'That Thing You Do!' Turns 20: Adam Schlesinger on Writing the '60s Smash That Never Was

As the Tom Hanks film That Thing You Do turns 20, PEOPLE spoke to composer Adam Schlesinger about penning hit theme song.

Photo: Everett

There are no casual fans of That Thing You Do! It’s either in your personal Top 10 list, or you’ve never seen it. In the 20 years since its release, the film has racked up a degree of popular goodwill usually reserved for beloved sports figures, long-time TV hosts and its writer/director/star, Tom Hanks.

The story follows the rise of the Wonders, a small time band from Erie, Pennsylvania, who are launched to superstardom after winning a local talent contest. Like a PG-rated Behind the Music, the group ultimately splinters under the pressures of fame, ego, jealousy, and quickie Reno weddings, but they leave behind the legacy of the movie’s titular song—a sparkling pop gem that set the charts on fire in the summer of 1964.

That Thing You Do!’s success hinged on that song—something peppy, something snappy, something that unrepentantly evoked the optimism of an age. The film’s producers put out an industry-wide call looking for just the right tune. After receiving over 300 submissions, some reportedly from big name bands like the Gin Blossoms and They Might Be Giants, they settled on a song by Adam Schlesinger. Later famous as a member of Fountains of Wayne (he co-wrote their hit “Stacy’s Mom”) and composer on the musical rom-com television series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Schlesinger was a relative unknown at the time.

In a stellar example of art mimicking life, the young songwriter’s track became a hit in its own right when it was issued in the fall of 1996, rising to No. 41 on the Billboard Top 100 and No. 22 on the Adult Contemporary chart. What’s more, it earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Song, and has been covered by everyone from ‘NSYNC to New Found Glory.

In honor of That Thing You Do!‘s 20th anniversary, PEOPLE spoke to Schlesinger about penning the best ’60s smash that never was.

Let’s start at the beginning: how did you first hear about the movie?

I had just gotten my first publishing deal around that time. It was with Polygram publishing, which later became a part of Universal. I had some friends at the company and they told me about this movie. They were looking for a song and said I should take a shot at it. I just took it as an assignment and decided it was worth spending a couple of days on for a shot at something like this.

How did they describe the kind of song they were looking for?

The description was that it was supposed to be an American band in 1964 that was blown away by the Beatles and was imitating them. They mentioned the Knickerbockers as one example.

You’ve said that you wrote the song as a personal exercise.

In general, I like having songwriting assignments and I like having deadlines. It’s something I’ve done a lot of since then; writing to order and writing on deadline for different projects for movies or television or theater. It’s a way of constantly proving to yourself that you can get something done in the short amount of time that you have to.

Do you listen to a stack of ’60s songs to get in the mood?

Oh yeah! I don’t consider it getting in the mood, I consider it research. With this particular assignment, it was an era that I was already familiar with and loved. For example, on my gig right now—the TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend—we do songs in all kinds of different genres. Some of them are genres that I don’t really know anything about, so I have to do a lot of research to get up to speed on the genre itself so I can do some kind of version of it.

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What kind of music did you grow up listening to?

As a kid I was a just Beatles fanatic for a long time. I didn’t really listen to anything else except the Beatles when I was really young. And then as I got older I started discovering there were other bands in the world. But the Beatles were definitely my first real love, and all I listened to in my formative years.

My parents were not really into pop music at all. They listened to classical music and jazz. I got Beatles records from my aunt. We had a piano in our house growing up, so I played piano and as I got older I discovered more things and my taste broadened a lot.

Many songwriters say their best songs come very quickly—was that the case with “That Thing You Do”?

Usually what happens with me is that I’ll get the initial idea on day one, or many a couple of competing ideas, and then I’ll spend a couple extra days to refine it a bit and finish it. As I recall, I wrote three different versions of this song. They were all sort of related to each other, but they were all slightly different. I played them for a few people, including Mike Viola, and everybody pointed to the same one as their favorite. So I focused on that one. And then I went in and did a demo with Mike Viola singing and my friend Andy Chase who was in the band Ivy with me.

Why did Mike Viola sing the lead on the track instead of you? Did he have a better voice for the style?

He’s just a much better singer than me. [Laughs] It’s not even about the style, he’s just one of the greatest singers alive. He’s a phenomenal singer, and I think his vocal and his co-production were two huge parts of why this happened at all. In fact, the demo that we made was so good that the producers really couldn’t beat it and they ended up hiring Mike to come out and sing the lead vocals in the movie, because nobody could sing that song as well as Mike.

There was some controversy about how Mike Viola was credited—he was listed as “Additional Vocals” under “First Aid” and “Catering” and “Animals Supplied” credits. How did you feel about all that?

We were young guys in our twenties and he had the initial thought of “I don’t want to be known for this, I want to be known for my own music. I’ll help you out but I want to be anonymous.” And then as it started to develop he started to have second thoughts about it. So I don’t know. I wasn’t a part of those negotiations for credits on his side. But we’ve gotten older, and he’s since come to have a very different attitude.

Did Tom Hanks give you any feedback?

Yeah, once they settled on it, I spoke to him many times. I went to the set. Since then I’ve seen him a few more times over the years. I’ve stayed friends with [producer] Gary Goetzman and all the people in the Playtone label. Every couple years I’ll drop by their office and sometimes Tom’s just hanging out. He was amazing, but really the whole thing is just because he had the confidence in his own ears to pick a song by an unknown guy to base his movie on. That’s pretty incredible.

What did you think when you first saw the finished film?

I went to the premiere and I thought it was amazing. I thought it was a really cute, charming movie and I think it was very well done and very accurate in terms of the music stuff. Sometimes you see music movies and it’s just painful how off everything is. The attention to detail was really impressive. And I couldn’t believe how many times the song was in the movie. It started to get uncomfortable after a while. Like, oh my God, enough of this song!

Was there a moment you realized the song had a life of its own?

There wasn’t one particular moment. It was just one of those things where the movie never fully went away. They would show it on TV a lot, and because it’s a music movie it withstands repeat viewing a little better than other movies. It just sort of found its spot in popular culture and hung around for a long time, which is great.

You were nominated for an Academy Award. What was that like?

That was just another surreal moment in a string of surreal moments at that period of my life. I didn’t really anticipate any of this, and that was the culmination. The Oscar nomination was just nuts.

There was even that big choreographed “That Thing You Do” production number during the ceremony.

It was very cool that it was happening, but at the same time I have this memory that, for all the attention to detail in the actual movie, when they did it at the Oscars they kind of made it into this ’50s diner type thing. They just totally got it wrong—which is more credit to Tom Hanks for not doing that. They turned it into Grease or something.

You teamed up with the Monkees recently as producer of their new album, Good Times. Did you feel a certain sense of kinship with them having already worked with a faux rock band?

There is some kind of weird relationship there, I guess. I never really thought about it. I approach these things the same way: I just try to make good-sounding records and write good songs. I don’t really obsess too much about the degree of realness. The Monkees are as much of a real band as many of the bands I’ve worked with, you know? They all write and they all play. At this point they’ve been around for 50 years, so I think they don’t really have anything left to prove to anyone. That Monkees record was probably the most fun I’ve ever had making a record—maybe with the exception of the first Fountains of Wayne record, which was also really fun to make.

Who would win in a battle of the bands: the Wonders or the Monkees?

[Laughs] Well, the Wonders really are a non-existent band, so I think that the Monkees would win.

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