Imagine how the Beatles felt when Brian Epstein promised them the moon and delivered it. This is the premise of Tom Hanks' debut as a writer and director in a romantic comedy about an Erie, Pennsylvania garage band that reaches #1 on the Billboard charts with their hit single, "That Thing you do."     Hanks plays Mr. White, the PLAYTONE record company executive who leads them to stardom. The tune is a delight, as is the entire movie soundtrack, a good representation of early sixties music. Not only are there songs by the Erie band, but by girl groups and solo artists, all on the fictional PLAYTONE label. Hanks either wrote or co-wrote many of the songs. (Is there anything he can't do?)

It's small-town USA in 1964 before super Walmarts and computers, where the drummer's dad is appalled to learn that a competing appliance store will start opening on Sunday:    "I don't believe I want to live in a country where you have to be open on Sunday to do business."    ( I know just how he feels.) Beatlemania is in full bloom, and Jimmy Mattingly (SCHAECH) has written a ballad that is so good it could have been a Lennon-McCartney number. Jimmy, guitarist Lenny (STEVE ZAHN), drummer CHAD, and a bass player (ETHAN EMBRY) who seems to not have any name in the film, are rehearsing for a talent show at Mercyhurst College. They call themselves the Oneders (pronounced Wonders, get it?) Jimmy's girlfriend Fay (the adorable Liv Tyler who should know a lot about rock bands since her dad is Steve Tyler from Aerosmith) actually comes up with the name: " the Beatles use e-a instead of Beetles." When Chad breaks his arm, in steps Guy Patterson. Guy's real love is jazz and he aspires to jam with his idol, Del Paxton, in a jazz combo if he can ever get out from under his father's thumb. He's forced to work in the appliance store by day and do the bookkeeping at night.

Guy steps up the tempo and turns Jimmy's slow-dance number into a rock & roll song. They win not only the contest but a regular paying job at a local restaurant/bar. Fans start begging them to cut a record, and before long they have a manager who gets them the contract with PLAYTONE. First on Mr. White's agenda is changing their name to the Wonders because everyone mispronounces their name as the O-need-ers. Next is their wardrobe: matching suits of course in every color, and cool dark glasses for Guy. They join PLAYTONE'S GALAXY OF STARS on a cross-country tour appearing at state fairs and other small venues. All of the other acts resemble ones that were popular in the early sixties--three girls who look like Diana Ross and call themselves the Chantrellines;a Dusty Springfield sound-alike named Diane Dane; and male groups that sing about cars and surfing. When their song reaches the top five Mr. White flies them to L.A. for a national TV spot on the Hollywood Showcase. They also appear in a Beach Party type movie like the ones that starred Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon. This is about the time that a closer friendship develops between Guy and Fay, and an arrogant Jimmy begins to jeopardize the band's future. "We look like chimpanzees in these stupid sailor suits."    White reminds him that he can go back to Pittsburgh and be a nobody if he doesn't want to do publicity stunts or appear in beach movies. "You'll have to excuse Jimmy," Fay defends him, "It's just that he's so smart. He tested in high school at genius level."   Genius or not he has no class or gratitude, accusing Mr. White and PLAYTONE's management of lying to them. Even Lenny the clown of the group is smart enough to recognize a good career opportunity: "Oh yeah, I agree. They flew us out here and put us up in the best hotel while our record climbs the charts, the dirty rats."  And Guy is smart enough to recognize a good like Fay.

The comparison to the Beatles is inescapable...Guy is nicknamed "Shades" for his sunglasses like Ringo got his name for wearing so many rings; Mr. White points out that their contract stipulates recording their hits in Spanish...the Beatles recorded their early hits in German. There's even a scene that borrows heavily from "A Hard Day's Night" where the four of them romp in a field that looks like a giant U.S. map.

Now for what's wrong with this film: some of the scenes with Lenny are downright silly; and the film is a bit unrealistic because it doesn't portray the band struggling to reach the top. Except for one scene in a pizza parlor where they have to announce "Table 19, your pizza's ready" between sets as part of the gig, they don't seem to pay their dues. The Beatles were rejected by every record label until George Martin gave them a break. But Guy just happens to have an Uncle Bob with recording equipment who cuts their hit record (in his church!). Then a man shows up one day outside Mr. Patterson's store in a camper and promises to get them a lucrative deal with a prestigious label.

Also notoriously missing from the story is any reference to drug use by the performers at a time when everybody in the entertainment world was using. I guess Hanks' intention was a feel-good film, an escape that is only meant to entertain. My favorite scene for just that reason is the one where Fay runs down the street screaming because the song is on the radio for the first time. The others catch up with her at the appliance store and the scene turns corny and overdone but any musician, artist, or writer who's been there knows the ecstasy that they are feeling.

Except for Jimmy and Guy's ex-girlfriend Tina (Charlize Theron) all of the characters are lovable in their own way. Tom Everett Scott is irresistable as the cute yet sexy Guy Patterson. His resemblance to a younger Tom Hanks is uncanny and I can't help wondering if that's why he got the lead in the movie, since Hollywood runneth over with cute and sexy young guys. Hanks also made room in the movie for his wife, Rita Wilson, who plays a cocktail waitress; and his old friend Peter Scolari from Bosom Buddies  plays the host of the Hollywood Showcase.

The finale? Suffice it to say that it was a bad omen for Mr. White to change the name of the band to the Wonders  ,but the film wraps up with everybody's dreams coming true. I told you it's an innocent little romantic comedy full of light-weight acting and silly love songs. And what's wrong with that??

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