Kennedy is dead, drainpipes are haute couture and a quartet of loveable Liverpudlians bestride the planet. It's the summer of '64, and four of smalltown USA's young warblers ride the wake of Beatlemania, the shock success of one of their few original numbers (That Thing You Do!) catapulting them from anonymity to Big Time and the top of the Billboard charts. Can the band take the pace? Will rock 'n' roll add to its mumbling, powder-nosed victims? And do we care?
Tom Hanks' directorial debut is a sunny, likeable and entirely predictable tale, distinguished by strong characters and admirable period detail but lacking in true grit. Still, it's a great achievement for golden boy Hanks, who, as well as directing and starring, wrote the script for this story of all-American youth holding the world - - for one heady summer, at least - - in the palm of its wrinkle-free hand. He even wrote some original songs for the production, which eschews over-familiar classics in favour of affectionate pastiches of the styles of the period - - Motown groups, Vegas crooners et al.
The big disappointment, considering the attention lavished on the backdrops and on the individual scenes, is how "by-numbers" the plot is. In fact, it's the screenwriter's equivalent of Teach Yourself... Rock Guitar: band forms, plays a few gigs, gets discovered, cuts a single, goes on tour, appears on TV, prepares to record big follow-up record, falls prey to internal tensions, scatters in different directions... There isn't even a malevolent adversary to overcome. Instead, The Wonders' rise to fame is impossibly painless: every shark-like manager, rival band or star they come across is a soft-hearted pussycat who'd like nothing better than to give the boys a slap on the back and wish them luck, wealth and happiness. Only Hanks' ambiguous record company exec hints at the film's untapped characterization.
That said, this is pleasant, smiley viewing. It has a) brilliantly realised sets and costumes, b) clever recreations of the cheesy TV shows of the time, and c) solid acting from a largely unknown cast. Tom Everett Scott's drummer character looks uncannily like a young Hanks (though a slight smart-arsiness prevents him being quite as engaging), while Steve Zahn's Lenny (the girl-chasing guitarist) and Liv Tyler light up the screen every time. Hanks, too, is excellent, his altruistic Mr White showing just the right amount of steel behind that genial smile.