I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978, Robert Zemeckis)


The setting of Robert Zemeckis’ debut film is New York City on February 9, 1964, the night of the Beatles’ first performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, the bellwether event of the British Invasion and of the re-ignition of rock & roll in general. A group of New Jersey teenagers descend on CBS Studio 50 with disparate motivations: a Fabs fanatic (Wendie Jo Sperber) who hooks up with fellow Beatles obsessive Richard a.k.a. Ringo (the inimitable Eddie Deezen), an ambitious young photographer (Theresa Saldana) with a simping would-be boyfriend (Marc McClure) whose dad unknowingly provides the car, Nancy Allen as a prudish, tentative bride-to-be who ends up in the Beatles’ hotel room, and a stuck-up Peter, Paul & Mary fan (Susan Kendall Newman, daughter of Paul) determined to stamp out the Beatles. They’re joined by laughably clueless tough guy Tony Smerko (Bobby Di Cicco), a kid whose militaristic father thinks he needs a haircut, and of course the Beatles, whose presence is felt everywhere — the picture taking its name, sort of, from their breakthrough single in the U.S., which had sparked stateside Beatlemania via groundswell starting in December 1963 — even though they’re only seen in archive footage, or (as mimicked by actors) in vague silhouette.

The frantic comedy that builds from all this has the same urgent, blissful atmosphere of electricity that makes Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night such an endless delight, and even if Zemeckis can’t match the inherent cultural importance of the earlier film, he certainly can evoke its spirit along with that of the (liberally invoked) Ed Sullivan Show itself and Albert and David Maysles’ fascinating documentary footage of the band’s initial trip to America and the ensuing chaos. Watch the Maysles brothers’ film and you’ll know that Zemeckis isn’t exaggerating about the Beatles as a phenomenon and the absolute orgasmic insanity of this specific weekend. The characters are all flawlessly developed, and the various payoffs never feel like cheats. It helps Zemeckis and cowriter Bob Gale that the Beatles were such a brilliant band — their music lights the movie up — but the real subject here is less the specifics of 1964 than the broader matter of fandom and youth, mostly utilizing the Beatles for the symbolism they provide as a natural roadmap for explosive youth culture henceforth; theirs is a more genuine, much warmer (and, not insignificantly, overwhelmingly feminine) variant on George Lucas’ American Graffiti, helped along by the fact that its leads don’t seem like Happy Days caricatures.

The other films that spring to mind as sharing the particular delightful speed and screwball intensity of I Wanna Hold Your Hand are the next two that Zemeckis and Gale made together, Used Cars and Back to the Future, as well as — less successfully — the one they scripted for Steven Spielberg with many of the same cast members, 1941. Zemeckis’ student films at USC were imaginative, sardonic crowd-pleasers with a lot of energy, and like Francis Coppola before him, he successfully transfers that scrappy inventiveness to his early features. This one in particular is smartly blocked and incredibly assured; producer Spielberg’s belief in him displays commercial instincts that may not have immediately paid off — the film, like Used Cars two years later, did poorly at the box office — but forecasts the boom in ensemble teen films during the decade to follow while setting the table for Romancing the Stone, Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit in its ruthless build toward a manic climax and thrilling double-back conclusion.

Yet talking about Hold Your Hand in these terms that liken it to blockbuster pyrotechnics of the looming Reagan era sells it short; frankly, so does associating it exclusively with the Beatles even though it is arguably the most salient cinematic response to their work and cultural enormity since Yellow Submarine. Zemeckis does prove himself a dependable and resourceful filmmaker, less a stylist than an extremely strong and sure-handed adopter of traditional film grammar; but you could say the same of even his worst efforts, the risible milquetoast of Forrest Gump or the detritus of his incomprehensible 2000s love affair with motion capture. (You wonder, how can this be the same person?) The consequence is that in order to talk about why I Wanna Hold Your Hand still feels so special and engaging, we must talk about less about its director than about its script and performances, without discounting Zemeckis’ surely invaluable hand in both.

Bob Gale was a classmate of Zemeckis’ at USC who would ride with him through nearly two decades’ worth of spectacular success and failure; blamed for giving Spielberg his first directorial bomb with 1941, they repaid his faith in them by taking the beloved comedy juggernaut Back to the Future to his production company. That seismic hit seems to have altered their shared future, with Zemeckis pivoting to antiseptic Hollywood awards bait and Gale largely, charmingly circling the underground of fan and geek culture ever since. Together, however, they penned a whole run of surprisingly exquisite scripts, and in this first effort, they prove adept not just at the technical stunt of cross-threading four individual plots with brevity and clarity, but at defining and developing characters, a skill that would gradually fall by the wayside in the documents of adolescence that ended up being ubiquitous in American cinema in the ’80s.

Perhaps their single greatest asset in this regard — and what keeps the film in one’s mind after it ends — is their embrace of an unseen external life in the people they write about, a slight air of mystery even, as with the unexplained and therefore particularly evocative alliance between Marty and Dr. Brown in Back to the Future. It’s telling that when Allen’s character Pam mentions an aborted sleepover with Sperber’s Rosie and Saldana’s Grace in an early scene, the conceivable film about the three of them just hanging out sounds just as interesting as the one about them following the Beatles around — enough so that, on one’s ninth or tenth viewing and even with great anticipation for all the fun that lays ahead, one can almost feel disappointed that we don’t get to see it. What this implies, and what is so often missing from the popcorn movies often lumped in with Zemeckis’ early whiz-kid work, is his and Gale’s innate curiosity about people, which makes all the difference here and is really the deeper driving force behind this narrative — more than the Beatles, more than what the Beatles did to those who loved and loathed them, this is a story of being young and thoroughly devoted to what seems vitally, unshakeably more important than anything else in the world at a given moment. Maybe occasionally they’re right and it even really is that important… but that hardly matters.

It also doesn’t particularly matter, even as it riles up the nerd lurking in many of us, that Zemeckis and Gale play fast and loose with history, chronology and locations. There was no money to shoot in New York, so: that’s not the Ed Sullivan Theater, that isn’t the Plaza Hotel, and that certainly isn’t Broadway, it’s the Universal backlot and a random, amusingly tiny venue somewhere in Hollywood. That is Murray the “K,” so-called fifth Beatle and NYC hanger-on during the peak of the Mania, the only real-life figure playing himself, faced with the same mixture of bemusement and derision he encountered during these real events. Straight, knowing lies are told about the sequencing of the Beatles’ first Sullivan appearance; they weren’t the last act but they are made such for the sake of the narrative, and they certainly didn’t close with (the studio version of) “She Loves You,” the only song they actually play in the film, chosen in homage to the exuberant finale of Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night. (Other Beatles tunes pepper the narrative as a dependably joyous and ironic song score; oddly enough it may be the only time Zemeckis’ music clearance choices weren’t painfully obvious, which given the context is saying something.) But the film nevertheless captures the pure spirit of a singular time when mainstream show business and buttoned-up life in general were forced to contend with a defiantly teenage cultural sensation, one that — despite the massive marketing push provided at the eleventh hour by Capitol Records — really did spring up organically from a gaggle of working class youths who were inspired to pick up guitars by the equally natural phenomenon of 1950s American rock & roll, which they compressed, maxed out, re-infused.

Maybe the reason it is able to present this so evocatively, now to an audience that largely did not witness the event in question, is that in some ways the Beatles experience wasn’t so singular. It was actually the beginning of something much bigger, if bigger in a different fashion than this one night, something that actually is as easily marked by boys with long hair and entrepreneurs frantically selling bedsheets and kids throwing jelly babies as it is by any 7″ or 12″ slab of vinyl. If it seems like it’s overselling the continued vitality of the Beatles to argue that February 1964 was an earth-shaking moment, it does seem worth pointing out that the things Lester and Maysles witnessed in 1964 and the things that seemed important enough to Zemeckis and Gale to reprise only fourteen years later are things that we still talk about, think about, celebrate, and that had still-lingering effects on the place that music appealing to teenagers holds in the public consciousness, not to mention on how seriously it is taken. (Historians’ writing about the Beatles, apart from that of Mark Lewisohn and Erin Weber, all too often skirts past the true substance and volume of the band’s enormous female following in favor of pretentious hippie-grade theory and analysis, which means that Zemeckis’ film gets at something that was more or less ignored by nearly every book about the band that existed at the time of its release, save as a funhouse mirror of outrageous teen behavior. This is an ironic problem with a band for whom girl groups and Brill Building pop were so immensely important.)

But even if you hate the Beatles and never want to hear another word about them, there’s still a sense in which this film has your number, as it is far less interested in cultural critique or in idealized, simple nostalgia than it is in why the young people in the film feel the way they do — including those, seemingly forgotten elsewhere in the mythology surrounding ’64, who are emphatically irritated by the group’s existence. The conclusions it draws have little to do with pounding beats or trebly guitars or “helter skelter,” much more to do with the grand equalization that takes place when we dare to take the passions of young people seriously. Zemeckis and Gale’s greatest triumph, in fact, is that there’s no ironic winking here in the manner of George Lucas’ interpretation of 1962 teens, no Enlightened Adult perspective to persuade us that all this nonsense is something we’ll collectively grow out of and weren’t we dunces for falling for it in the first place. Instead, they view the plight of all of the characters on good faith, and film these events in such a way that they are persuasively just as massive and life-changing as they must feel to the movie’s occupants.

For some of us, of course, following the Beatles around on Sullivan Day really is an ecstatic fantasy of sorts, but the underlying meaning of all this holds regardless. The Beatles would go on, and have continued to go on, and most likely will keep going on until long after any of those who were “there” will still walk among us; but what doesn’t go on for the majority of us is the irresistible impulse to delve into the weeds of this kind of a phenomenal situation — to not only love a band or a piece of music “so much that it hurts,” as Fairuza Balk says in Almost Famous (which is about the world the Beatles and their hair sparked), but to completely live for them, to make them the entirely of your world. Like the young girls in George Roy Hill’s The World of Henry Orient or Sarah Cracknell singing wistfully about her history as a muso in Saint Etienne’s “Over the Border” (“when I got married / and when I had kids / would Marc Bolan still be so important?”), Rosie and her friends will not always be like this, and they will not be able to live exclusively for this, or at this pace, for more than a sliver of their lives. Even Rosie, in the course of the film, seems aware of the fleeting nature of this connection, and also quite importantly embraces it. Capturing this is poignant and beautiful, and it’s worth mentioning that for all the film’s unabashed worship of the Beatles, Zemeckis and Gale make plain that the real essence of why this moment matters for these people is the easy camaraderie it inspires, the connections forged by a mutual thirst for something that isn’t level-headed or easily definable, certainly not to an outsider. The point is that we can’t live here forever, but returning to the purity of this kind of moment, even for those of us who were seldom lucky enough to experience anything like it at the correct and crucial time in our growth, seems like an important way to reconnect to a part of us that is too often made dormant by adulthood.

As for Zemeckis’ capability with actors, quite frankly it’s a mixed bag at this stage. The confidence of both Newman and Saldana varies throughout the film, while Di Cicco — overall hilarious (watch the proto-Biff Tannen moment of his clunkily mocking a kid for dropping his tray in a restaurant) — occasionally collapses into caricature, McClure is better in his sadsack moments (when his crush asks if she can pass for a college student, he nervously responds “Sure, you get good grades!”) than in those that call for a belligerent Buster Keaton, and even Nancy Allen makes a stronger impression with her physicality (her phallic embraces of the Beatles’ equipment in their empty hotel room are terribly amusing) than her line readings. Since Allen is very good in her films with Spielberg and Brian de Palma, it seems this is most likely down to a new director’s inexperience in helping to craft a performance, and Allen is nevertheless appealing and appropriate. On the other hand, the innate talent of two of Zemeckis’ actors, who are wisely teamed up, is the miracle that completely sells the film as both documentary and comedy. The nasal-voiced, hyperactive Eddie Deezen is almost too perfect for the role of infallible Beatles nerd Ringo Klaus, and he lives inside the character’s eccentricity with an indomitable spirit and a complete refusal to submit to humiliation; rarely has a character so obnoxious been somehow such a treat to see and hear. The sort of large gestures that McClure isn’t fully able to sell are like putty in Deezen’s hands, from the Daffy Duck-like pantomimes and fights with roving policemen to the liberal slathering of “official Beatles talcum powder” all over his face.

As distinctive as Deezen is, we also know from his subsequent films that he’s of course a one-note actor, and while that one note strikes a glorious chord here, even he is merely the supporting act to the incredible Wendie Jo Sperber, whose outrageous yet totally believable Rosie provides us with a comedic performance for the history books, regardless of whether it was ever recognized as such. Sperber’s character was inspired by the sorts of desperate-sounding, plucky young women so often seen and heard in newsreels of Beatlemania vintage, along the lines of the girl in The Compleat Beatles who wants to present Paul McCartney with a portrait of him she’s painted and then marry him. But there is also a lived-in realism to Sperber’s work, a recognition that she is embracing a moment of hedonism without sacrificing her integrity for it; she’s well matched to Zemeckis and Gale in that for all the broad slapstick gestures, the moments that tell us who she is are the subtleties, much like it’s those in the script that articulate its mission more than the flummoxed “business” of it all. It’s a magnificently controlled, impeccably nuanced performance despite its adherence to screwball gesticulating, but it also feels like the presentation of a person you might well know, and one who you would probably love with your entire heart: the way that she so serenely demarcates the line between real life and fantasy in a scene that has her casually referring to Deezen as her boyfriend, which he takes as an affront because it implies she isn’t faithful to her true love Paul McCartney, yet completely embodies and writhes in her maniacal devotion to the Beatles — it just feels like the most empathetic and compassionate portrait of adolescent fandom that one could possibly devise. Watching her in her more active and humorous scenes, you’re left feeling as if a freight train hit you. Sperber should have won awards for her performance and, afterward, should have been a huge star. Like Saldana, she would lead a difficult life after this and ultimately leave us all too soon, something else that adds to the feeling that I Wanna Hold Your Hand, like the Beatles themselves, is capturing things that were destined never to be bottled for our continued enjoyment again.

By the finale of I Wanna Hold Your Hand, each character save Deezen’s (too busy sparring with Ed Sullivan) has experienced some sort of an awakening, all of which come along organically and all of which are heartening. Smerko won’t become a Beatles fan but will accept the way the wind is blowing, the unstoppable destiny Zemeckis cleverly implies God has laid out for them. Newman’s Janis will witness Beatles fans rising up as a collective against an oppressive cop and will come to realize that there is common cause between rock & roll and her beloved Bob Dylan and Joan Baez records. Pam will have a sexual awakening by herself in the Beatles’ hotel room that all of a sudden makes a future with her bland, sour husband-to-be (a salesman of plastic furniture covers!) completely unappealing; of course what her heart and loins are telling her is not that she needs to follow the Beatles for the rest of her life but that if she marries, it should be to someone who’d have no objections to her following the Beatles for the rest of her life. The long-haired elementary schooler Peter will outsmart his dad and his locks will live to see another day, and at the theater he’ll look like he’s having the time of his life with new people who accept him. Rosie will pass out and sleep through the Sullivan performance and will excitedly accept this as her place in history; it was always only about being there for her — strangely, she’s really the most mature of them all. Only the photography student Grace will fail to make it to Sullivan, using a hard-won fifty bucks instead to bail out McClure’s hapless Larry; she’s in the middle of asking him on a date when, abruptly, a quartet of anxious Liverpudlians enter the back seat of the limousine thinking it’s theirs.

If all this tells us anything about the Beatles’ story, it’s likely extraneous to any of what makes either the film or the band truly memorable; you can hear these needledrops of Introducing the Beatles and Meet the Beatles! anywhere, and you don’t really need to watch actors pretending to be them while monitors present the real deal in the foreground in an admittedly remarkable feat of continuity. (The only recorded reaction to the film from the Beatles’ camp I could locate came from a legal representative of Ringo’s, who according to Gale informed one of the producers “We all watched your movie and decided we would not sue.” Critics were ecstatic about the film, as were the few audiences who saw it, making it the only remote triumph among a whole slew of cinematic Beatle revivals in the ’70s. Danny Boyle and Julie Taymor notwithstanding, the field has since quieted.) It may, however, tell us quite a bit about the composition of the Beatles’ fanbase with what can be read either as remarkable prescience or a sign that some things never change: there will always be lustful acolytes and insufferable nerds, something Vsevolod Pudovkin was already telling us in his hilarious Chess Fever, which laid out the composition of gaming culture in 1925 in a manner that has never wavered from truth. Therefore, I Wanna Hold Your Hand tells us a lot about any band’s fanbase, thus about anything that strikes an honest chord with teenagers, and thus about teenagers. To put it simply, we ignore them or discount the depth, depravity and sophistication of their inner lives at our own risks. And that’s if we even manage to evolve beyond them ourselves. If we don’t, if screaming over the Beatles circa ’64 is as much of a collective human experience we ever have… maybe you’ll disagree, but I believe there are worse things to build your world around.

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