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That Thing You Do! Details That'll Make You Dance

Tom Hanks was on top of the world in the mid 1990s. Coming in hot off multiple hit films ("Sleepless in Seattle," "A League of Their Own") and Oscar-winning performances ("Philadelphia," ""Forrest Gump") the onetime "Bosom Buddies" star had made the near-impossible jump from TV to movies, and was keen to use his newfound boost in fame and fortune to make a film of his own, stepping behind the camera as a writer and director (while also playing a supporting role as band manager Amos White). Although his directorial debut wouldn't exactly set the box office aflame to the level of "Big" or "Splash," the star's pet project script would eventually yield one of the most enduring musical comedies of the '90s.

"That Thing You Do!" chronicles the rise and fall of a fictional 1960s one-hit wonder band, fittingly called The Wonders. Whether remembered for the Adam Schlesinger-penned, catchy-as-all-get-out hit single or the movie itself, both the song and the film offer a unique parallel in their earworm-like tendencies: Experience it once, and it's hard to get out of your head. 

From on-set stories to pieces of pop culture that took inspiration from the movie, below is a breakdown of some key hidden details from "That Thing You Do!" that will have you dancing in your seat.

The Wonders are (possibly) based on a real band from Erie, PA

"That Thing You Do!" tells the story of The Wonders, a fictional four-piece band that rockets to sudden fame after their hit single takes off, only to immediately break up when the pressures of major label success tear them apart. "The one-hit Wonders... a very common tale," their manager, Mr. White (Tom Hanks), says. 

According to the Erie Reader, the story of The Wonders is "surprisingly similar" to that of a real band from Erie, PA: The Fabulous Epics. While The Wonders got their first regular gig as the house band at an Italian restaurant, Villapiano's, The Fabulous Epics started out in the real Erie with a standing gig at the club of the local chapter of the Sons of Italy fraternal order. And though they didn't have a breakout single and sign to a major label like the film's Playtone Records, The Fabulous Epics moved on to become the house band at New York's Peppermint Lounge, where they met The Beatles right after they'd debuted on "The Ed Sullivan Show." 

Tom Hanks has never let on that there was any real inspiration for The Wonders, and Fabulous Epics member Paul Yoculan Younger didn't sweat it anyway. Before his death in 2019, Younger said of Hanks, "He's a good guy and gave our town some exposure."

The title That Thing You Do! existed before the song was written

If you're familiar with Adam Schlesinger's work, you likely won't be surprised to learn that he wrote the catchy, poppy "That Thing You Do!" song that anchors the film. Just like his efforts with Fountains of Wayne, the hit has a pure, melodic quality that's downright Beatles-esque. "That Thing You Do!" is such a tight, well-made pop song that you'd swear it actually had been around since the '60s. Surely it just came to Schlesinger (who died from COVID-19 complications in 2020) in a flash of shambolic, Bob Dylan–like inspiration?

In 2016, he told Consequence that "They had the title before I even started writing the song." 

When Schlesinger learned of a call for a Beatles-like song for a new Tom Hanks movie, his version competed with hundreds of other submissions in what he called "just a shot in the dark." It ended up opening a lot of doors, as Schlesinger went on to write music for additional films including "Music and Lyrics" and "Josie and the Pussycats." He even eventually won an Emmy for his TV work on "My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend." And all because he worked backwards from the title, and then was forever grateful that Hanks and company "based an entire movie around a song written by some kid who they never heard of."

The change in tempo of the title song is based on The Beatles' first No. 1 single

Though The Beatles exist in the world of "That Thing You Do!", the story of The Wonders has several winking nods to the story of their real-life inspirations. Just as Ringo Starr replaced Pete Best, The Wonders replace their original drummer Chad with main character Guy Patterson. Their big TV debut on "The Hollywood Television Showcase" looks a lot like The Beatles' first appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show," all the way down to the "Careful girls, he's engaged!" chyron that appears under Jimmy's name (mirroring Sullivan claiming "Sorry girls, he's married!" for John Lennon).

But even the way the title track comes together references the story of the fab four's first No. 1 single, "Please Please Me." According to Far Out Magazine, producer George Martin found the original version of the song to be "rather dreary" and "insisted on changing the slow, bluesy arrangement into a peppier number." "Please Please Me" would hit No. 1 in the UK in early 1963 and No. 7 in the US a year later, putting The Beatles on the map. The Wonders similarly went up-tempo in "That Thing You Do!" 

The Wonders sounded terrible on set

A big part of "That Thing You Do!" and its enduring appeal is how it hits every beat of the arc of a band's rise. From the garage practices to regional and national success, along with navigating the pressures of signing contracts and interpersonal conflicts, it's a story that many successful musicians can relate to. But even though the four people playing the band had real chemistry from months of preparation together, they never quite sounded like a competent band themselves. Speaking with The Ringer in 2021, Tom Everett Scott said that even though the movie makes it look convincing, "we are actors playing a band."

Johnathon Schaech put it more bluntly: "Sometimes, you'd turn down the playback... and then you would hear us playing. We didn't sound very good." Movie magic came to the rescue, however, as the recordings by Mike Viola and songwriter Adam Schlesinger stand in for the actors and make all of the performances of the song in the film catchy and engaging. Plus, perhaps the cast was too hard on their own skills: in 2017 Scott, Schaech, and Ethan Embry made a surprise appearance on the "Goddamn Comedy Jam" playing drums, rhythm guitar, and bass, and sounded pretty good.

It was the first big break for most of the young cast

Much like the characters they played, the stars of "That Thing You Do!" were relatively unknown when they were cast, so it wasn't difficult to play the overwhelming mix of excitement and anxiety that comes with sudden fame. It was the very first film role for lead Tom Everett Scott, who told Us Weekly, "It was paralleling my experience with filming, being an actor and Guy's experience with being a musician and just going right to the top. It was a whirlwind."

Liv Tyler might have been the best known of the non-Hanks cast; the daughter of Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler, the model had made a splash as a teenager in the video for their hit song "Crazy," Bernardo Bertolucci's "Stealing Beauty" had turned her into something of a sex symbol, and she had filmed "Empire Records," a poorly-reviewed flop when it came out but a cult classic these days. Much of the film's advertising would feature her prominently.

Steve Zahn, meanwhile, was memorably endearing in "Reality Bites" and had made a single-episode appearance on "Friends." Johnathon Schaech had played only a few bit parts, and future Oscar winner Charlize Theron — as Guy's girlfriend Tina — earned her first credited role, still on the verge of standout work in "2 Days in the Valley" and "The Devil's Advocate."

The most famous scene was largely improvised

The scene when Faye and the four members of The Wonders hear "That Thing You Do!" on the radio for the first time is a purely joyful moment that ranks up there with anything else in cinema hoping to capture such emotion. It's also one that has reverberated with musicians in the decades since the film came out, Johnathon Schaech told Entertainment Weekly on the film's 20th anniversary. "I can't tell you the amount of people who have called me, or I've called them, when their song got on the air... I know a lot of people who have, over social media, have hit me up and said, 'You're not going to believe this, I just had a 'That Thing You Do!' moment.'"

Liv Tyler revealed that she had no clue how to begin the scene: "I didn't really know what was going to happen; I didn't really plan anything," she told EW. But she tapped into a universally human sort of pure excitement, and the scene became a classic all the way to the characters skipping in a circle and holding hands, something that director Tom Hanks had to tell them to just try in the moment "before you roll your eyes," according to Tom Everett Scott.

Tom Hanks wrote the screenplay during the busiest year of his life

Few people have had as much success as Tom Hanks in Hollywood. After breakout roles in '80s comedies, he won back-to-back best actor Oscars for "Philadelphia" and "Forrest Gump" in 1993 and 1994. It was during the nonstop global press tour for "Forrest Gump" that he started writing "That Thing You Do!" As the actor told Deadline, "I had talked about myself for a year straight so I started writing to maintain some sort of creative sanity."

His first film as both a screenwriter and director, it's easy to see how personally appealing the story of The Wonders' struggle with sudden fame could be to an actor on top of the world, and to understand why directing a modestly budgeted film might be a welcome change of pace. In a 1996 interview with the Virginian Pilot, Hanks said, "It really isn't very interesting talking about yourself. You learn more when you get your ass kicked than when you're doing well.”

Tom Everett Scott nearly wasn't cast because he looked too much like Tom Hanks

The role of Guy Patterson, a likable, goofy, and endearing everyman sort of role, is the kind of lead part that a casting director might list as a "young Tom Hanks-type," even if Tom Hanks hadn't written the screenplay. But when Scott was initially in the running for the part, his resemblance to a young Hanks was almost too much for the real deal to get over. 

"The resemblance to myself at that age — it was unbelievable," Hanks told The Seattle Times in 1996. "I said, 'I can't cast this guy. It's ridiculous.' I even said [to Scott] 'Are you sick of hearing about how much you look like me?' And he said, 'Yes.'"

At the time, Scott was a fresh face, known primarily for the sitcom "Grace Under Fire." Ultimately, Hanks' wife Rita Wilson (according to legend) talked him into it. He even found a subtle way to write it into the script; figuring his character, Mr. White, would also note the resemblance, "he sort of begins to shape them (The Wonders). He says, 'Well, I look cool in sunglasses, so this dude (Guy) may look cool in sunglasses.'"

It has an original soundtrack because it was cheaper than licensing

Since "That Thing You Do!" is set in 1964, Hanks wanted to evoke a very specific era of music. But unlike his previous film, "Forrest Gump," which had a massive budget to license famous songs from the '50s, '60s, and '70s, "That Thing You Do!" was more in the "labor of love" price range. "We originally thought we could use obscure B-sides of popular songs, but they all belong to catalogs that are awfully expensive and are difficult to get," Hanks told the Seattle Times.

So Hanks set about hiring songwriters and producers to make up his own '60s music instead, in many cases contributing to the songwriting process himself. 

"He would sing into answering machines," Tom Everett Scott told The Ringer. "He would leave voice messages [with] an idea for a song, and [the songwriters] would come back with it fully composed." Thus, the extended world of the film was born, as the "Playtone Galaxy" was populated with fictional but plausible-sounding acts like Diane Dane, Freddie Fredrickson, and The Chantrellines.

It was a true Hanks family affair

Directing his first film, Tom Hanks was liberal with cameos for those closest to him. His "Bosom Buddies" co-star Peter Scolari shows up as the host of the "Hollywood Television Showcase," and his friend Clint Howard (brother of frequent Hanks-collaborator Ron Howard) has a brief role as a radio DJ. But Hanks didn't stop at friends; he also put three members of his family to work. 

Hanks' wife Wilson has an extended role as a cocktail waitress who takes a fancy to Guy Patterson and introduces him to his idol, going by her actual given name of "Marguerite." Hanks' oldest son, Colin, shows up in a wordless part as an usher, years before he would go on to his own acting career in projects like "Orange County," "Mad Men," and "Fargo." Finally, Hanks' daughter Elizabeth pops up in the pivotal role of "Bored Girl in Dress Shop."

Hanks was a better mentor than his character

Although Mr. White generally seems like a fundamentally decent guy (as pretty much every character played by Tom Hanks does), you can tell he's a little more committed to the bottom line than to The Wonders. He buys their contract out from their original manager, abruptly and unilaterally changes the band's name and look, and locks them into a recording contract that leaves so little room for their own artistic expression that they immediately break up.

By the account of the cast, Hanks was a much warmer and caring mentor as a director, which they all appreciated at the early stage of their careers. In an interview with People, Zahn revealed, "He was really a mentor to all of us." After the whole cast showed up late on an early filming day, Hanks pulled them all aside and said, in typical fatherly form, "'That's the last time you all show up late, not just for this movie, for the rest of your life.' After that I was half an hour early." He also knew when to give individual pep talks, as Scott told Us Weekly: "He saw that I was overwhelmed by what was going on the first week of shooting. And he pulled me aside and he said, 'You're just a cog in a machine. Just worry about knowing your lines, be on time.'" Slightly odd advice, but apparently it worked for Scott. 

An LGBT subplot didn't make it to the final cut

In 2007, the "That Thing You Do!: Tom Hanks Extended Edition" was released on DVD with an additional 39 minutes of footage that didn't appear in the original cut of the film.  It mostly fleshed out subplots that were implied already in the theatrical version (the bass player actually does hook up with one of The Chantrellines, for example), but it did reveal a key element of the film that didn't survive: Hank's character is heavily implied to be in an openly gay relationship in 1964.

In the scene, a character named Floyd (played by former NFL player Howie Long) waits impatiently for Mr. White to wrap up his duties as The Wonders' manager, with the clear weariness of a long-suffering significant other. Though Hanks had already won an Oscar for playing a gay man in 1993's "Philadelphia," he ultimately must have decided this subplot wasn't necessary for "That Thing You Do!" 

Real bands covered the song from the movie

One of the most effective lingering memories from "That Thing You Do!" is the enduring title track, penned by "Fountains of Wayne" tunesmith Schlesinger as the one hit for The Wonders. It's far and away the featured track in the film, but the entirety of the movie is stuffed with original music. 

"That Thing You Do," conceived as an homage to the early Beatles, was designed to sound like so many early '60s one-hit-wonders that rode in on the crest of the British Invasion.

"I had some friends at [Universal] and they told me about this movie. They were looking for a song and said I should take a shot at it. I just took it as an assignment and decided it was worth spending a couple of days on for a shot at something like this," Schlesinger told People Magazine in 2016. "The description was that it was supposed to be an American band in 1964 that was blown away by the Beatles and was imitating them. They mentioned the Knickerbockers as one example."

The resulting track was such a hit that it was nominated for an Academy Award, and has since inspired dozens of bands to cover the song.

The cover onslaught may have begun all the way back in 1999 with NSYNC's live version of the title song. Other contemporary covers include one from New Found GloryBillie Joe Armstrong of Green Day, YouTube cover channel Stories, singer and Broadway actor Michael Longoria, and Boston-based rockers Future Teens.

The actors really learned to play instruments

Tom Everett Scott, Steve Zahn, Ethan Embry and Johnathan Schaech — all known for their acting abilities, not their musicianship. But if you see them in "That Thing You Do!," you could be forgiven for thinking they're the real deal.

That's because the cast went through an extensive musician boot camp prior to the film's shoot. In a 2021 oral history, the stars recalled learning how to wield their instruments. "We started rehearsing as a group," Embry recalled. "And that was every day, five some-odd hours a day, the same song over and over."

"We had four weeks," Tom Everett Scott added. "And I think we met every single day for four hours at a studio, and then I booked an additional four after." Scott in particular was dedicated to his role as "Skitch/Shades" Patterson, the band's drummer. "This is my 9-to-5 job," he said of his mindset at the time. "I'm going to learn all these parts."

Ethan Embry's bass player never had a name

For more than two decades, one of the enduring in-jokes of "That Thing" was that the name of Embry's character was never spoken. Even in the end credits, Embry is listed as the bass player and his post script (seen above) lists him as T.B. Player.

In some ways, this feels like the type of joke Tom Hanks would find amusing, and that makes sense — he wrote the script. As it turns out, Hanks never gave the character a name, not even for Embry to work with between takes.

But that didn't stop Ethan Embry from giving the character a name in 2020, based on clues he had accumulated over the years. In the wake of a virtual "That Thing You Do!" cast reunion, Embry told Rolling Stone his character's name — at least, in his own head. "His name was Tobias," Embry said. "Because you got to have something to hold onto."

The Cap'n Geech scene was inspired by the Forrest Gump set

At one point, when the Wonders are on top of the world following the debut of their hit single, Mr. White (Hanks) books the band for a number of publicity appearances. One of these puts the band on a Frankie and Annette-style set, evocative of the American beach and surfer culture movies popular with teens in the mid 1960s. On the set, they are dressed up as a band called Cap'n Geech & the Shrimp Shack Shooters, a name that wasn't just picked at random; it had significant meaning to Hanks.

As Hanks was brainstorming "That Thing You Do!," he was working on "Forrest Gump." So, the Wonders' alias became inspired by a restaurant he would frequently pass on the way to the set of the Robert Zemeckis Oscar winner

"There was an abandoned fast-food place called Cap'n Geech's Shrimp Shack," Hanks would recall in 2021. "We drove past it every single night all summer long. The name just killed me."

This scene contains another Easter egg as well, in the form of a cameo. Filmmaker Jonathan Demme, who directed Hanks on "Philadelphia," plays the director of the beach movie.

Tom Everett Scott got a part in La La Land thanks to That Thing You Do

Decades later, Scott's "That Thing" role is still paying off. Scott very much remains a working actor, and one of his more high-profile recent roles came in 2016's "La La Land," as then red-hot "Whiplash" writer/director Damien Chazelle was crafting his follow-up feature. 

Scott has a small part in the film, and he recalls picking it up because Chazelle is a fan of the film; in fact, he and his wife bonded over the title track. Even stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, also admitted fans, were excited when the actor came on board.

"Emma [Stone] asked me, 'Hey, so who did you cast?'" Chazelle explained in 2016. "And I said, "Oh, it's this actor Tom Everett Scott." So she goes, "Shades! 'That Thing You Do!'" And she starts quoting the movie. And then she grabs Ryan and she goes, "Hey, Ryan, guess who he cast?" And Ryan's like, 'That Thing You Do!'. And literally, they could recite the entire movie. I thought I was the biggest 'That Thing You Do!' fan. They beat me."