Jimmy, Lenny, and “the Bass Player,” who form the Wonders and literally stumble into a hit single that takes them, and us, on a tour that crosses the country and ends up in Hollywood, and we see all the familiar settings and meet all the familiar go-go girls and fading crooners and desperate has-beens along the way. The casting is inspired. Liv Tyler, as the lead singer's girlfriend, pulls off some pretty risky dialogue and proves again that she has one of the most watchable faces to ever grace a screen. Hanks creates an interesting, slightly enigmatic Mr. White, the Play-Tone Records rep who makes his first deal with the band at the Wong Gee restaurant in Pittsburgh. But the Wonders are a wonder, each of the boys playing off each other with a chemistry that is fluid and free and familiar and could be found in any number of garages in the early Sixties. Zahn's girl-starved class clown, Lenny, is truly funny and just goofy enough without being tiresomely zany. Just looking at Schaech's brooding lead singer, Jimmy, conjures up images of countless lovestruck teenage girls spending way too much of their time cutting out pictures of him. Guy is the solid center that just can't hold against the weight of fame's gravity and The Bass Player, well, is The Bass Player. I bet you'll recognize these guys. I bet you'll like them. Even if you don't hail from the Keystone State.