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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Peter Schorn of The Digital Bits

That Thing You Do!: Tom Hanks' Extended Cut

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

That Thing You Do!
Tom Hanks' Extended Cut - 1996/2007 (2007) - 20th Century Fox

Film Rating: B+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/B+/C+

I'm sure that just about every practitioner of every vocation - from doctors and lawyers, soldiers and secretaries to public safety and law enforcement personnel, basket weavers and race car drivers - has had serious quibbles with how their professions have been portrayed in movies and TV shows. Even allowing for dramatic license, it's got to be hard for a patrolman to do his job when the public has been fed a steady diet of cops who are hard-drinking, burned-out and crooked (or a least compromised) or wild rogues breaking the rules while fighting crime.

As a musician, my bane has been the trite portrayals of my brethren in countless films. Even those with real-life musicians involved like the Cheri Lovedog-penned Prey for Rock & Roll somehow fail to capture the dynamics of what it's like to be a musician in a band, diluting the musical aspects with banal melodrama, probably in an effort to make it accessible to civilians.

Rock Star turned the story of how Judas Priest replaced their singer with a bloke from a tribute band into a snooze; Almost Famous was mostly about groupies and Cameron Crowe's childhood; Paul Schrader's Light of Day captured some of the grit of Rust Belt bar bands, but wasn't really about music as much as family and scandal.

Excluding the too-true-but-still-a-spoof This Is Spinal Tap, the best depiction I've seen came from the most unlikely of sources - America's sweetheart, Tom Hanks - with his 1996 directorial debut That Thing You Do!, which he also wrote and is now available in a deluxe two-disc Tom Hanks' Extended Cut edition.

Set in 1964, it's the sprightly tale of a band from Erie, Pennsylvania fronted by serious singer-songwriter-guitarist Jimmy (Johnathon Schaech). Along with smart-aleck guitarist Lenny (Steve Zahn) and their unnamed bassist (Ethan Embry) - I'm not kidding, he's credited as T.B. Player, as in "The Bass Player" - they're all set to play a college talent contest when drummer Chad (Giovanni Ribisi) breaks his arm the night before the show. To bail them out they beseech Guy (Tom Everett Scott), who works days in his family's appliance store and plays drums along with jazz records at night, to sit in for just one song: a dirge-tempo ballad entitled, ta-da, "That Thing You Do". When Jimmy's girlfriend, Faye (Liv Tyler), keys off a comment by Guy, the combo gains a moniker to go with their song: The Oneders (pronounced correctly as "won-ders", but butchered as "oh-need-ers" in a running gag.)

At the show, though, Guy counts off the tune at a much more upbeat tempo and thus Jimmy's sappy ballad becomes a pop sensation, winning the contest, getting them a gig at a restaurant and rapidly-swelling following. One person who takes notice is Phil (Chris Ellis), who offers to manage the band and get their song on the radio. Despite his shaky offices - he works out of a camper - they sign and true to his word, he gets them on the air and takes them to play a show in a theater in Pittsburgh where he hands them over to Mr. White (Tom Hanks), an A&R man for Play-Tone Records. Re-spelled as The Wonders, they immediately join a caravan of other Play-Tone acts barnstorming the state fair circuit while their hit song rockets up the charts, eventually leading them to appear in a beach party movie and on a national television before the ride ends in death and misery. (OK, there isn't any death, but there is some crying.)

While the overnight rise and fall of the band is compressed even for those fast-moving times; the label's roster is an eclectic mish-mash of a Bobby Darin type and a Motownesque girl group in addition to our fabbish foursome; and there is no end of music business people who have nothing but the band's best interests at heart; That Thing You Do! succeeds in great part due to the Hanks' astute attention to detail. As far as I know, Hanks never did a stint in a van, so to speak, but there isn't a false note struck (groan) as he portrays the occasionally dissonant chords (ouch) that occur when creating sweet, fizzy pop music. (Try the veal!)

The overly-uptight songwriter freaking out over a drummer not sticking to the designated tempo; I've been that guy. Having the band muffed; there's a photo in the archives of a marquee that misspelled my band's name despite it containing common English words. The jubilant reaction of the band when they first hear their song on the radio; even if you don't dance around an appliance showroom, it's an amazing moment when you realize that there are thousands of people also listening to what was once heard only in your bedroom. These set pieces along with countless other grace notes (I can't stop myself!) will bring a knowing smile to anyone who's been in a band without becoming an inside joke that fails to entertain civilian audiences.

In a stern rebuke to such movie conventions as the band magically knowing the arrangement and harmonies of a song they've never heard before - I'm looking at you Purple Rain - the first time through the sped-up song, the band is ragged and spends the first half struggling to mesh what they've always done with the way things suddenly are. (Keep this in mind whenever the whole prom crowd suddenly busts those intricately choreographed moves in a teen movie.)

Of course, none of these details would've mattered if we couldn't believe that The Oneders/Wonders actually had a song that could be such a sensation. Fortunately, Fountains of Wayne and Ivy major domo Adam Schlesinger delivered an Oscar-nominated bit of wonder (help!) that sounds swiped from the Lennon/McCartney scrapbook and never wears out its welcome after being significantly heard at least eight times during the film. That it was denied the Oscar in favor of the merely adequate "You Must Love Me" (from Evita) is just another badge of shame for a category that also slighted "Blame Canada" and "Mean Green Mother From Outer Space" over the years. When a song is integral to a movie's frigging plot, some ballad tacked on over the end credits shouldn't best it.

This extended version adds over 30 minutes of deleted footage and the difference between the theatrical cut - also available here - is like the difference between an album and single version of a song, say, The Doors' "Light My Fire." While the single fills the bill, the full-length version has additional dimensions that the longer time frame allows to be explored. The most immediately noticeable addition is a lot of material involving Guy's girlfriend, Tina (Charlize Theron - yeah, I forgot she was in it, too), and her budding romance with a hunky dentist while Guy is on the road. This adds nothing to the plot and was an easy omission in 1996; it's only returned here because Theron is now an Oscar-winning actress.

More significant are the added band scenes with nicely flesh out the story. We see Guy being taught the song; a riot break out at a gig; the band inadvertently crashing the dressing room of Pittsburgh's mattress king, Boss Vic Koss (Kevin Pollack); their wide-eyed wonder (no pun, really!) as they try to comprehend playing a 2000-seat theater; and many more scenes that could've always been left in, but were cut for time. Inflated to nearly 2-1/2 hours, it never feels as long as it is, but it definitely tests the limits of brevity. Going back and watching the original cut, the additional scenes felt missed, but it also serves as a useful example of the editorial process.

The cast is uniformly excellent with Zahn stealing scenes with all the great lines he's been gifted from Hanks' pithy script and Scott coming off as a young Hanks doppelganger. Schaech is suitably brooding and even the usually limpid Tyler is adorable here as The Girlfriend who just wants her man to succeed in his musical endeavors. (I've seen excellent local bands destroyed by witchy girls - it wasn't just The Beatles and Yoko - and I've dated a "Tina" and currently date a "Faye" and believe me, it's better with a Faye!) Other than a too-cartoonish Alex Rocco as the Play-Tone chief, Hanks maneuvers his players deftly and prevents his nepotistic casting of family and pals like wife Rita Wilson, Bosom Buddies co-star Peter Scolari, son Colin Hanks, and Chris Issac from calling attention to themselves.

While the story and music are bright and shiny, the 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer has some issues, starting with great difficulty with handling not-so-fine details like pegboard walls and some fabric patterns. They pulse and shimmer distractingly and squander the clean print and Tak Fujimoto's pastel cinematography. The 5.0 Dolby Surround audio is punchy and resonant even without the dedicated LFE channel and possesses a well-mixed environmental ambience.

Be-bopping to the second disc - too bad they didn't do this as a flipper so I could say "on the B side" - we have a "Feel Alright" Video (2:31), pieced together with movie clips for a song I frankly didn't recall. The featurette The Wonders! Big in Japan (6:56) has new reminiscences of a fun press tour to Japan intercut with home movies from the trip. The Story of the Wonders (30:47) is a vintage featurette delving into the background of the story and characters in a manner that's more than just PR fluff. Making That Thing You Do! (13:42) and the HBO First Look: The Making of That Thing You Do! (13:00) are self-explanatory with the former being comparable to the Story featurette and the later being a straight-up hype piece.

The sole all-new featurette is That Thing You Do! Reunion (10:15) which brings together the entire cast including Theron (but minus Hanks) to Algonquin about their casting, making the movie, and the wacky fun shooting love scenes. It's lightweight, but fun. A trio of trailers and a TV spot rounds out the extras.

While the special features are passable what is sorely missed is a commentary track of any kind, new interviews with Hanks, and, most egregiously, absolutely nothing about the music of this sublime music flick. How did Hanks so perfectly nail the experience of being in a band on the rise? We never learn. Hanks co-wrote most of the film's songs, but we get no insight into this talent. Couldn't someone have taped Schlesinger's thoughts about his ability to catch Liverpool lighting in a bottle? It's very disappointing how this most crucial aspect of the production got the least attention.

There is a cool Easter egg on the main menu which will bring a smile to the face of anyone who remembers when music came on 45 rpm singles and the sonic possibilities. One caveat: the redundant cardboard sleeve on my copy got stuck on the ridiculously tacky residue of the three security tape strips that sealed the keepcase and I ended up destroying the sleeve and tearing the plastic cover on the case in the process of extricating it. (Whoever changed the tape glue formula; clean out your desk!)

That Thing You Do! is a sweet treat of a film that manages to enlighten non-musical viewers about the experience of being in a band without making it too arcane or inside baseball. Veteran musicians should recognize themselves as one of The Wonders, too. Either way, it's a darn fine movie well worth checking out.

B4MD: Before the Music Dies

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B4MD: Before the Music Dies
2006 (2006) - B-Side Entertainment (B-Side Entertainment)

Program Rating: C
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/B/C+

It's not much of an insight to say that the current state of the music business is pitiful; seemingly youth-obsessed and vacuous; obsessed about the business more than the music; unable to reconcile quality and quantity. It's a legitimate question to wonder if The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen or any of the legends of contemporary music could've gotten signed and built a thriving and long-lived career in today's climate.

This appearance of favoring commercialism at the expense of musical diversity is the underlying thesis of Before the Music Dies, a well-intentioned, but haphazard documentary by rookie filmmaker Andrew Shapter.

Comprised of interviews with major stars like Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, Dave Matthews, The Roots' Questlove, and Erykah Badu as well as artists more known to the Volvo-driving NPR/crunchy granola music set such as Doyle Bramhall II, Steve Poltz and Joey Burns of Calexico, B4MD (as the makers refer to it on their web site) follows the well-worn path of complaints about how bad things are, how they got this way, and how the future may play out with alternatives such as the Internet providing a direct conduit between artists and the public circumventing the Big Bad Record Industry.

We get a taste of all the usual complaints including "tween" girls outside an Ashlee Simpson concert praising her awesome voice while professing ignorance of Bob Dylan's existence; the evils of Clear Channel and media consolidation; and the injustice that so many "valid" artists aren't able to be big stars while fabricated pop garbage rules the charts. Illustrating the latter is a sequence in which Poltz - who co-wrote Jewel's hit "I Was Meant For You" - extemporaneously dashes off a ditty about a girl waiting for a phone call. We then meet a pretty teenage model who has the vocal strength of a cat in need of euthanasia, but never fear for with the help of Autotune and a skilled engineer her atonal vocal stylings are manipulated into listenable shape. A brief music video illustrating the final result caps the segment.

While the intention was surely meant to outrage the viewer at the dishonest superficiality of "artists" who employ such technical shenanigans, in a world where McDonald's and Pamela Anderson are viable commercial enterprises, it's hard to muster up much opprobrium over something that's been happening since rock & roll first started. What were Pat Boone and Ricky Nelson other than palatable alternatives to those frightening Negroes with their "Satanic race records" in the Fifties? Listen, we know Britney is fake and we're cool with it; give the audience some credit, please. It is possible to eat prime rib and Twinkies without dying.

The closest B4MD gets to explaining why the music biz is so screwed up comes when the effect of giant conglomerates buying up the labels is touched upon. The labels, flush with cash from people rebuying their record collections on CD, were ripe targets for acquisition. In the quest to hit quarterly financial targets, risk-taking and creativity had to be jettisoned in favor of supposedly proven marketing formulas. But blaming the mass-produced nature of modern pop music on soulless bean counters doesn't explain why the public persists in buying this sonic Velveeta (i.e. pasteurized process music product); someone must like it.

The greenness of the filmmaker is apparent from the beginning as it opens with a vintage video of an ebullient Billy Preston performing "Mister Double O Soul" before Ray Charles' band. It then cuts to photos of Shapter and his brother (who was a musician) while the director narrates that they'd been discussing the state of music shortly before his brother's death and that despite lacking any inside connections, sought to find the answers. Then the documentary proper starts with narration by Forest Whittaker, rendering the director's preface both moot and a slightly cheap play for sympathy. It should've been relegated to a commentary track or behind-the-scenes featurette for it gives the initial impression that he would be narrating the whole film in keeping with the personal inspiration.

Another problem stems from the title itself: Before the Music Dies. Is the music dying? In between sections of the film, we're treated to snippets of performances of various left-of-the-dial flavor performers. If the music world were on the brink of extinction, where are all these musicians coming from? There are about three million bands on MySpace and even if the vast majorities are terrible, it refutes the idea that music is dying. While the old music industry may be slouching toward the tar pits, musicians creating music are thriving, if not necessarily rolling in the bling. Since no one outside of the expense account A&R weasels has much sympathy for the record industry, a more accurate title such as Before the Record Business Dies probably would've been a non-starter.

Shot on a shoestring budget on Mini-DV, the 1.78:1 anamorphic presentation can't really hide its technical shortcomings despite processing to mimic a film-based look. There is noticeable aliasing and bleeding in colors and some 4:3 content has been obviously cropped vertically, but considering its intentions, these are understandable and non-fatal flaws. The audio is simple English Dolby 2.0 stereo without subtitles and does a no-frill job of presenting the music and interviews clearly. It's not going to replace Transformers as your go-to reference disc, but that's OK.

Supplemental materials include extended interview snippets with the featured participants with the Poltz and Questlove excerpts being particularly informative and entertaining. Poltz is hilarious in his anecdotes - I probably could've watched everything they shot with him - and Questlove has some fascinating insights as to how The Roots sharpened their act and worked at building a scene in their adopted hometown of Philadelphia. He is so articulate that it's hard to believe he is a, you know, a drummer. (I kid! I kid!)

A live clip of Bramhall performing at the film's SXSW release party and a half-hour long audio interview with Bob Edwards on XM Radio wind things up and the interview really illustrates the problematic storytelling of the feature by covering the material in a more concise manner in a third of the time. It shows that what impact an astute editor - or lack thereof - can have on a documentary.

Anyone who knows the basics of the contemporary music scene will find little new information in Before the Music Dies that they didn't already know and total neophytes won't get a clear enough picture of what's happening to truly grasp the filmmaker's intended point. While the intentions are noble and the quest was valiantly pursued, the lack of cohesive narrative flow undermines the ultimate results rendering what was meant to be illuminating merely pedestrian.

Peter Schorn
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