I wrote a post a while back about movies and TV shows that are not necessarily aimed at kids, but that have great lessons to teach. I waxed on about Ratatouille, 50 First Dates, Accepted, and Hairspray. But even as I did so, I knew I was leaving one out -- I just couldn't think of what it was. It has since come to me: That Thing You Do.
Now bear with me, because this is going to get a little weird. I really like That Thing You Do. It makes me all fuzzy happy on the inside. For those who do not know, it's about some friends in a small town in the early 1960s who form a band, get really big really fast, and then (spoiler alert!) decline just as fast -- one-hit wonders. The movie follows them from just before they start playing local shows, through getting signed to a major record label, on through the personal struggles that eventually spell their demise.
There are four members of the band, plus a girlfriend. Jimmy, the serious one who writes all the songs; Lenny, the goof-off comic relief; The Bass Player, who doesn't have a name, but is set to join the Army in a matter of months; and Guy, the drummer and protagonist of the movie. And Faye, Jimmy's girlfriend (played by Liv Tyler).
They got Guy to join the band after their first drummer broke his arm right before their first gig. Guy works at his dad's appliance store (not his first choice...), and he loves jazz. After his upbeat drumming at a Battle of the Bands competition turns Jimmy's ballad into a fun dance number, the guys are off and running -- radio play, a 45 single, a national tour -- all led by their manager Mr. White (Tom Hanks, who also wrote and directed). Mr. White has seen it all, and the guys' should have noticed the first big red flag -- Mr. White was not particularly concerned that The Bass Player was leaving for the Army in a few months.
The rest of the movie is mostly just fun -- there's a lot of music that Hanks and others wrote that could have come straight from the era. You get to experience all the excitement of new-found fame with the guys. But there are tensions. Jimmy is a jerk, and Lenny's a smart ass, and you can see the cracks starting to form. They finally make it to LA at the end of the tour, and Guy gets to meet his jazz idol, Del Paxton, at a local bar. The look on his face, the way he falls all over himself -- it's beautiful to me. You can tell (in this scene and throughout the movie) that Guy loves music. Really loves it. It flows through him and he's just a lucky conduit. This in contrast to Jimmy, who feels the need to control, to be in charge of the music, to have it done just the way he wants it, because he's "the talent". Guy is just along for the ride.
In the end, the band breaks up before it can even release a full-length album. The Bass Player leaves for the Army, Lenny runs off to Vegas with a groupie, and Jimmy quits over how many songs he gets to contribute to the album (after losing Faye due to extreme jerkiness). Only Guy is left. He sits alone in the studio, drumming for the love of it. Del Paxton shows up and asks if he can jam. Guy's dreams are complete when he and Faye get together at the end. (Of course! It is a romantic comedy, after all.)
So what lesson is there here to learn? I've been thinking about this for a long time. (Since I watched the movie the first time? When I was... 14?) And this is what I think Tom Hanks meant, although I think he might not put it in these terms: If you love something, and you hold it with an open hand, you will be happy, and you will make others happy. If you love something stingily, hold it in a closed fist, need to control it, and make it an idol, you will lose everything and you will only be miserable and make others miserable along with you. Jimmy needs to be the star, the leader, to call the shots; Guy takes things as they come, grateful for every unexpected joy that comes along.