That Thing You Do! … When Less is More

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Recently, That Thing You Do! turned 20 years old. Tom Hanks’ directorial debut was his cinematic love letter to the world of 1960s rock and roll post-British Invasion. Hanks was at the top of the entertainment world in 1996, having won back-to-back best actor Oscars for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, and the weightiness of those projects may be the reason he wrote and directed a movie that was comparatively light, but never lightweight.

The film centers on the rise and fall of the Wonders, a regional American band whose trajectory is launched when jazz drummer Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott in his acting debut) is recruited for a talent show. There, Guy transforms a sleepy ballad into a “snappy” and danceable pop hit, leading the group from rags to riches under the direction of Playtone Record executive Mr. White, portrayed by Hanks. With a major label behind them the single races up the charts and the Wonders find themselves at the center of the Playtone “stable of stars,” culminating in a series of events that causes the band to implode.

That Thing You Do!, as released, was popular with audiences and critics alike. As a child of that era, Hanks nailed the vibe, music, and styles of the mid-1960s. The actors are all flawlessly cast and their performances are spot-on: besides Scott’s effortless turn as the guileless Guy there is the moody songwriter (Johnathan Schaech), his dutiful but neglected girlfriend (Liv Tyler), the smart ass jokester (Steve Zahn), the no-nonsense band manager (Tom Hanks), and all the supporting players — including Charlize Theron in a small role as Guy’s too-conventional girlfriend Tina, who expresses no interest in her boyfriend’s band and eventually in Guy altogether.

Maybe you’re not one of the film’s dedicated fans but you enjoyed That Thing You Do! in the theater when it was released, rented it when it was first issued on VHS tape, or later on DVD. Or maybe you caught it when it was shown on TV at some point. You found that all the recent press hoopla around this anniversary has piqued your interest in seeing it again. But in seeking it out, you run into a version that is touted as “Tom Hanks’ Extended Cut.” Which sounds a lot like what studios call “the director’s cut,” so as chances are that this is the only time you will see it you decide that that this would be the version to revisit. Should you …?

Well, maybe. I recommend revisiting the final released version first, or for the first time if you’ve never seen it. Then, and only then, if you’re still intrigued, check out “Tom Hanks’ Extended Cut.”

Why the wait? Because it appears that this wasn’t a case of truth in advertising, or at the very least was misleading. By attaching Hanks as the owner of that cut, it infers that the extended version is in fact a director’s cut. That term has become so ubiquitous in the world of consumer movie releases, it has earned an entry in Wikipedia, where the director’s cut is described as “an edited version of a film … that is supposed to represent the director’s own approved edit.” There is one phrase in that description that is key when considering whether to buy and/or view the “new, improved” version: “supposed to represent.”

In the case of That Thing You Do!, there is little or nothing to support that this is an “approved edit” in the sense of being the definitive version. When this edition was released in 2007, Hanks was nowhere to be found to promote it, through press releases, interviews, or anywhere where he would have had every chance to let consumers know why he might have preferred this cut – and why they should buy it. What was more telling was he didn’t add any anything on the DVD itself. There is no commentary from Hanks on a separate audio track, and his absence is conspicuous on the added “reunion” extra which featured the principal cast, but Hanks again was MIA.

While distributor 20th Century Fox did not package this as QUOTE The Director’s Cut CLOSED QUOTE, calling it “Tom Hanks’ Extended Cut” was a bit disingenuous, as it infers more than what it actually appears to be: the rough cut of the movie where all the major elements are assembled to see how it flows, and what parts needed to be excised or changed. Viewed in that light, it’s doubtful that this version was ever meant to be anywhere resembling the final cut, let alone Hanks’ personal vision for what That Thing You Do! should or might have been. Chances are it was originally never meant to be seen, and didn’t warrant the fanfare on the packaging.

This cut has nearly 40 minutes of extra footage. Much of this consists of many scenes that go on way too long; it’s likely that Hanks and his editor were evaluating where each scene needed to be trimmed, sacrificing additional details and minor plot enhancements in favor of pacing. From an artistic standpoint, Hanks was right to shave these scenes for the final cut. Said trims are the kind of bonus footage that would have been included as extras outside of the finished film. As presented in the “extended cut,” the movie tends to drag, and while that may not bother hardcore fans for the casual viewer it might, to the point of distraction.

In addition, this cut includes larger segments that were deleted from the final version. There are certain scenes that will be illuminating to those familiar with the theatrical release. These include a riot occurring in Villapiano’s pizza joint after someone sprays a fire extinguisher into the crowd, much to Tina’s dismay; the band’s first encounter with rock show promoter “Vicksburg from Pittsburgh” (Kevin Pollak) and subsequently exploring the empty theatre; not one but two montages of the Wonders’ rise in the charts; the revelation of Mr. White’s sexual orientation outside the Ambassador Hotel; and Guy’s chance meeting with Del Paxton at the end, which leads to a totally unnecessary, farfetched, and convoluted plot point for giving Guy a reason to stay in L.A.

However, the presence of those particular edits doesn’t alter the overall story. Where the film’s structure becomes problematic is due to the inclusion of numerous scenes that elevate the importance of Theron’s character Tina. Those added scenes transform what was a minor (but effective) role in the final cut into a larger one that might have taken That Thing You Do! in a markedly different direction. After the opening scenes at the Patterson Appliance store Guy’s relationship with Tina is presented front and center, portending that their relationship will play a bigger part in this story — and subsequent scenes where Tina seems threatened by Tyler’s Faye gives the impression that the two may end up competing for Guy’s affections. This is further reinforced from extended scenes in the first quarter, where Guy and Faye mildly flirt with each other.

In both cuts, Tina at first appears to be mildly supportive of Guy’s musical ambitions – probably with her eye on eventually co-owning the Patterson Appliance business. But Theron’s “extended” scenes further punctuate how Tina becomes increasingly impatient with what she perceives as Guy’s dalliance with a superfluous hobby. That points to a very real scenario that many artists achingly go through when trying to strike the proper balance between a commitment to both their art and to an intimate relationship: here it would be Tina giving Guy the ultimatum that it’s either her, or the band (though in That Thing You Do!, Tina quietly cuts Guy off after meeting her hunky dentist).

Theron’s increased screen time is an indication of what Hanks might have considered for a totally different narrative. That version would have been focused on the connection between Guy and Tina with the Wonders providing the backdrop and supporting the couple’s story arc. One can imagine the couple splitting up then somehow coming back together towards the film’s conclusion to either find common ground and reunite, or to understand why they had to call it quits.

While this is all enticingly speculative, Hanks wisely put the Wonders front and center, with Tina’s storyline supporting rather than overtaking their tale. As viewed with the deleted portions Tina’s exit from the film is dissatisfying, providing a footnote rather than an actual payoff. Theron’s final appearance occurs where the dentist is performing work on her teeth. Unable to speak she excitedly reacts upon hearing “That Thing You Do!” played on the radio in the background, leaving us to wonder whether in that moment she might have glimpsed having lost the opportunity to be part of Guy’s fame and fortune. Karma lands a final sucker punch: With her mouth incapacitated, her boyfriend misunderstands. Thinking Tina needs more anesthetic he prepares an intimidatingly large-needled syringe for his helpless subject.

The longer cut of That Thing You Do! offers some revelations and insights but isn’t nearly as cohesive and satisfying as the original released to theaters in 1996. (Maybe Fox realized this as well since the extended cut DVD and Blu-ray contains both versions.) In tackling his directorial debut Tom Hanks had already been a student of the art of moviemaking, having witnessed the process from a variety of master craftsmen and women over the course of his long career. Using the knowledge gained from those experiences he understood that what was ultimately left on the cutting room floor for That Thing You Do! resulted in a tighter, more entertaining film.

Those who are enchanted by the original’s many charms and who find themselves eager to spend more time with these characters will probably enjoy the additional content. Along the way they may also learn something about the art of movie making, including how through judicious editing sometimes less is more.

©2016 Mike Tiano. All Rights Reserved.

Mike Tiano

Mike Tiano

Best known for his work with the Yes-related fan page Notes From the Edge, Tiano launched the official website YesWorld and has written liner notes for several of the group's reissues. The Seattle resident is recording tracks for his upcoming album 'Creetisvan,' and is an expert on movies, TV, prog rock, and the Beatles. Contact Something Else! at [email protected]
Mike Tiano
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