Cinematic Soulmates: A Hard Day’s Night and That Thing You Do!
Even if you don’t like the Beatles, you have to at least acknowledge the band’s importance. Collectively, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr not only changed the face of music, but they impacted nearly every facet of popular culture, from films to fashion to relaxed attitudes about drug use. While they appeared in a handful of their own movies, the influence of the Beatles on cinema can be felt even to this day, with films about the band, inspired by the band, or simply featuring their music, which remains as popular as it has ever been. The Beatles even served as inspiration for actor Tom Hanks, who made his directorial debut with a film that is heavily steeped in Beatles lore, despite the fact that the film barely makes mention of the lads from Liverpool. And while it doesn’t necessarily stand out from the crowd, being neither particularly great nor all that innovative, it does manage to distinguish itself somewhat thanks to the fact that it shares a number of similarities (most of which are obviously intentional) with what is arguably the Fab Four’s best cinematic outing.
With A Hard Day’s Night, director Richard Lester wasn’t trying to offer up an accurate representation of the Beatles as much as he was trying to give viewers a glimpse into the mythic essence of the Fab Four, who were the biggest band in the world at the time. The film is essentially meant to chronicle a “typical” day in the life of the band, but rather than wallow in reality, Lester and the boys decided to present a very heightened reality that is more along the lines of what fans of the band want to believe is an average day for the Beatles. So rather than a film on the grueling truth about the life of a touring rock band, we get an anarchic, energetic, larger than life fairy tale about four young men who are on top of the world. The film announces its intentions from the very beginning, opening with the band fleeing from a mob of screaming teenage girls outside Marylebone Station as the title song blares over the soundtrack. What follows is a cartoonish montage that sees George, John, Paul, and Ringo donning disguises and ducking into a series of hiding places as they try to stay one step ahead of their crazed fans. This is all intercut with scenes of their beleaguered road manager, Norm (Norman Rossington) waiting for them at the train. By the time the song ends, the boys have boarded the train, and the story (for lack of a better term) finally begins. We are soon introduced to Norm’s partner, Shake (John Junkin), and Paul’s grandfather (Wilfrid Bramble), who, we are constantly reminded, is very clean (a knowing nod to the fact that Bramble played the titular scruffy character in Steptoe and Son, the inspiration for the hit American sitcom Sanford and Son). It turns out that the Beatles are scheduled to appear on a variety show in London the following day, and Norm and Shake are determined to make sure they don’t miss the gig. Unfortunately, the boys seem to attract all sorts of trouble, and they find themselves in one outlandish situation after another. Worse than that, Ringo goes missing shortly before the broadcast, and now the rest of the band must scramble to find him, engaging in a series of musical numbers along the way.
Years later, Tom Hanks set out to capture the spirit of 60s rock and roll with That Thing You Do! (1996), a film that is a loving homage not only to the Beatles, but also the countless imitators they inspired. The film follows Guy “Skitch” Patterson (Tom Everett Scott), a smart and sensitive young man who spends his days working at his father’s appliance store, but dreams of someday playing drums with a jazz band. After their regular drummer, Chad (Giovanni Ribisi), breaks his arm while goofing around, Guy is recruited to play drums for a band consisting of serious and driven Jimmy Mattingly (Johnathon Schaech), Lenny Haise (Steve Zahn), and T. B. Player (Ethan Embry). After winning a battle of the bands at the local college, the group, now known as The Oneders, gets a gig as the house band at a local Italian restaurant. Soon after, they make a record of their song, “That Thing You Do,” which gets them the attention of Phil Horace (Chris Ellis), who offers to be their manager. Phil helps the band get the record to local radio stations, and it’s not long before the song is noticed by Mr. White (Hanks), a record executive with the Playtone Record label. He signs the band, renames them The Wonders, and immediately puts them on tour. It’s not long before their record is tearing up the charts, and the boys soon find themselves in Hollywood, so they can appear in a major motion picture. While there, they are asked to appear on a television variety show, and it’s at that point that the harsh realities of fame start to tear the band apart. Guy desperately tries to hold the band together, but in the end, even his sweet-natured optimism may not be enough to overcome his band mates’ egos.
First of all, while the films may not appear all that similar on the surface, there is definitely a connection due simply to the fact that Hanks was using his directorial debut to pay homage to the Beatles and bands like them. Now, I’m sure who will take offense to that statement, and will no doubt assure me that there were no other bands like the Beatles, but this does not take into account the countless imitators who sprang up in their wake. They may not have had the same impact as the Fab Four, but they were definitely working from the same template. And that is exactly what Hanks is doing here, offering up a loving tribute to the biggest band in the world, as well as all the one hit wonders who built fleeting careers riding coat tails of the four mop topped lads from Liverpool. As such, Hanks is consciously aping moments from Richard Lester’s anarchic masterpiece, the most obvious example being the touring montage that pops up toward the middle of That Thing You Do!, in which the Wonders are seen cavorting across a giant map of the United States. This is very similar to the “Can’t Buy Me Love” sequence in A Hard Day’s Night, which sees the Beatles frolicking around a football (or soccer, to us ‘muricans) field, at the center of which is what appears to be a large map of some sort. Both sequences are infused with an infectiously silly energy, and it is quite obvious that Hanks is using his film to try and channel Lester, even though the sequences don’t really have much else in common.
Similarly, the Wonders’ climactic TV appearance feels very much like the Beatles’ performance at the end of A Hard Day’s Night. This makes sense, as both films are quite obviously referencing the Fab Four’s first live performance on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9th, 1964. It is a scene that has become somewhat ubiquitous to anyone who is even vaguely familiar with popular culture; four scruffy but handsome young men rocking out on stage in front of hundreds of screaming teenage girls. Hanks reproduces the moment brilliantly, and totally manages to capture not only the sense of excitement that was evident in the Beatles’ performance, but also the sense of a paradigm shift that was to follow. The only difference is that the shift brought about by the lads from Liverpool was to the culture at large, while the shift experienced by the Wonders is the rapid disintegration of their partnership, followed by an unavoidable slide into obscurity.
The thematic similarities don’t stop there, however. In both films, there is a sense that despite all their fame and power, neither band is truly in control of their destiny. The Beatles are shepherded from one gig to another by Norm and Shake (who were patterned on the band’s real-life road managers Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans, respectively), who force the boys to attend dull press gatherings and staid rehearsals overseen by officious directors with questionable taste in sweaters. Even worse, Norm and Shake forbid John, Paul, George, and Ringo from visiting an exclusive gambling club, and only relent when they discover that that they need to retrieve Paul’s (very clean) grandfather, who has sneaked out of his room and gone in their place. This is similar to the control that Mr. White has over the creative direction of the Wonders. He forces them to go on tour, and to appear in a silly beach film as Cap’n Geech and the Shrimp Shack Shooters, all while preventing them from getting back into the studio to record more music. When he finally does allow them to cut another record, he won’t let them lay down any new tracks. Instead, he orders them to record “That Thing You Do!” in Spanish, and fill the B-side with covers of other hits from the Playtone catalog. This is the final straw for the prideful Jimmy, who quits the band in a childishly dramatic fashion, and this in turn leads to the untimely demise of the Wonders, who only hours before were on top of the world. Contrast this with A Hard Day’s Night, which posits a different outcome for the band. Norm and Shake’s control of the group ensures that they stay on top of the world, and the film ends with them boarding a helicopter and flying off to bigger and better things.
Ultimately, that is what it all comes down to. One film is about a band on the rise, while the other is about a band at the height of their popularity, with the only place to go being up. That Thing You Do! is constantly reinforcing the notion that the Wonders are truly a one hit wonder, most notably through repeated use of the title song. Sure, the band has other songs (at least two), and even performs them on occasion, but the title track is played no less than 9 times throughout the film. It’s Hanks’s way of driving home the point that the band may have one hit single, but that’s all they will ever have. And while the title song of A Hard Day’s Night is indeed repeated during the course of the film, it only appears twice, alongside a number of the Beatles’ other hit songs. This variety seems to indicate that the band is more than just a fleeting fad, unlike so many of the pop groups who emerged in their wake.
Nevertheless, both films manage to at least touch upon the manufactured and fleeting notion of fame. It is the underlying them of That Thing You Do!, in which a band rises to the top seemingly overnight, only to fall just as quickly a short time later. As Mr. White says shortly after the band has broken up, it is “[a] very common tale.” While the Beatles didn’t have that problem, they do at least acknowledge the idea that fame is never a guarantee, and is usually only granted by people who are simply trying to appeal to “the kids.” They do this in a very clever sequence in which George inadvertently visits the office of an advertising executive, who mistakes the mop topped rocker for an aspiring model. The exec assures George that he is definitely not what the kids want, and becomes quite belligerent when George disagrees. It is a knowing nod to the idea that fame is often manufactured by people who are clearly out of touch, and usually fleeting for those who are cranked out on the assembly line. It is a notion that resonates to this day, when there are so many manufactured pop stars coming out of places like American Idol or even YouTube, most of whom burn brightly for a few moments, only to fade away soon after.
While both films may appear to be very different on the surface, they nonetheless have a lot in common, thanks to the great affection Hanks has for both the Beatles and the era that spawned them. With That Thing You Do!, he set out to craft a love letter not only to the band, but also to the weird and wonderful time period in which they emerged. He also wanted to capture the strange sense of fame that they achieved, and that so many others strove for in the wake of the Beatles’ massive success. Countless bands tried their hardest to wrest the gold ring from clutches of the Fab Four, and most of them crashed and burned in the process. The Wonders are meant to be stand-ins for each and every one of those one hit wonders, but they are also meant to evoke the spirit of the one band that truly made it. Most importantly, however, both films perfectly capture the essence of a tumultuous, uncertain, and altogether exciting era of pop music, and that is why they are cinematic soulmates.