Overlooked Gems: That Thing You Do: The Extended Director’s Cut (1990)

Posted by Lesley Coffin October 13, 2013 0 Comment 8557 views

Tom Hank’s debut as a theatrical writer/director, That Thing You Do, was a moderately successful, minor lark of a film. The movie is fun and fast, and captures a certain cinematic nostalgia which exists somewhere between Grease and American Graffiti. If there is a fundamental problem with the movie, it’s the fact that the movie feels disposable. As if it’s lightness means for it to simply leave your mind as fast as it enters.

But a longer version of That Thing You Do released as the extended director’s cut exists, and was released on Blu-ray and DVD, which not only slows the movie’s passing, but significantly change’s the films narrative, characters, and even builds on themes and cinematic motifs which didn’t exist in the original film. And despite often feeling films are excessive in length today, the 2 ½ hour version Tom Hank’s originally wanted to release is both more satisfying and more meaningful a feature.

One of the big reasons is the way the extended cut of That Thing You Do has a more clearly defined three act structure – the creation of the band, the rise of the band, and the spectacular fall of the band. Ironically, the band’s creation is almost twice as long as in the original cut. Tom Hanks relishes showing the sweetness of the member’s salad days, from a riot at their pizza place, to the sheer sense of joy they experience in even the smallest victories, like finally getting to Pittsburgh. And the struggles in the band which seemed to come out of the blue in the last scenes of the original cut are more than evident and actually being called back in the third act.

One of the big differences in That Thing You Do is the fact that characters Lenny (Steve Zahn) and Jimmy (Johnathon Schaech) seem to have developed a genuine distaste for one another even before drummer Guy (Tom Everett Scott) joins the band. They bicker and constantly needle, Lenny even apologizing to Guy for bringing him to hell. There is already a power struggle in the band when Chad (Giovanni Ribisi) is a member, because he tends to favor Jimmy. It isn’t until Chad is axed and Lenny brings in old pal Guy that Lenny gets to play his type of music, which annoys serious Jimmy. It’s an idea rarely explored in film – how one new member can completely change the dynamic of a group.  But from the minute Guy joins the group, the dynamic completely changes. Leader Jimmy no longer is able to dominate and his general dislike for Lenny and Guy leads to the anger brewing throughout the rest of the movie.

Along with fleshing out the characters of Jimmy and Lenny, the extended cut of That Thing You Do also makes it far more evident that the film is Guy’s story. We have more time with his family and it takes a full 8 minutes before we ever meet the other members of The Wonders (Oneders). Guy’s contributions to the band are far clearer to the audience, but the extended version also explains where he is in life before joining a band. Set to inherit the family business, close to starting his suburban family, and playing music only a private passionate hobby. Each of the four have their own reasons for being musicians: the bass player wants to belong, Lenny wants women, Jimmy craves praise, and Guy loves music. But it’s Guy’s story of going from someone who secretly dreams of being a musician to becoming one. Yes, the end of his journey in this film is a bit more downbeat than in the original, but it also feels far more realistic for his character. There is an entirely different meaning behind Liv Tyler’s line “none of this would have happened if you hadn’t joined the band.”

Tyler has more to do in That Thing You Do as well, showing how differently she relates to Guy compared to Jimmy. Tyler’s character is always the muse, and therefore never a layered character. But how she is seen by these men is given far more attention and the juxtaposition between Faye and Tina (Charlize Theron) is far more developed. Tina wants the suburban life being presented as the norm to baby-boomers, while Faye embraces the emerging freedom coming about in the 60s. Tina isn’t a bad person, she just doesn’t want the same thing as Guy, now that he’s discovered what he wants is a music career.

It’s too bad that Tom Hanks had That Thing You Do re-edited, because the director’s cut showcases his talents as a writer and director in a way the other version of the film never did. Visually, Hanks was creating something special with his three act structure. The first act, taking place in their hometown, is ultra-realistic in it’s visual style, visually expressing the first manager’s description of the band as having “a nice, natural, raw quality.” The film’s color palette is all neutrals, with lots of beige and brown, filmed primarily in long, medium shots and natural lighting. Only when the band members begin to live their dreams does Hanks begin to play with camera tricks, like the camera swipe when they first hear their song on the radio.

But then the man in the black suit, Mr. White (Tom Hanks) enters this brown picture and suddenly the film is all bright colors, music montages, and silliness. Even Lenny and Jimmy seem to be getting along on tour like they never had before. The shiny dream of being a famous music group hasn’t worn off yet and they are still living in the surreal twilight of the experience. It isn’t until the shine comes off and we see truth behind the scenes of the dream that the starkness of the first act merges with the brightness of the second act to show the sour falseness that is the standard in Hollywood.

As for Hanks’ Mr. White, his character was extensively edited to exclude some key, inside Hollywood elements of his character which suggest prejudice of the times which existed in both the 1960s and 1990s. It’s too bad these restored scenes were excluded because they offer some necessary explanation as to his personality and makes him far more interesting than just a generic slick agent type. Not are there only new details about his personal life, but these details also show how much insider knowledge of the music industry he has, from buying people off to creating myths to sell records.

I have purchased the collector’s edition of That Thing You Do which features both versions, but can’t imagine choosing to watching the theatrical cut ever again. It wasn’t a bad movie; it just isn’t as emotionally satisfying, cinematically interesting, or compelling as the director’s cut we now have.  To me, the director’s cut is now the go-to version, and the theatrical version little more than a TV edit.

A Gallery of Images from That Thing You Do

Watch the That Thing You Do Trailer

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