“I Wonder What Happened to the Oneders”: Redrawing the One-Hit Wonder in That Thing You Do!

Twentieth Century Fox

There might not be any identity in modern pop culture more disdained or pitied than the one-hit wonder. A paradox, the one-hit wonder is talented enough to produce a hit song that shoots to prominence, but doomed enough never to reproduce that initial success. Often, this is because the initial, successful song totally overshadows everything else they do. In other words, a monkey’s paw—the curse of a song being too good.

The designation of a one-hit wonder doesn’t fall upon novelists or actors in the same way; who would deign to call Harper Lee or Sylvia Plath or Emily Brontë such a thing? Louise Fletcher or Jaye Davidson or Linda Blair? Perhaps it’s because writers and actors can hide behind their characters, while musicians seem to be playing themselves, making rejection appear more personal. Or perhaps it’s because the rockstar lifestyle is so desirable that we bleed for those who brush against it but can’t seem to hold on tight. Sometimes in our zeitgeist, the one-hit wonder is seen as a joke. But other times, it leads to cult followings, a kind of underground renown. Hopefully, it leads to royalties. But mostly, the life of a one-hit wonder is tragically defined by the failure to produce a song of greatness again.

Enter the 1996 film That Thing You Do!, which was written, directed, and produced by Tom Hanks following his two Best Actor Oscars. The film is ostensibly about a one-hit wonder band, but it’s not. It’s really not. Or, I should say, it’s a film that thoughtfully and jauntily undermines the stigma of the one-hit wonder from the get-go, so much so that by its conclusion, it has completely redefined this initial designation. In the end, the one-hit wonder has revealed the complexities and—of all things—possibilities afforded by such a status. 

Practically, the film chronicles the rise to stardom and subsequent disbanding of the rock and roll group The Wonders during the summer of 1964. The film starts in Erie, Pennsylvania, where 20-something Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott) works in his parents’ appliance store by day and tools around with his drum kit by night, fantasizing about playing with one of the great jazz bands of the era. One day, he runs into some old school acquaintances who are in a local band: brooding lead singer Jimmy (Johnathon Schaech), goofball guitar player Lenny (Steve Zahn), cynical drummer Chad (Giovanni Ribisi), their shy bass player whose name is never uttered (Ethan Embry), and the earnestly sweet and supportive Faye (Liv Tyler), Jimmy’s girlfriend and the band’s honorary member.

Their claim to fame is the bouncy “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”-esque number “That Thing You Do!,” which climbs the Billboard charts all the way to the Top 10. For various reasons (the usual suspects of conflicting visions and at least one mounting ego), they’re unable to produce a successful follow-up, cementing their legacy as one of the great one-offs of the ‘60s.

When the film was released in 1996, critics described it as a pop parable, a Beatles tribute, a time capsule for the mop-top era in music history—at its best, a good-natured blast from the past. Roger Ebert called it “sunny and guileless” and “inconsequential,” a film whose “strength” is “remember[ing] with great warmth a time and a place.” Janet Maslin called it “rock-and-roll nostalgia presented as pure fizz…Beyond that, Mr. Hanks hasn’t much to say, except that he fondly recalls a vast array of funny little aspects of American pop culture, circa 1964.” But the splendidness of That Thing You Do!’s temporal and sentimental specificity seems to have long obfuscated its more timeless inquiry into the definition of the one-hit wonder itself. That Thing You Do! reveals how the Wonders’ summer of fame was not a barely-visited destination but a prismatic, life-changing experience, an inspired awakening for all characters involved.

The film insightfully represents the temporary stardom tasted by the Wonders as an opportunity to find out the things more important to them than being in the famous band. (By the end of their tenure, the bass player will have fulfilled his lifelong dream of joining the Marines, and Lenny will go to Vegas with a pretty blond woman, making good on his hope that fame will finally get him a date.) Thus, That Thing You Do!, with its ultimate one-hit wonder, is not about what its musicians can’t do, but what they realize they can do now, after they’ve completed this strange journey.

Unfortunately—or really, fortunately—Chad breaks his wrist later that afternoon and can’t play a gig at a local college’s talent show. Lenny begs Guy, his old friend whom he calls “Skitch,” to step in. Jimmy has penned a slow, straight-faced ballad called “That Thing You Do!” Guy practices it as is, but, during the gig, starts the song by playing the opening backbeat deliberately up-tempo, turning Jimmy’s humorless ditty into a bopping, bouncing rock number. The new beat bewitches all the bored college kids lolling about and causes them to rush the stage and dance. Jimmy yells at Guy to slow down, and starts singing at his usual slow pace, but it doesn’t matter that it takes him a minute to really get into the new rhythm. Guy has turned Jimmy’s song into a perfect number for the moment, and this will change their lives.

Not only do they win the contest, but they also get a job offer from the proprietor of Villapiano’s, an Italian restaurant near the airport that offers live music and dancing. Chuffed at this little bit of local success, they cut a record with Guy’s uncle (Chris Isaak), who professionally records church music, and sell copies for a dollar. That’s when a nomadic manager named Phil Horace (Chris Ellis) signs them, promising to get their song on the radio within a week (or they can tear up their contract!). He does, leading to the film’s most joyous scene, in which the band hears their song play over the airwaves for the first time.

Faye is on the sidewalk in town mailing letters, listening to the radio via an earpiece, scanning for when the song will come on, when she catches the opening notes. She screams with joy, running down the street, picking up the bass player as he wanders out of an Army/Navy store. Together, they burst through the giant glass doors of Guy’s family’s appliance store just as Lenny and Jimmy pull up out front, screeching their car to a halt, flinging the doors open in the middle of the street. The five scream and hop around the machines as Guy’s uptight father (the great character actor Holmes Osborne) scolds them for their carelessness around the merchandise. But Guy runs to the display of radio sets and turns them on, flicking the dials to the station playing their song (with the song growing louder and louder as they do). 

This moment is essential in the trajectory of the film, which will soon see the band sign with Play-Tone Records, a huge national label, and get a new manager, a big-time executive simply named Mr. White (Tom Hanks, as if he didn’t already have enough to do). They’ll soon go on tour all the way to Hollywood, where they’ll re-record their songs, appear in a Beach Blanket Bingo-style movie, get invited to appear on an Ed Sullivan-style show, and have their car chased by mobs of hysterical female fans. But right now, they’re just five friends jumping for joy in a (literal) mom-and-pop store in their hometown, thrilled that something they made together has found even a modicum of public attention.

The song is so good that it makes a band out of four (maybe five, including Faye) people with divergent ambitions and differing personalities. That Thing You Do! is less about a band that makes a song than it is a song that makes a band. Much of the film is about “process”—the stages of performance, distribution, and marketing that get The Wonders the international attention demanded by their crowning number. Mr. White remakes them slightly into a cohesive unit (the boys wear matching suits with skinny ties) and tweaks their presentation. He changes the spelling of their name: in the film’s first act, they spell it “Oneders,” but Mr. White scraps this, considering that too many people pronounce it like “O’Needers.” He also mandates a clean-cut image. “You’re nice boys,” he tells the band, then stops and looks at Guy. “Except maybe you,” he says thoughtfully, handing Guy a pair of sunglasses and instructing him to wear them night and day. Soon, Guy has his own fan club, worshiping his manufactured, vaguely bad-boy image, calling him by a new nickname—not his neighborhood moniker of “Skitch,” but “Shades.”

Guy’s changing nicknames (and nondescript everyman-sounding first name) are significant. The other names of the band members given to them by various public-facing executives keep changing, too. A teleprompter changes Lenny’s name to the more dignified “Leo.” The bass player is replaced by a much older, more accomplished musician called “Wolfman” later on in the film, and no one really notices. This underscores the impersonality, the artificiality of their fame; that their rise has less to do with who they are than the function they perform. Only the arrogant Jimmy, who’s resistant to the fame machine’s remakings, gets to keep his name.  

Ultimately, the film concentrates less on the specialness of the band than the specialness of the song, revealing to the label that the boys are anonymous enough to be adapted to fit any audience’s adoration. In doing so, the film de-glamorizes their professional ascent, representing it as nothing more than a formulaic enterprise that might have befallen any group with a similar, single spark of musical genius—one of many times that the film will debunk fame for its impersonality.

While the film’s interest in process focuses on representing a stardom that isn’t really real for a band that isn’t really real—neither of which is such a big deal to lose, when all is said and done—it also bolsters one of its most salient undercurrents: craftsmanship. This is a film that prefers the handmade to the industry-made; Guy, after all, is the one who injects “That Thing You Do!” with its pulse. The film is clear about how Guy’s personal musical touch is the key to leading the song where it needs to go (literally as well as figuratively, as Mr. White reminds Guy that he, as the drummer, is the backbone of the band and responsible for starting the song correctly every time).

In addition to its affinity for the handmade, That Thing You Do! has a reverence for the small-town, the local, and the familial circumstances that created the titular song and brought together its players in the first place. The film’s scenes of local concerts (at the talent show, at Villapiano’s, recording the tracks in the church with Guy’s uncle) and small-time promoters like Phil (who lives and works out of his “really nice camper,” in Lenny’s words) are far more endearing than their polished industry counterparts. The band’s tether to home is Faye, whose genuine support and love for all of its members is gradually forgotten and dismissed by her boyfriend, Jimmy, who longs for the world to recognize his genius and nothing else. Guy, on the other hand, never forgets Faye, which further stresses his unpretentiousness and humility. Guy is perpetually happy to be on the journey with the band, unlike Jimmy, for whom their ascension is never high enough.

The film aligns itself with Guy’s giddiness rather than Jimmy’s ambition, keeping it from being a story about an (ultimately unfulfilled) effort to dominate the music business. As such, it doesn’t forget the quirky denizens of Erie and elsewhere even after The Wonders board their tour bus. Chad, the ill-fated drummer whose broken wrist leads Guy to take the band by storm, ends up taking Guy’s old job at the Patterson family appliance store—and even, a bit, his place in the Patterson family; when it’s time to watch the Wonders appear on national TV, Chad joins Guy’s folks to gather excitedly around the TV set. Guy’s father has been something of a curmudgeon through most of the film, more concerned with Guy’s leaving the store’s neon signs on overnight than his musical ambition. But this scene, in which he grabs some kitchen utensils and drums out his own jubilant, exaggerated version of “That Thing You Do!” after seeing his son on TV, confirms that the film’s heart is with the folks watching at home. It doesn’t read dignity in the professional music industry (just the opposite, typified by Alex Rocco’s sloppy, crass record executive in a brief scene), just as it doesn’t read triviality in ordinary life.

The film also feels rather handmade when it comes to its production. As Hanks’s directorial debut, produced by his own nascent company, the film stars a murderer’s row of now-famous actors at the very beginnings of their careers (Zahn, Embry, Scott, Tyler, Ribisi, and Charlize Theron) as well as numerous Hollywood character actors in tiny parts (Isaak, Rocco, Hanks’s buddy Peter Scolari, Bill Cobbs, Kevin Pollak, Obba Babatundé, and even Jonathan Demme, who’d directed Hanks in Philadelphia two years before), and three members of Hanks’s own family: his wife Rita Wilson, daughter Elizabeth, and son Colin. It’s a neighborhood block party of a cast—a collection of relatives, family, friends, tradesmen, nearby young folks who’ll make something of themselves one day.

As director, Hanks also insisted that the four actors in The Wonders study their instruments and rehearse as a unit—bonding them in a lasting friendship that remains 26 years later. “We were pretty tight right off the bat,” Zahn said in a Rolling Stone interview with the three other Wonders in 2020. He adds, “We had to be. The cool thing about this was we rehearsed as a band; we didn’t rehearse as a cast. We didn’t do scene work. All I remember is us in a studio together playing these songs over and over and over again.” In the same interview, the actors reminisce about the fun of being on the set, that they could sense the specialness of the project while they were making it. That Thing You Do! gleams with friendliness, gladness, soulfulness—the kind of personable perfectionism of a homespun masterwork.

The song “That Thing You Do!” was also locally sourced, so to speak. Hanks announced a contest to find the song that would helm the film. It had to sound like it was from the 1960s, and it had to have that title. Out of approximately 300 submissions, Hanks picked the song written by Adam Schlesinger, the bassist for the alt-rock band Fountains of Wayne and the indie-pop band Ivy, who’d years later become best known in mainstream music circles for his Fountains of Wayne song “Stacy’s Mom,” described by Rolling Stone as “a ubiquitous power-pop cut reminiscent of the Cars and Rick Springfield, while doubling as a ‘Mrs. Robinson’ update for the American Pie-era.” Schlesinger, who sent in “That Thing You Do!” with his friend Mike Viola singing lead (as Viola would for Jimmy in the film itself), was nominated for an Oscar. Schleslinger, who passed away at age 52 in April 2020 of complications from COVID-19, would go on to have a career writing catchy songs for films (including Music and Lyrics and Josie and the Pussycats), innumerable songs from various genres for the series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and several Broadway ventures, including the Tony Awards ceremony itself.

That Thing You Do! is, even as it ages, a one-of-a-kind collaboration—the sort of rare, special thing that doesn’t get made every day. The film on the whole winds up being a neat parallel for its own narrative engine, the once-in-a-lifetime song that propels its characters to national attention. That Thing You Do! is clear about all of the people who made The Wonders, and their ascent, possible: the community of friends and fans who supported them, the illustrious artists who once inspired them. The story is a bit of a patchwork. Even Jimmy, whose pomposity only grows as he gets more and more famous, is clear about the provenance of the song, that it was written “in [his] garage in Erie, Pennsylvania.”

That Thing You Do! didn’t have the budget to feature actual songs from the 1960s, so they made some up as well, inventing other stars for Play-Tone to represent, like the Dean Martin-esque Freddy Fredrickson, the Ronettes-esque Chantrellines, and the Dinah Shore-esque Diane Dane. And then of course, there’s Guy’s idol, Del Paxton (Bill Cobbs)—an esteemed, Oscar Peterson-esque jazz pianist whom Guy meets in a club one night at the height of his own fame.

The script’s many remarks about The Beatles, as well as innumerable visual and sonic parallels—from the punny misspelling in the band name, to the guitar twangs, to the ludicrous press photoshoots of them jumping around landmarks, and a Lennon-esque “Sorry girls, he’s engaged” caption under Jimmy’s face in a TV broadcast—automatically set The Wonders up with impossible competition. 

But the film is not ultimately about the band’s commercial success; what the band is, really, is an opportunity for the bandmates’ reflection and introspection, allowing them to figure out what they want from their lives, and who they really want to be. Unlike Lenny and the bass player, Guy and Jimmy have affirmed that they do want to pursue music, but in different ways. Guy’s life is guided by passion, Jimmy’s by a desire for recognition. After the band breaks up, Guy realizes that what he’s really wanted all along is to pursue jazz. And to marry Faye, whom Jimmy cruelly dumps after seeing the television caption that he’s engaged to her. Guy will later go on, the credits tell us, to found a renowned jazz conservatory. He and Faye will raise four kids. Jimmy, who spends the film longing to be recognized as a serious singer-songwriter, will join another band and ultimately make three gold records, later becoming a music executive—ultimately achieving the brand of legendariness he’s always wanted.

Jimmy is the real contrast for the rest of The Wonders, the only stickler among the group of young men thrown together for an adventure. The difference between them is that Jimmy defines success in one, narrow way, and the rest of the band does not. Many films about musicians centrally frame the tension between their public and personal lives (or interweave contradictory themes of fame and home), but That Thing You Do! uniquely features its characters finding greater fulfillment in their personal lives than their public ones, rather than the other way around. The things they wanted before they became famous are still the things they want when they become famous. Jimmy’s personal life and his public life are revealed to be the same thing (they’ve always been the same thing), but everyone else’s identities are far richer. Fame in That Thing You Do! doesn’t change anyone, actually. It reflects exactly who they’ve always been.

Before we even hear the group play, we learn their name: then, they still refer to themselves with the punny homonym “the Oneders.” These sounds, “One” and “Wonders,” seem to suggest that they’ll emblematize the one-hit wonder. But what they really do is reveal its inherent multitudes—such that it feels like both a perfect paean and a tragic over-simplification when, after the band breaks up in the film’s final act, Mr. White murmurs, “The one-hit Wonders. A very common tale.”

That Thing You Do! chronicles The Wonders’ rise and fall, but instead of regarding their journey as an ultimate failure, or treating that status as some sort of joke, it clearly represents an extraordinary moment: a unique chance for the band members to learn about themselves, a unique chance for Erie to have something to really root for. The band at the film’s center might be a one-hit wonder, but more importantly, it’s a wonder. It’s a miracle. It’s a marvel…and then it ends. Stardom becomes a thing the band did, rather than something they achieved and maintained. Before they went on and did something else.