How the Perfect Song Lifts a Film’s Spirit

This piece is by our guest writer Cat Sullivan.

In 1996, the musical comedy-drama That Thing You Do! debuted at No. 3, in no small part due to director and screenwriter Tom Hanks at the helm. Its success was unsurprising, chronicling the fun and freewheeling story of one-hit wonder pop band The Wonders, whose name and musical style was loosely inspired on the Beatles. And if you’re going to make a movie about a one-hit wonder, you’d better make sure the song is a genuine hit.

According to IMDb, the song “That Thing You Do” is heard eleven times in the movie, including full versions, alternative versions, live versions, and snippets. Will audiences get sick of it? Maybe. But will it be stuck in their heads for days after they leave the theater? Well, that’s the goal. To truly buy the band’s ultimate success – and root for them along the way – the music, and more specifically the titular song, must be good. It’s as simple as that.

The song “That Thing You Do” was written and composed for the film by Adam Schlesinger, bassist for Fountains of Wayne and Ivy. Both the song and the soundtrack seeped into the culture as bona fide hits, charting on Billboard and receiving nods at the 1996 Golden Globes and Academy Awards. Film composer Keegan DeWitt’s “Hearts Beat Loud” leans more heavily on synth and beats, and while we don’t yet know if it will stick through awards season, it’s more than up to the challenge.

Courtesy EsteticoKobalREXShutterstock

In Hearts Beat Loud, single dad Frank (Nick Offerman) is forced to close his beloved record shop as he prepares to send his daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons) to medical school across the country. Their shared love of writing and playing music unites the two in creating a song that becomes a Spotify hit. The first time Frank hears the song playing in a coffee shop is a perfect mirror to the moment Liv Tyler’s Faye hears the song on the radio for the first time. The flicker of recognition, the awe, the humor, and the sheer excitement of hearing your own music and having your hard work recognized breaks through like sunshine on both faces. There’s even a thrilling running-down-the-street celebration in both.

Set in the mid-1960s, That Thing You Do! looks and feels like the warped reflection of mainstream American culture that film projected at the time: mostly male, and mostly white. Hearts Beat Loud accomplishes a more realistic perspective for a diverse and progressive era, this time set in Brooklyn. The streets, the bars, and most importantly, the cast feel authentic to what Brooklyn looks like in 2018. Frank is white, and his late wife is black, but this is not consequential – nor does the film feel like it’s patting itself on the back. Sam falls in love, and Frank asks her: “Do you have a girlfriend? Boyfriend?” She dates a girl, and the film places no pressure on labeling her sexuality or watching her come to terms with it. The film gives her room to simply exist – and that, in itself, is refreshing. Both pictures are lightweight but grounded, sweet without being cheesy, turning subtext into text without sacrificing any of the screenplay’s quality.

Courtesy of Pretty Clever Films.jpg

The central conceit of earned success against both of these backdrops fails without a truly memorable soundtrack. In that regard, they both deliver. “That Thing You Do” is an earworm, and Kiersey Clemons’ heartfelt croon in “Hearts Beat Loud” will have you looking up the soundtrack on Spotify long after the credits roll. At first glance, the only similarity between the two films seems to be the hit song’s name serving as the movie title. But the underlying charm and utter delight both take in the power of music, creating it with people you love, and the triumph of the human spirit is what fundamentally unites them. In a year like 2018, I’ll take it.

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