Movies

Adam Schlesinger Was A Songwriting Genius, And ‘That Thing You Do!’ Is His Masterpiece

During one summer in high school, I worked at a horse race track in Saratoga Springs, New York, selling newspapers. Yes, a living, breathing newsie (who did not grow up to look like Christian Bale). It was a boring job for little money but lots of skin-burning sunlight; I hated it. But I loved the 15-minute walk from my dad’s house to the track and back because it meant I could zone out and listen to Welcome Interstate Managers, Fountains of Wayne’s breakout album. “Stacy’s Mom” was the hit, but the entire album was filled with would-be radio smashes, from cranked-up opener “Mexican Wine” to the sweet sing-along “Hey Julie.” That album was my gateway to Fountains of Wayne’s power-pop excellence (I was not cool enough to get into them with Utopia Parkway), but it was not my introduction to Adam Schlesinger: songwriting genius.

Schlesinger, who passed away on Monday at the too-young age of 52 as a result of coronavirus complications, wrote “That Thing You Do!” for the Tom Hanks-directed movie of the same name. (It’s someone’s sick joke that Hanks was among the first big-name celebrities to test positive for the coronavirus, and now this.) I am not being hyperbolic when I call “That Thing You Do!” one of the greatest “movie songs” of all-time. Hell, it’s a perfect pop song, for a film or otherwise, two minutes and 47 seconds of pure joy. It’s oneder-ful. “I remember the day all the Oneders, @LivTyler and @tomhanks sat in a room and played about 6 submitted tracks from different bands for That Thing You Do,” Ethan Embry, who played “T.B. Player” (excellent joke) in the 1996 movie, tweeted shortly after Schlesinger’s death. “When we heard Adam Schlesinger’s cassette it was instantly clear which track we would need to learn.”

Pity the other five songs that had to compete with this.

The drums! The harmonies! The hook! The bridge! Every time I hear it, I turn into Liv Tyler running down the street, losing her mind when she hears the song on the radio. “That Thing You Do!” sounds effortless, but it’s not like “I Want to Hold Your Hand”-level bops come out of nowhere; Schlesinger had to write a song from another era that you hear multiple times in its near-entirety, and if it wasn’t instantly irresistible and you didn’t believe it was the biggest song in the world, the entire movie would fall apart. (It’s one of the reasons, among many, that Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip failed: the in-show sketches were supposed to be funny; they weren’t. Unlike 30 Rock, where “Fart Doctor” is intentionally awful, and therefore, hilarious.) “That Thing You Do!” was a 1960s song written for a 1990s movie that still sounds great in the 2020s. It’s timeless.

“I had a publishing deal as a writer and they told me about this movie – they said that they were looking for something that sounds like early Beatles,” Schlesinger told Songfacts about writing the Wonders’ hit. “And they knew that that was an era that I liked a lot. So I just took a shot at it and got very lucky and they used the song.” Schlesinger makes writing a Fab Four-worthy song sound so simple, but when the first song on your debut album, when most bands are still figuring things out, is “Radiation Vibe,” maybe it was that simple. He was also, as many have pointed out, a mensch.

Schlesinger would have been a legend for “That Thing You Do!” (which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song, but lost to “You Must Love Me” from Evita) and Fountains of Wayne alone, but his songwriting prowess extended to the Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack (“Pretend to Be Nice”), Music and Lyrics (“Way Back Into Love”), and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, where he also served as an executive music producer.

He wrote or co-wrote over 150 songs for Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna’s CW series, including the Disney-indebted “I’m the Villain in My Own Story,” the self-explanatory “F*ckton of Cats,” and my personal favorite, “You Stupid Bitch,” the “That Thing You Do!” of self-hating ballads. When Schlesinger and Bloom wrote, “You’re just a poopy little slut who doesn’t think / And deceives the people she loves,” I felt that.

There’s also his other bands Ivy and Tinted Windows, and A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All! (“Another Christmas Song” is unnecessarily good), and the rest of Fountains of Wayne’s stacked discography… point is, there’s no shortage of Schlesinger’s work to listen to, but it’s “That Thing You Do!” that I have on repeat. There’s a small moment in That Thing You Do! (the movie) that I keep thinking about. It’s when the Wonders play a local talent show, and Shades, without telling his bandmates, speeds up the tempo of “That Thing You Do!” (the song). Jimmy is furious, even if he knows it works better as a rocker than a ballad, but look at Lenny, played by Steve Zahn.

20TH CENTURY FOX

The smile on his face expresses everything you need to know, that the Wonders (and by extension, Schlesinger) created something special. I felt the same way the first time I heard “That Thing You Do!”; I still feel the same way after countless plays. Now, if only we could get Cap’n Geech & the Shrimp Shack Shooters to cover the song, as tribute.

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