Tom Hanks’ directorial debut, That Thing You Do!, is a sleeper hit in the actor’s filmography. The film chronicles the meteoric rise of The Oneders, a suburban Pennsylvania based band who score a surprise #1 hit in the summer of 1964. While the film didn’t make a huge impact on its 1996 release, its winning story, appealing performances, and pitch-perfect soundtrack have raised its profile in the 20 years following its premiere.
The careers of the alternative-rock bands who recreated the garage-rock sound of the LBJ era mirrored that of the Oneders. Like the garage bands of the mid 1960s, Fountains of Wayne, the Gigolo Aunts, and Mike Viola were making music in the years after a revolutionary rock band had cracked the genre open, leaving a young audience hungry for new music.
Of the bands that appeared on the TTYD soundtrack, Fountains of Wayne had the highest profile. At the time, the band was a glorified dorm-room recording project founded by Williams College students Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood. After they returned to the tri-state area, Schlesinger landed a publishing deal with PolyGram and the band was signed to Atlantic’s alternative subsidiary, TAG Records.
The opportunity to write “That Thing You Do” came through contacts at PolyGram. “That was in a lot of ways my first professional contract of any kind,” Schlesinger said in a retrospective article for Consequence of Sound. “I had some friends there who knew that I liked writing ‘60s-style, melodic sort of pop stuff. They heard about this movie that was happening, and they said, ‘You should take a crack at this. This is up your alley.’” A lifelong Beatlemaniac, Schlesinger drew inspiration from the Fab Four, as well as from lesser-known garage bands like the Knickerbockers that gained regional popularity in the Beatles’ wake. Boston-based hitmaker Mike Deneen produced the track at Somerville’s Q Division studios, and Schlesinger and Collingwood tapped Stoughton native Mike Viola to record vocals on the finished single. In a People magazine profile, Schlesinger describes Viola as “one of the greatest singers alive” and cites Viola’s vocals as “one of the reasons why this happened at all.”
By the time the band got the call to record the single, Mike Viola had become one of the bright lights of the Boston music scene. He recorded and released the solo album Kenmore Square while attending high school. (His appearance in a Zips sneakers commercial—in which he played a dimpled teen pop star besieged by fans—is still available on YouTube.) While Viola would eventually make his name as a songwriter and producer for artists like Jenny Lewis and Ryan Adams, he felt ambivalent about taking a credit on something written for hire. “There’s one horse in the movie and I came after that, so it just bummed me out,” Viola told the Miami Sun-Sentinel in 1996.
Schlesinger later recalled that Viola had a more precious attitude towards his songwriting at that time. “I think Mike’s attitude about the song has changed a lot over the years. At the time, he was sort of in the place of ‘I just wanna do my art, man. You’re the one who does movies and TV.’ I think that sort of boundary has gone away…he’s gone on to do a lot of the same kind of thing.”
That Thing You Do! opened in third place at the box office only to fade from theatres without making back its budget. Though the film wasn’t an immediate hit, the single “That Thing You Do!” was nominated for Best Original Song at the Academy Awards. Schlesinger describes this moment as “surreal” and was disappointed in how the song was presented at the Oscars. In People, he noted that “for all the attention to detail in the actual movie, when they did it at the Oscars they kind of made it into this ‘50s diner type thing. They just totally got it wrong—which is more credit to Tom Hanks for not doing that.”
The film’s eventual status as a cult classic mirrors Fountains of Wayne’s rise to fame, which took almost a decade. Their self-titled debut did reasonably well, supported by tours with Sloan and the Smashing Pumpkins and buoyed by an appearance on 120 Minutes. Unfortunately, their label folded not long after the release of their album, and Schlesinger and Collingwood retreated to side projects (including the soundtrack to Josie and the Pussycats) before reconvening to record Utopia Parkway in 1999. Five years and another record label later, Fountains of Wayne would have their own Oneders-esque hit single—“Stacy’s Mom”, a cheeky ode to your friend’s alluring mother.
That Thing You Do! was a turning point for Mike Viola’s career. He’d released a string of fine orchestral-pop albums throughout the 1990s and 2000s, but due to poor label support for his idiosyncratic pop, they never gained enough traction to become pop hits. In the years since his feature-film debut, Viola has written songs for music-centric movies like Get Him to the Greek and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. (He also wrote and produced the underrated soundtrack for the indie comedy That’s What She Said, which features a rare solo from former Tribe vocalist Janet LaValley.)
While Fountains of Wayne and Mike Viola have continued to make their names as artists and songwriters-for-hire, That Thing You Do! remains a bright light on their resumes. “It’s crazy looking back to think that Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, his partner, had the confidence to pull a song out of a pile and say, ‘Yeah, we like this one’”, Schlesinger recalled to Consequence of Sound. “These guys based an entire movie around a song written by some kid who they never heard of.”