No sex, no drugs, and too much rock'n'roll

CINEMA

"SWEET" was the advance word-of-mouth on Tom Hanks's debut as writer and director, That Thing You Do! (PG), and the word did not slide from forked tongue. Just about every frame sparkles with such aggressively eager, ingenuous good nature that you leave the cinema patting your pockets to make sure the wallet is still there. Time and again our young heroes, a popular beat combo from the American heartlands, encounter some dubious- looking character who is clearly about to swindle them, give them a social disease or have them beaten up by the Mob. Time and again, all such characters prove to have basically kind intentions. You could watch it back to back with an episode of The Monkees and be hard pressed to say which offered the grittier, more sordid view of the music biz, so immaculate is its brand of good clean fun. No wonder the title ends with a chirpy exclamation mark!

Indeed, it's so breathlessly innocent that Hanks can risk casting himself as one of the least sympathetic characters: Mr White, boss of Play-Tone Records, who drags the boys off on tour, up the Billboard charts and into an Annette Funicello-style beach movie, before dumping them and moving on. And even he isn't a cynic or closet pervert, he's just a plain- sighted businessman with a mildly abrasive manner: less the serpent in Eden than a herbivore with a harder shell than most.

Hanks's Paradise Lost is America in the summer of '64 - between the Beatles' wow on the Ed Sullivan Show in February and the start of the Johnson administration in the autumn - an age, it would seem, when harmonies were close, when Coke went in your mouth rather than up your nose, when beehived, spike-heeled girlies stayed in their place and squealed, and when black men talked to white boys with an avuncular, not to say Remusian twinkle in their eyes. (Harrumph. Tell it to Henry Lewis Gates, Jr) There's a single nod in the direction of Vietnam - the bass player, we're told in an mock-biographical end credit, joined the Marines and received the Purple Heart after the siege of Khe Sanh - but otherwise this is a world so safe that the bland lyrics of its pop songs are a perfect mirror to nature, since the only true ills are grumpy parents and dating mishaps. When one of the characters pays a visit to Disneyland, there's no perceptible shift in the film's social texture.

That Thing ... opens with a lov- ing montage of period consumer- appliances, partly because the lead character, Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott, whose boyish good looks aren't so far from Hanks's circa Splash) is working in his father's electrical- goods store, but mostly because Hanks wants to salivate all over these Populuxe treasures. Guy is a weekend beatnik and aspiring musician, who spends his nights digging cool jazz, man, and playing the drums in the back room. His chance to play for cash comes when Jimmy (Johnathon Schaech), an arrogant local popster, asks him to sit in with his group for a talent contest. Thanks to Guy's last- minute addition of a driving backbeat to Jimmy's song "That Thing You Do!", formerly a ballad, they win the contest and start their rise to ephemeral fame. If you don't find their hit catchy (most baby-boomers will), leave at once - it comes back umpteen times, at least in fragments.

There are absolutely no surprises in what follows: you may not have encountered a storyline more conventional since the golden days of Cliff and the Shads. Money and celebrity take their usual toll on the boys. Guy - rechristened "Shades" because Mr White insists that he take to wearing sunglasses as an identifying gimmick - loses his girlfriend to a dentist and yearns to play proper music instead of bubblegum; Jimmy, besotted with his own genius, rebels against Mr White's regime of matching suits and cover versions and is horrible to his true-hearted girl Faye (Liv Tyler); Lenny the lead guitarist (Steve Zahn) runs off to Vegas to get married - though not, unfortunately, to a Japanese conceptual artist.

Fluff, in a word; albeit quite palatable fluff. And though it is not worthy to kiss the platform boots of This is Spinal Tap, it wisely follows its example by using all-original songs written in the manner of the period rather than simply plundering the back catalogues. Most of the main pop styles of the period are sedulously pastiched, from cheesy, finger- popping nightclub songs to torch ballads and early soul, as well as plenty of early Sixties pop, and they all sound pretty convincing. The young cast are nice, too, and Liv Tyler, otherwise foolishly underused, manages a genuinely affecting speech of wounded dignity towards the end.

You can sense Hanks's fondness for his subject, but not a great deal else. He may simply not be cruel or wayward enough to produce a really juicy comedy about pop. And to anyone who caught the classic episode of The Simpsons which squeezed an inspired parody of the whole Beatles saga into 25 minutes, his movie may seem a bit long-winded, too.

As The Simpsons has demonstrated as clearly as any major work of art, there is all the difference in the world between good bad taste and bad bad taste. Peter Jackson's films have veered uncertainly between the two. Having nailed his colours to the mast with the title of his first feature (viz, Bad Taste) he went on to produce one of the most tiresome and idiotic films of the last decade (Meet the Feebles: the Muppets do drugs and have kinky sex, oh what larks) and then one of the most original (Heavenly Creatures). Luckily, his new horror movie, The Frighteners (15), is crammed to the gills with good bad taste: at best, it's a hoot, and funnier than a lot of mainstream comedies.

The plot blows well-pitched raspberries at Ghost, Ghostbusters, Poltergeist, Flatliners et al. Michael J Fox, looking more roughed-up and sordid if still pre-pubescent, plays Frank Bannister, a swindling ghostbuster who scrapes a living of sorts by cleansing houses of the unruly revenants he put there in the first place. His ectoplasmic colleagues include John Astin (aka Gomez Addams from the original Addams Family) as The Judge, a literally worm-eaten sharpshooter whose jawbone keeps dropping off, and Chi McBride as Cyrus, a stroppy dude who passed on in 1975, and is thus stuck in fashion purgatory, condemned to wearing his Superfly pimp outfit until summoned to a higher plane.

The exorcism racket isn't thriving, and starts to go seriously off the rails when Frank falls foul of an evil spirit who takes the traditional form of the Grim Reaper, and is picking off the local inhabitants one by one by crushing their hearts. Jackson's comedy isn't exactly disciplined - not many viewers outside the director's immediate family will be inclined to chuckle at the scene in which The Judge decides to copulate with a mummy - but it is full of ideas, and for once the barrage of special effects shows some imagination. In one scene, a talking pool of slime leers and mocks as it slides down a tombstone: nasty, yet weirdly poetic, like something Cocteau might have dreamt up given an unlimited budget and plenty of opium. In the words of Joe-Bob Briggs, king of the drive-in critics: check this baby out.

Two well-regarded independent comedies reach our screens in the same week. The first, and far the stranger, is Todd Solondz's Welcome to the Dollhouse (15), a kind of deadpan farce about an unattractive, grotesquely bullied 12-year-old girl, Dawn Weiner (Heather Matarazzo). Perhaps the oddest aspect of the film is that Solondz doesn't attempt to drum up very much conventional sympathy for his heroine - she hands on misery to smaller fry whenever she can, and becomes complicit with some of her tormentors - and he doesn't allow her much in the way of redemption, which means that it's hard to read the film as one of those yes-I-was-a-nerd-but-look- at-me-now exercises in delayed vengeance. But though we've been given roughly similar glimpses of high-school hell before, there are some comic tones here - a deliciously affectless monologue by Dawn's swotty older brother, for one - which have the tang, if not quite the shock, of the new.

The second, David O Russell's Flirting With Disaster (15), has a more straightforward structure: it's a quest story, in which a confused entomologist called Mel (Ben Stiller) travels across America with his wife (Patricia Arquette) and a sexy psychologist (Tea Leoni) in search of his biological parents. Russell has managed to scare up an A-list supporting cast, including Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal as Mel's adoptive family (neurotic, possessive motormouths) and Alan Alda and Lily Tomlin as the true progenitors (acid casualties). It's reasonably funny, and spoilt mainly by struggling too hard for wackiness. Once you've got the hang of the fact that everyone they meet on the road is going to be some kind of major eccentric or downright fruit loop, you begin to hunger for a little earnest relief. Though nothing quite so painfully earnest as Your Beating Heart (15), Francois Dupeyron's dowdy, amorous drama about a middle-aged woman (Dominque Faysse) who has a brief affair with a bloke she picks up on the Metro. They spend much of the film lying around naked talking poppycock. It's like somebody's garbled rumour of a French art movie, and ferociously dull.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 14.

No 2: Paul Rodgers, ex-lead singer of Free, on Tom Hanks's 'That Thing You Do!'

I thought the film was great - a real wallow in Sixties nostalgia. But the music business is much more cut-throat than it makes out: the original manager who signs the band up in the back of the mobile home is an absolute angel compared to most people you meet in the business. Even Tom Hanks's character is a good guy compared to most real managers.

I was so impressed with the music: it was amazing, very evocative. They didn't use actual songs from that period, and yet they really captured the feeling of those days. "That Thing You Do!" could easily have been a hit song in the Sixties - and might well be one now.

But the one-hit-wonder storyline wasn't entirely true to life. No one would have just walked away that easily. If a band or band member wants to leave to do their own thing, they'll find they're contracted much more strongly than in the film. Contracts normally read something like: "You work for us and you do what we say or you don't work." I hate to be cynical, but you've just got to look at George Michael to see where those kinds of wrangles lead.

The relationship between the lead guitarist and the lead singer got a little edgy at times - like when they were arguing over who had written the song in the first place. I found that interesting, because you always get sparks flying like that in real life.

The jazz artist Del Paxton was the coolest guy in the whole thing. He also gave some very good advice: "Bands come and go and you've just gotta keep playing. Sometimes you go crazy - maybe it's the money, maybe it's the women, maybe it's just the road, or even just the passing of time - but just keep playing." That's what I believe.

Paul Rodgers was lead singer of the Sixties band Free, and was recently cited by Tony Blair as the reason he went into politics: "If I could have sung like Paul Rodgers, I'd probably have stuck with being a rock musician." Rodger's new solo album, 'Now', is out on 3 Feb; he will be touring from 11 Feb.

Interview by Maggie O'Farrell

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