I haven’t done a “Beer in Movies” post for awhile because, well, I just hadn’t found the right movie. I don’t want to do over the top movies like Beerfest or Strangebrew. I’d like to focus more on dramatic period movies in which a beer or brewery makes a cameo, rather than goofball comedies with beer cans exploding all throughout them. Mind you, I LIKE the goofball comedies. I just don’t want to write about them as part of this series (although at one point I may have to do Smokey and the Bandit, you scum bums).
So there I was the other day playing ‘speed TV guide’ with the remote when my eyes caught one of my favorite fluff movies, Tom Hanks’ 1996 That Thing You Do. Deciding that I could take a few minutes of retro-60s music, I was quickly rewarded with a brewery cameo and realized that I’d just channel surfed my way into my next “Beer in Movies” post.
The film, set in 1964, tells the story of four Erie, Pennsylvania kids (Jimmy, Lenny, Chad, and as a running joke in the film, a bass player who’s never named and credited in the film as T.B. Player), who are trying to get their pop band off the ground. When Chad breaks his arm in an unfortunate parking meter hopping accident (an original X-Sport, they really should have made those things higher so kids were not tempted to try this) the remaining three enlist the help of Guy Patterson, a salesman at his father’s appliance store by day, and basement jazz drummer at night.
Guy’s induction into the band proves to be the needed catalyst to jump start them. It starts slowly with a quick practice for a talent show, where a comment by Guy leads to the bands new name, The Wonders, which Jimmy, trying to be creative at first spells as ‘The Oneders’ which everyone in the movie mispronounces as ‘OH-Needers’. But like a roller coaster going over the first hump, what starts slowly gets very fast in the blink of an eye (literally) when at the talent show, Guy starts the should be slow ballad at a much faster tempo. While Jimmy is initially angry with the change, the crowd reaction soon wins him over as suddenly everyone in Erie is talking about the song and his band.
What follows is a nicely paced story of a band who suddenly finds themselves with a hit record climbing up the Billboard charts. The film follows the band from local radio to state fair tours to headlining an Ed Sullivan type TV variety show, The Hollywood Television Showcase.
The casting is good, with Hanks wearing one of his many hats in this movie (he additionally wrote or co-wrote a good portion of the music) as the band’s manager Mr A.M. White; and Tom Everett Scott (American Werewolf in Paris, Southland), Johnathon Schaech (Roadhouse 2: Last Call, Quarantine), Steve Zahn (Night Train, Diary of a Wimpy Kid) , and Ethan Embry (They, Eagle Eye) starring as The Wonders (the actors spent months learning how to play their instruments because Hanks wanted their playing during the film to be authentic). The film also stars Liv Tyler as Jimmy’s girlfriend/want-to-be fiance, Bill Cobbs (Demolition Man, Air Bud) as jazz legend Del Paxton, and marks the third film appearance by Charlize Theron as Guy’s Erie, PA girlfriend (it should be noted that the woman looks hot even in 1960s curlers and hair drying cap). Sharp eyed movie watches will also catch Giovanni Ribisi (Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Avatar) as Chad, musician Chris Isaak as Guy’s Uncle, and Bryan Cranston (John Carter, Total Recall, Breaking Bad) as astronaut Gus Grissom.
But the movie wouldn’t be nearly as effective in telling its story without good music. And in that regard, That Thing You Do does an admirable job capturing the 60s music scene on the verge of being consumed by the British Invasion sound. The state fair shows have a nice diversity of music with the TV Detective show theme styled “Mr Downtown”, the three part girl-group harmonies of “Hold My Hand, Hold My Heart” (complete with The Ronettes “Be My Baby” style clapping) and the 60s torch-style song “My World Is Over”. There’s also a nod to beach movie music with the song “Shrimp Shack” performed by Cap’n Geech & The Shrimp Shack Shooters, a fictitious band that The Wonders are shown portraying during the filming of the equally fictitious movie Weekend at Party Pier.
But all that would probably be for naught without a rocking, gem of a song to play the part of The Wonder’s hit record. And the self titled “That Thing You Do” (written by Fountains of Wayne bassist Adam Schlesinger, and sung by Mike Viola) is perfectly cast in the role. With it’s almost cliche drum into, jangly C#m/Fm verse turns, patterned harmonies and simple guitar solo (lead into by a textbook Beatles type scream), “That Thing You Do” is a master class in early 1960s pop song writing.
The song also serves as a great barometer of The Wonders’ growth as a band, as you can see the evolution of it through out the movie. From the intense concentration of T.B. Player and Jimmy as they try to keep up the first time the song is played up tempo, to a more polished, tighter performance later with T.B. actually adding a third harmony. Sadly, as the performances become more polished, the song seems to lose a bit of the five-take church recorded charm that makes it infectious in the beginning of the film. Or maybe by this time in the film, you’re just bored by it.
While the movie chronicles the rise of “That Thing You Do” to #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, the liner notes to the soundtrack (written in ‘mock-u-‘ form the soundtrack credits the movie performers for the songs and contains a historical recap of the band by A.M. White) claim the song made it to #2. In real life the song didn’t fare as well, although it still made a respectable climb, peaking at #41.
So is this movie about a group on the cusp of long term super stardom, or a movie about four kids who ride their one hit song to the top, only to have everything dissolve when they get there? I’m not going to spoil it for those who haven’t seen the movie, although people who catch an obvious, slick play-on-words contained within the story should be able to figure it out.
So where’s the beer in this movie? Well we’re first rewarded very quickly within the first minute of the opening credits. The front of Guy’s father’s appliance store is shown several times during them, revealing an advertisement for Erie Brewing Company sitting on top of the store.
Later in the film the band is approached by local talent manager Phil Horace who tries to convince the boys to sign with him. During his pitch (in his RV while he’s cooking a pan full of chilli), Phil pulls out a couple of beers from the fridge stating, “I hope it’s not too early for one of these.”
The beer can be seen clearly sitting in front of Lenny during the rest of the scene.
So what is it?
Although the styling is a little bit different, it’s definitely a vintage 1960s Koehler label. Koehler became part of The Erie Brewing Company in 1899, almost sixteen years after Jackson Koehler bought the Eagle Brewery and began producing his beer. Jackson’s father was himself a brewer, and indeed both of Jackson’s brothers, Louis and Fred, were also brewers. In 1899 Fred would also find his own brewery becoming associated with The Erie Brewing Company.
The Eagle Brewery site was still producing Koehler beer in the 1960s. In fact, it didn’t close down until 1978. The building was demolished in 2006.
The label shown in the film appears a little different than the real label. The side panels appear to be more silver in color than the label shown above. The blue panel seems to be a little darker in the middle, which isn’t a problem. Koehler used different colors on their bottle labels for their different beers. Red was Lager, Black was Ale, and Blue was Pilsener. But there was also a beer named “Jacks Beer” that had a center panel that was more of a royal blue.
In fact, the label on the bottle actually seems to mimic the color scheme for the cans.
But no matter the little differences, I applaud the prop guy, and That Thing You Do, for getting it right (although they then turned around and showed a Sabian cymbal on a drum kit. That company didn’t start making cymbals until 1981). As far as the movie is concerned, I’d recommend it to anyone who has a touch of nostalgia for the 1960 musical sound. The movie is chock full of references and hat-tips to the Beatles, including a ‘band running around montage’ reminiscent of “Can’t Buy Me Love” from the movie Hard Days Night. Tom Hanks also wrote in a lot of neat Easter eggs from other movies he’s been associated with, especially Apollo 13.
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