Tom Hanks and Liv Tyler bring 60s music back to the big screen

By Jeff Gordinier
October 11, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

Gosh kids, how hard could it be?

You sway. You clap. You wiggle your fanny like Gidget down at the clambake. You cut loose with a bloodcurdling shriek every now and then. You shimmy, for chrissakes! You’ve even got an ad hoc Arthur Murray to teach you, and the cat’s got a pair of Oscars to boot.

”If you’re under 25, you really like this song a lot!” trumpets Tom Hanks, mounting a stage at CBS Television City, scoping out a sea of flattops and beehives, coaching 280 extras in the fine art of hysteria. ”You have been listening to this song all summer long. It’s the big hit of 1964. I wish I could tell you a song to refer to from right now, but my tapes stopped running around LL Cool J’s ‘Mama Said Knock You Out.’ So let’s say it’s kinda like ‘Mama Said Knock You Out.’ If you’re under 25, please, rock out!”

With that, Hanks decamps to his director’s perch. Four young men amble onto stage 33, where the network shoots The Price Is Right in real life. They are the Wonders. They wear matching mod suits and white turtlenecks; they’ve buffed their black Carnaby Street boots to a gleaming pitch. They turn to the people in the skinny ties and billowing chiffon gowns, the backbeat kicks in, and the rafters shake for ”That Thing You Do!” — a song the crowd has never heard.

But there’s a problem: Rocking out, circa 1964, requires a bit of reeling in. Half the crowd might know how to do the mashed potato, but the other half looks ready to leap into the mosh pit. While crew members scour the crowd for stray remnants of the ’90s, Hanks and producer Gary Goetzman gaze murkily into their monitor and let out a groan: A redhead in a middle row is banging her head and flailing her arms in a manner that’s more seizure than shimmy. Goetzman has the redhead banished to the back, then launches into a little ditty of his own: ”She had no rhythm/ She had no music/ She’s now in another seat.”

Just as the Wonders, a fictional pop band from Pennsylvania, are wrapping up their brief career with a pilgrimage to The Hollywood Television Showcase, Tom Hanks is wrapping up his directorial debut with That Thing You Do!, a breezy ode to the halcyon early ’60s. As such, it’s Hanks who has to make sure a giddy 1964 never lapses into a grunge 1996. In essence, he must transform a bunch of Lollapaloozans who believe there’s nothing abnormal about piercing your nipples into a pack of prom queens who think they’re breaking taboos by doing the twist.

”It’s really a matter of explaining to them what they cannot do,” says Hanks, the baby boom’s beau ideal at 40. ”It’s hard when you’re talking to an audience of 300 people and one of the first things you have to say is ‘Look, please do not high-five each other. High-fiving did not exist in 1964.’ But you’ve got to ride herd on that stuff, otherwise nothing’s going to make sense.” Only later, Hanks says, when the extras have shed their high heels and bouffant helmets, ”do I actually get to see all their tattoos.”

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