Monday, April 1, 2019

Fake Bands: The Wonders

The Wonders: That Thing You Do
[purchase the film’s extended cut in which it seems that Hanks’ character might be gay]
[purchase the soundtrack]

I’ve written about, or at least mentioned, a bunch of fake bands, including The Archies, The Monkees (which some would argue turned into a real band), The Commitments, Spinal Tap, The Blues Brothers, and The Rutles. But never The Wonders.

In 1996, Tom Hanks was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. He had recently done A League of Their Own, Sleepless in Seattle, Philadelphia, Forrest Gump (a move that I found to be overrated and uncomfortable to watch), and Apollo 13. And many of these roles won him Oscars, Golden Globes and other awards. But Hanks, like many actors, it seems, wanted to write and direct a film. While doing the lengthy publicity tour for Forrest Gump, Hanks became tired of talking about himself, and banged out a screenplay in 30 days, which 20th Century Fox agreed to produce it as long as Hanks agreed to star in it (which he did, as a record company executive).

Hanks, who had a love for early 60s music (particularly the Dave Clark Five, who he inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame That is Missing Many Great Acts and Includes Some Terrible Ones), wrote a story about a 60s band’s rise and fall, and even wrote much of the music for the soundtrack. The film, That Thing You Do! was filled with then-unknown actors, many of whom later became stars, including, in rough order of future fame, Charlize Theron, Liv Tyler, Tom Everett Scott, Giovanni Ribisi, Steve Zahn, Ethan Embry and Johnathon Schaech (and many of Hanks’ family and friends in smaller roles or cameos). And it was a charming, fun movie that was well received by both critics and the general public.

But one song that Hanks did not write was the title track, “That Thing You Do” (without the exclamation point). It was written by Adam Schlesinger, who wrote it at roughly the same time as his band, Fountains of Wayne, was working on its great debut album. Schlesinger (who I just found out is a cousin of Jon Bernthal, TV’s “The Punisher”) had just gotten his first publishing deal, and someone from the company told him that there was a call out for a song that would sound like something that an American band in 1964 would write, after being blown away by the Beatles. Schlesinger, who considered it a writing exercise, wrote a bouncy pop song, and recorded a demo, with Mike Viola, of The Candy Butchers, singing lead vocals because, as Schlesinger later stated, “He’s just a much better singer than me.” He got the gig.

In the film, “That Thing You Do” is originally a ballad, but when the band’s new drummer joins, he plays the song faster, and it becomes a hit. In the movie, the song hits #7, and the liner notes to the soundtrack album state that it peaked at #2. But, spoiler alert, the band breaks up before any more of their songs become hits. The real world also liked “That Thing You Do.” It had moderate chart success in the United States and overseas. Schlesinger was nominated for both an Oscar and Golden Globe for the song, losing out to a tear-jerker from Evita sung by Madonna.

The version of the song that appeared in the film was not played by the actors, who nevertheless learned to play their instruments so that it looked convincing, but instead was a re-recorded version of the demo. In 2017 three of the four actors got together and performed the song live—missing was Steve Zahn, who was the lead guitarist and who was replaced by someone else wearing a Zahn mask.  Ethan Embry, who played the bass player, and in a running gag, was never named (and whose character was listed in the credits as "T.B. Player), did perform.

Remarkably, the song has been covered a number of times, including by another Beatles’ influenced band, The Knack (although it failed to make my piece on their covers), and by ‘NSYNC.

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