Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott) works in his father's electrical store, though what he really wants to be is a drummer, just like his jazz heroes. There's not much chance of that while he stays in small town America, but one day opportunity knocks when his friends form their own pop band to play at a local talent show. Their regular drummer breaks his arm, so Guy is drafted in to replace him, and on the night they play Jimmy (Johnathan Scaech) the lead singer and guitarist's composition, "That Thing You Do!", only Guy picks up the tempo and what do you know? It's kind of catchy...
For his first film as writer and director Tom Hanks went back to his childhood and picked a subject close to his heart, the popular music scene of the early-to-mid sixties, just as the Beatles were arriving to change the landscape forever, but before the peace and drugs movement took hold of the consciousness of American youth. For that reason, a cursory glance at That Thing You Do! might register a lightweight nostalgia piece (there's even an exclamation mark in the title) and nothing more, but it had hidden depths.
The four members of the One-ders, as they call themselves thanks to Jimmy's girlfriend Faye (Liv Tyler), follow the band archetypes, with Jimmy the pretentious songwriter, Guy the smart one, guitarist Lenny (Steve Zahn) the funny one and the nameless bass player (Ethan Embry) the quiet one. As their key song works up local interest, although they have trouble pronouncing their name ("The Oh-Nee-ders!"), soon they have a manager - who lives in a camper van, so they haven't hit the big time yet.
Hanks shows how long it takes to make an overnight success, and despite the affection for the era he shows, he is under no illusions about the business. He appears as the band's next manager, Mr White, a big shot with a national label who guides them, now renamed the easier to remember Wonders, to success. But all they really have going for them is that one song, written in real life by Fountains of Wayne man Adam Schlesinger as a breezy pop ditty that has a ring of authenticity: you can imagine it being a hit in the sixties parallel world the film depicts.
All the music is well crafted, although you don't hear any more than a minute of most of it. The attention to detail is admirable throughout, but it's the relationships that are the film's strongest suit, while still ending up a minor liability. We can see from the start that the arrogant Jimmy doesn't deserve the angelic Faye and she and Guy were meant to be together, but it takes the whole movie for them to realise it. It's also something of a cliché that Guy shows the most integrity because he's into jazz, but for every scene that might have you rolling your eyes at how cheesy it is, the film recovers stylishly with a quip from the excellent Zahn, or a recreation of a Beach Party flick or a televised variety show. It's more bittersweet than it might seem on the surface, and for that has a true charm. Music by Howard Shore.