As the onscreen story goes, “That Thing You Do!” became a perfect pop song by accident.
The title track from the 1996 film comedy was “written” by Jimmy Mattingly (played by Johnathon Schaech), the earnest, arrogant frontman of fictional small-town rock quartet The Wonders. Instead of the later version of the single that would later shoot him and his bandmates to fame, “That Thing You Do!” was originally penned as a sleepy ballad. But before a big talent show performance, the band’s original drummer broke his arm, leaving cooler, older Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott) ot fill in for the gig — and beat new life into the tune by kicking it up to a sock hop-ready rhythm. The kids in the audience go wild dancing to Guy’s groove, and “That Thing You Do!” spends the rest of the movie climbing the charts, and Wondermania sweeps America, before everything falls apart.
The true story behind “That Thing You Do!” is that its brilliance and clap-along appeal was anything but accidental — thanks to Adam Schlesinger, who died on Tuesday (April 1) following COVID-19 complications. That Thing You Do! was written and directed by Tom Hanks (who also appears in the film as the Wonders’ slick and savvy manager, Mr. White), and remains a timeless, affectionate ode to the rock radio darlings of the ‘60s. Hanks also contributed a few songs to the soundtrack, but the title track was written by Fountains of Wayne bassist and singer Schlesinger, whose two bands, Fountains of Wayne and Ivy, were just gearing up to release their first albums when he took a chance and submit a British Invasion-inspired bop to be considered for the project.
“I had recently signed a music publishing deal with Polygram, which is now part of Universal,” Schlesinger told Consequence of Sound in a 2016 interview about That Thing You Do!. “That was in a lot of ways my first professional contract of any kind. I had some friends there who knew that I liked writing ’60s-style, melodic sort of pop stuff. They heard about this movie that was happening, and they said, ‘You should take a crack at this. This is up your alley.’”
Schlesinger rolled with the assignment, which was to write a song that “should sound like an American band that was blown away by The Beatles right after they arrived and was trying to imitate them.” (That Thing You Do! is set in the summer of 1964, a few months after the Fab Four first landed in the U.S. and performed on The Ed Sullivan Show.) He recorded the demo with friend and producer Mike Viola and sang back-up, and a few months later, their voices were what moviegoers heard when the Wonders played “That Thing You Do!” for screaming girls at state fairs across the country.
“That Thing You Do!” won over fans in the real world, too: the song’s ascent on the Billboard charts is meteoric in film, and the single and the soundtrack enjoyed success on the actual Billboard Hot 100 (where Schlesinger’s title cut peaked at No. 41) and the Billboard 200 albums chart (No. 21), respectively. When awards season rolled around, “That Thing You Do!” was a contender in the music categories, and scored Schlesinger nominations at the Golden Globes and Oscars for best original song. (At both ceremonies, he lost to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s “You Must Love Me” from the Madonna-starring film adaptation of Evita.)
Schlesinger would move on from the hit he wrote for a fictional band with an illustrious career all his own. Fountains of Wayne (whose self-titled debut dropped the same week as the That Thing You Do! soundtrack, coincidentally) reached No. 21 on the Hot 100 with their 2003 smash “Stacy’s Mom.” That song — whose infectious, handclap-commanding chorus is an inherited quality from its Hollywood predecessor — netted a Grammy nomination for best pop performance by a duo or group with vocals in 2004, and its Rachel Hunter co-starring music video reached No. 1 on MTV’s Total Request Live.
Schlesinger would continue to work in film, theater and TV, and his penchant for perfect pop tunes served him well as the executive music producer and songwriter for the wildly popular CW series Crazy-Ex Girlfriend. (His next project, a musical adaptation of Sarah Silverman’s memoir, The Bedwetter, was scheduled to begin previews at New York’s Atlantic Theater Company this spring.) Though Schlesinger was the hidden talent behind one of the most memorable songs ever performed by a make-believe band, “That Thing You Do!” was just the beginning for a multi-faceted musician who knew exactly when to kick up the beat — and create a cult classic in the process — one handclap at a time.