I forgot to mention one of the many effects achieved by That Thing You Do! endlessly repeating its title track, and this effect is related to another movie I’ve been meaning to write about: Bette Midler’s The Rose.
(To be clear, the Divine Miss M neither wrote nor directed, but anyone who’s seen it will surely agree with giving her this grammatically-possessive auteur treatment; the woman fucking owns the movie to such a degree that she becomes its predominant author.
…Shall we dub such an actor-auteur an “acteur”?
I’ll show myself out).
OK, where was I?
Ah yes: at the beginning.
In addition to its other, previously-discussed functions, the overuse (in a good way) of “That Thing You Do” in (you guessed it) That Thing You Do! also serves to convey what touring life feels like for one-hit wonders: “same song, different cities.” The movie homages the traditional hokey montages expressing life on the road with each city’s name popping on screen, along with shots of famous landmarks and the band enjoying the local sights and fans, all while performing the same song again and again and again and again. They might be in a different locale every night, but as the montage unfolds, even the progression from city to city starts to take on an air of monotony.
To this brain, That Thing You Do! is deliberately referencing these clichéd montages in an attempt to position the band as merely one amongst countless one-hit wonders who lived such lives on the road. 20 years prior, The Rose opted against going with such a travel-agency montage for a similar touring sequence, because the distinguishing geographical clarity provided by one would not have been true to Bette Midler’s character’s hazy experience on the road.
She’s the type of rockstar who’s almost an archetype by this point, one who feels at home only on stage, yet the lifestyle required to travel from stage to stage completely unmoors her. Performing (rock) is her rock (natch), but the songs only last a few minutes, so where can she find comfort for the rest of her hours and days and weeks and months and years?
That Thing You Do!‘s neophyte band is nowhere near as lost (yet), thus, it makes sense to present their life on the road as a structurally-simple montage with clear demarcations of time and place. Time and place solidify for Bette only when she’s on stage, so how to communicate that cinematically?
By literally doing just that; careful listeners will hear the answer. How do we — and she! — know this particular concert scene is in Memphis? Because she’s singing “Midnight in Memphis.” How do we and she know when we’re in Houston? Well, when she belts the lyrics “Sold my soul to rock ‘n roll / It’s time to take that train / The one that goes from heaven / Straight to Houston, oh” during “Sold My Soul to Rock and Roll”, it’s a safe bet she’s down Texas way!
That Thing You Do!‘s text-and-iconography laden montage would’ve been too straightforward a means to impart what life on the road was like for her; forcing the audience to dig deep into the performance to uncover this information puts them in Bette’s confused shoes, thereby allowing their experience engaging with the movie to reflect Bette’s experience on the road.
Whenever she’s off stage, she returns to her chaotic existence of placelessness (memorably captured in her breakdown on the plane). Both figuratively and literally, she knows where she is only when she’s on stage; the music too-fleetingly anchors her amidst a life of perpetual, confounding movement.
And when the source of your peace is also the fuel flaming an insatiable, unwieldy desire…well…that’s the sort of profound human contradiction that tragedies are made of.