NPR has an occasional feature called “Movies I’ve Seen A Million Times.” I could pick artsier or more challenging films for my personal nominee in this category, but I have a terrible sweet spot for a little confection of a movie I watched yet still again tonight: “That Thing You Do.”
It’s the story about a one-hit-wonder band in the early 1960s, and I love it because I have lived through so many of the set pieces in the film: The weird gigs at airport pizza palaces, the ensemble shows, the surprise radio airplay, the dancers who love your band, the veteran musicians who teach the young musicians about a lot more than music, and on and on and on.
Tom Hanks wrote and directed the movie, and it was a modest box office hit, but it is amazing to me how it never seems to disappear from movie channels. That’s not just because it’s such an entertaining piece of fluff (and I mean that in the best way) but because there are so many cameos and small parts from people who are part of Hanks’ circle or went on to become much more famous. A then-little-known Charlize Theron disappears relatively early on in a part as the drummer’s girlfriend; Steve Zahn (lately of ‘Treme’) is a guitarist; this is the first film I can remember seeing Liv Tyler in; even Chris Isaak and Hanks’ wife, Rita Wilson, show up. And Jonathan Demme plays…a director! Kevin Pollak has a little part, as does Brian Cranston — and even Hanks’ “Bosom Buddies” co-star, Peter Scolari, makes an appearance.
And the best part is that all of the actor-musicians clearly can play their instruments in ways that I recognize. There’s the on-stage argument when the drummer breaks out in a beat that’s twice as fast as the band had practiced; there’s the bass player with his tongue sticking out ever so slightly as he concentrates; there’s the drummer whose style and control quickly make it apparent that jazz is his first love; and there’s Wolfman, the fill-in bass player who can handle anything but is too scary-looking to be shown on television.
But my favorite character in the movie is “Del Paxton,” the jazz player who tells the drummer that bands come and go, but the secret is to just keep playing. I thought of that this week, when I had one gig to play background music for a radio program and another to provide a sonic backdrop for people consuming Thai food. I took these gigs so I could keep playing. And the more I play, the more often I surprise myself in fun ways, even if the audience isn’t listening. When that happens, I’m reminded of the movie all over again.