I don’t watch the Super Bowl (although my mother had her own TV turned to it part of the time, sighing because we didn’t have a house full of people cheering on one side or another and eating her Chex Party Mix the way we did years ago). Instead, tonight I caught a replay on cable of the Tom Hanks film, “That Thing You Do!”
It was a nice, uplifting, heartwarming nostalgiafest, sort of. Here’s what I mean: I really enjoyed seeing the old appliances, cars, buildings, clothing (they didn’t get all of it right, though), and attitudes (because we’re not there any more, so we can see it differently). I also think that people who are not of a Certain Age and didn’t live through that time would completely miss most of that. The sight of a “Rexall” sign on a drugstore or a soda fountain in Woolworth’s does not give them a rush of memories. Transistor radios and “the big KLIF 1190 Chart Toppers” and racks of 45 RPM records and Slurpees/Icees were our lives. Everyone watched the same three network television stations.
I mean . . . I was only five in 1964 when this film was set, but I certainly remember the Beatles and the British Invasion and the Twist (by Chubby Checker in the USA) and bouffant/”flip” hairstyles and soda fountains and photo booths and everyone smoking (COUGH) and all that stuff. My cousins (all older) were wild for John-Paul-George-and-Ringo, and we had “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on continuous play for weeks. That’s the first Beatles song I remember hearing and singing along with. (My dad used to encourage me in that sort of thing when I was four and five. He lost interest by the time I started school. Too bad I didn’t lose interest in performing then–it would have saved so much heartache!) The era is something you had to live through to appreciate, really. Clock radios! Record needles! Ah, history.
The songs in the film were passable pastiches of early Lennon/McCartney and Herman’s Hermits, with perhaps a dab of Dave Clark Five. I enjoyed them, but I felt that the title track was way overplayed, and by the fifth or sixth time I heard it in the film, I was kind of changing my mind about going over to iTunes to download it, or to Amazon to buy the soundtrack disc. I mean, it was just too repetitious for me. And that’s weird–I can usually put a track on “repeat” and enjoy it, and I play the same piano compositions constantly to relearn or refresh them, or to improve my interpretation. I don’t know how many times it would take of replaying “Twist and Shout” by the Beatles before I would voluntarily turn it off. I could hear the “Moments Musical” from now until forever, over and over. But the TTYD! writers do get points for being able to write convincing songs in the style. (Of course, the masters of this are the guys over at “Family Guy” and to some extent at “South Park,” although the “South Park” guys seldom steal a melody the way “Family Guy” does. Those people have the Gilbert and Sullivan gene, and no other way to express the talent, so it gets twisted into what you see in those shows. (grin))
I did like the characters, mostly. The attitudes were pretty much in-period, except for the scene in which a black lady is dancing with a white man at one of the dance halls, and I am here to tell you that didn’t happen until later–try 1967, when “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” No, REALLY, things were quite different in 1964, sad to say.
BUT ANYWAY. While I marveled at the sets and the props and the costumes, I still heard a few phrases that were simply out-of-period. Worse, I kept waiting for some character change that I could believe in. About an hour into it, I sort of lost interest and went off to practice the piano. (I have a Diabelli sonatina that I want to learn. Lightweight and has pretty melody.)
Now, why did I abandon a promising film? One that is rated just fine by the critics out there?
First, I was waiting for a character to have to make a sacrifice. When a telegram arrived backstage (read by the Tom Hanks character) during a performance in Philly, I expected it to call someone home and force him to make the choice to abandon the tour or neglect his family responsibilities. The thing that came to mind was that the drummer’s dad–who had been set up as a hard-ass sort of jerky type–could have died, or he could be in the hospital, and the drummer would be getting called home to take over that appliance store. That would have been SAD, yes, but it would have been forcing the character to make the choice to stay with the performances or make some compromise. That is what I expected as a plot point.
But I didn’t get it. The telegram was to say that their song was #7 on the charts. (Back then, the RADIO was IMPORTANT and the charts were powerful!)
I stuck with it, though. Soon the girlfriend of the lead singer falls ill, and I kept expecting her to be pregnant. (Thinking of John and Cynthia Lennon.) I was disappointed that they really didn’t go anywhere with the relationship or with a love triangle or SOMETHING. They could have done it at a later point, but I didn’t stick around to find out. I fell out of the film soon after this.
The film’s story is sort of modeled on the rise of the Beatles and of many bands right after the British Invasion. Think about the real Beatles and how they made personal sacrifices, for that matter. Think about the various fictional stories you have read and consider that generally there is a sacrifice made by the hero or heroine. It doesn’t have to be a life-shaking sacrifice, either: in THE PARENT TRAP (the original, with Hayley Mills and Brian Keith, is a lifelong favorite of mine–but by the time that the remake is set in, no court would divide siblings like that, plus Lindsay Lohan makes me itch), Sharon’s sacrifice is her hair. (No, REALLY.) Susan’s sacrifice is her lifestyle: when she gets to Boston, she has to take piano lessons and go to endless club meetings and do boring things instead of riding her horse and going to the beach. Each sister sacrifices, of course, because the reward of meeting the other parent and perhaps bringing them together is so great.
In other words, in order for us to be able to sympathize with and root for the characters, there has to have been some dilemma or some sacrifice in order to set the hero/heroine on the path towards the goal. Otherwise, things are too easy and we don’t feel that our story people have worked towards anything.
Let’s look at the structure of the film and compare it to another film (one that my mother HATES and that my sister-in-law said she COULD NOT STAND TO WATCH), MALLRATS by Kevin Smith.
Yes! That Kevin Smith! Granted, the film MALLRATS has “dirty words” and naughty things portrayed. It was made using a LOT less money than the Tom Hanks film. It is quirky and the plot is kind of outlandish in spots. Still . . . I claim it is a far greater artistic success than TTYD!
Now, why is that?
In MALLRATS, characters have to make sacrifices. The slacker (Jason Lee) loses his girl and has to win her back–and ends up becoming a talk show host. Silent Bob has to use The Force (he thinks) to get the videotape and play it. I could believe in what was going on and I could see that no one was getting an easy break. I mean . . . in TTYD!, everyone was a great player of the instruments right off, and very little happened to mess them up. Constantly, obstacles and stupidity come into play in MALLRATS, and the characters have to be crafty and inventive to accomplish their goals.
The one thing I can say for the TTYD! story is that the band’s demise and downfall was indeed due to their own asininity (asinine-ness) and flaws. Each character made stupid choices and basically threw away their careers. But I just did not believe that they HAD to be a one-hit wonder. I was angry, in fact, at them for being kind of a bunch of idiots. (I may not know all the details, as I only flipped back to the program when it was almost over, to show my mother the costumes.)
I don’t say that MALLRATS is one of the greatest works of art on film in our time, of course. I class it more with “Guilty Pleasures.” But in fact the structure of the film is correct. This is not true of every film.
In your stories, make sure that there is some reason for the reader to invest in your character(s). You can entice them in with an intriguing situation or story question, but ultimately they keep reading because they’re interested in THAT PERSON and whether he or she accomplishes that task and reaches True Happiness. Or at least closure. There must be someone to root for, or else it all falls apart, as in the horrible failed film MARS ATTACKS! That one has absolutely nothing to recommend it. When they had the Martians land and kill everyone who had so far been someone we were following in the Earth plot, I dumped the film. You can’t kill EVERYONE I was identifying with. I mean, you can, but if you do, your film or book gets dumped. That’s just the way it is.
Readers want and need someone to admire.