It’s the afternoon of February 8, 1964, and Ed Sullivan has assembled a gaggle of CBS ushers to talk about tomorrow night’s show, featuring the four lads from Liverpool who call themselves the Beetles—strike that, the Beatles. He needs to warn the ushers. He has been to England. He has seen what the band can do to an audience. It’s Elvis times four.
“I want you to be prepared for excessive screaming, hysteria, hyperventilation, fainting, fits, seizures, spasmodic convulsions, even attempted suicides,” he says. “All perfectly normal. It merely means these youngsters are enjoying themselves.”
All perfectly normal. That’s the deliciously ironic phrase that sets the tone for Robert Zemeckis’s 1978 debut feature, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, hanging over frenzied scenes in which American teenagers sell swatches of unwashed bedsheets supposedly slept in by Beatles for a dollar a square, breathlessly fantasize about the tragedies that might make John Lennon a bachelor again, and worship the actual ground that Paul McCartney walks on. Beatlemania has seized the nation, igniting a powder keg of young libidos with guitar licks and hair flips, tempered only by the nonthreatening, courteous modesty of good boys from England. And from the beginning of the film it’s clear that Zemeckis, who would celebrate pop-cultural phenomena often in his career, is absolutely delighted by this one from a decade and a half earlier.
The roots of Beatlemania go at least all the way back to Franz Liszt, the nineteenth-century Hungarian pianist and composer whose musical performances caused such hysteria among his fans that “Lisztomania” was thought to be a medical condition, passed among the populace like a contagion. By 1964, the scientific community was no longer scrambling for a cure for such “mania,” but the question of why people reacted so strongly to the Beatles was a matter of debate, as it still is now, about the cultural forces at work. When it came to the U.S. strain of Beatlemania, a popular theory held that Americans needed something positive and innocent to rally around in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, which had happened less than three months before the Beatles landed at the newly renamed JFK Airport in New York two days before their Ed Sullivan appearance. And though the Beatles’ stateside ascendance had been famously delayed by Capitol Records—which held back like a dam against floodwaters the recordings that had already been dominating the British charts for a year—the British Invasion had, by this logic, arrived right on time.
“For all that Zemeckis and Gale are compelled by the mysteries of Beatlemania, they’re even more inspired to harness it as a comedic life force.”
I Wanna Hold Your Hand rejects this theory implicitly. The only mention of Kennedy comes when a kid is savagely mocked for including a photo of Jackie among his wallet shots of Ann-Margret, Tuesday Weld, and Patty Duke. Zemeckis and Bob Gale, who began their extraordinary screenwriting partnership with this film, explore the Beatlemania phenomenon from an abundance of angles—as a catalyst for sexual awakening, as a safe outlet for shared enthusiasms, as a flash point for rebels and reactionaries—but they seem firm in their conviction that teenagers, then as now, don’t have even the gravest political news on their minds. Their emotions are running far too hot.
For all that Zemeckis and Gale are compelled by the mysteries of Beatlemania, they’re even more inspired to harness it as a comedic life force. Keep in mind, this was the same team that, one year later, would open their script for Steven Spielberg’s 1941 by commencing a Japanese invasion of Hollywood with a phallic spoof of Jaws involving a skinny-dipper and a periscope. Zemeckis and Gale had met as undergrads in the cinema program at the University of Southern California in the early seventies, and their work together reflects a more puckish, commercial—and, at times, defiantly lowbrow—approach to filmmaking than that of the rest of the so-called film-school brats who were intent on changing Hollywood. Spielberg saw them as kindred spirits, having admired Zemeckis’s 1973 student film A Field of Honor, and his involvement in Zemeckis-Gale projects like I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Used Cars (1980), on both of which he served as executive producer, as well as 1941, bound them together as movie-crazy upstarts with a taste for the rowdy and the ribald.
Zemeckis would consider twentieth-century history and pop culture more soberly decades later with films like The Walk (2015), Allied (2016), and Welcome to Marwen (2018), but he and Gale were more inclined to approach them through the side door in their work together, like having their time-traveling Marty McFly take rock and roll an evolutionary leap forward with his anachronistic shredding of “Johnny B. Goode” in Back to the Future (1985). Even Forrest Gump (1994), the film that won Zemeckis a best director Oscar, was more concerned with delighting in a simpleton’s Zelig-esque encounters with American history than with unpacking what those moments meant for the country.
The most obvious point of comparison for I Wanna Hold Your Hand is American Graffiti, George Lucas’s loose-limbed 1973 memoir of the last night of summer vacation in 1962, after which the lives of four friends will diverge from one another and from the idyll of small-town California. Nostalgia, innocence lost, classic cars, rock and roll: the two films are suffused with affection for a less complicated time, at least for teenagers who don’t yet have to acknowledge or take responsibility for the world across their dashboard. Lucas had saved the more sobering developments for his postscript, which has one of the friends dead in a drunk-driving accident and the other missing in action in An Lộc, but Zemeckis and Gale seek to preserve this untroubled moment in time, when a carload of thrill seekers could strike out on an adventure without weighing the consequences.
We know the postscript to I Wanna Hold Your Hand, anyway. By 1978, when the film graced theaters all too briefly, the Beatles had been broken up longer than they had been together. Those simple, catchy early singles from The Ed Sullivan Show, each directed like a cupid’s arrow to the hearts of the band’s screaming female fans (“All My Loving,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand”), would be discarded in favor of complex arias of psychedelia and social consciousness, and their ultimate response to Beatlemania would be a permanent retreat into the studio. They lobbied for world peace. They found the Maharishi. They got ensnared by the creative and interpersonal conflicts that inevitably seize a band with multiple songwriters with strong personalities and incompatible ambitions. And Beatles fans experienced that turbulence right along with them. They became adults.
“Zemeckis and Gale aren’t interested in spending time with the band. They’re more curious about that roiling mass of teenagers who chase the lads around.”
I Wanna Hold Your Hand isn’t freighted by the darkness to come but ecstatic about what happened when. In certain respects, it feels like the belated B side to Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964), which had used Beatlemania to advance the mythos of a pop quartet gracefully managing the chaos and absurdity that have suddenly engulfed it. Zemeckis and Gale aren’t interested in spending time with the band, whose faces we never quite see (except in archival footage) but who can be heard mumbling the lyrics to “Surfin’ USA” and puzzling over an upstart named Johnny Carson. They’re more curious about that roiling mass of teenagers who chase the lads around, covet the unverified scraps of carpet and bedsheet and sod they’ve touched, and otherwise act in ways that seem to surprise even themselves. What could cause four ordinary girls from New Jersey to take such leave of their senses?
The four girls who cajole Larry (Marc McClure, who would play Jimmy Olsen in Superman the same year), an undertaker’s son with a learner’s permit, into taking one of his dad’s limos and chauffeuring them to New York occupy different places on the spectrum of Beatles fandom. Rosie (Wendie Jo Sperber) is already at peak delirium, a Paul devotee so utterly possessed that Zemeckis and Gale make a running gag of her literally throwing dimes at a pay phone every time radio deejays offer tickets to The Ed Sullivan Show. Her friend Pam (Nancy Allen), the future Mrs. Eddie Lupus, would rather Rosie buy her Tupperware as a wedding gift than spend $3.98 getting her a copy of Meet the Beatles! Grace (Theresa Saldana) is more enthusiastic, but she mostly wants to kick-start her career as a photojournalist by ambushing the band at their hotel. Janis (Susan Kendall Newman, daughter of Paul) wants to come along to protest the Beatles for hijacking attention away from more relevant artists like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.
With Larry and a beer-swilling greaser named Tony (Bobby Di Cicco) in tow, the girls head to New York with a surefire plan to infiltrate the Beatles’ hotel: pull up in a classy funeral limo and, well, maybe they’ll get lucky. The slapstick farce that follows strongly suggests that Zemeckis and Gale, diligent students of film comedy, turned to one of its essential texts: the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera. Replace the limo with steamer trunks and the hotel with an ocean liner, and it becomes clear how closely aligned the two films are, each getting big laughs from stowaways putting one over on slow-witted security guards and pearl-clutching dowagers. Beatlemania may be the subject of I Wanna Hold Your Hand, but rest assured, if there’s a good elevator bit or a door gag or some shins to kick, the film is not going to leave those opportunities on the table.
Zemeckis and Gale delight in the deranged extremes of “perfectly normal” teenage behavior, particularly when Rosie meets Eddie Deezen’s Richard, who has renamed himself Ringo and created a Beatles shrine in a purloined hotel room. (“You’re not supposed to be here! It’s a restricted area!” he screams at her as he rips up the hallway carpet in front of the band’s suite.) Rosie and Richard have the tenuous bond of a shared obsession: they’re each pleased to meet a fellow enthusiast but fiercely competitive about who’s the biggest fan of all. (Hint: it’s probably the one slathering himself in the Beatles’ official Margo of Mayfair talcum powder.) Beneath their rivalry is just a hint of sublimated passion, especially from Rosie, whose devotion to Paul reads like an escape from more tangible romantic options.
Outside the hotel, Janis and Tony are an odd couple who have only their anti-Beatles sentiment in common—she the future flower child with a zeal for protest music, he an all-purpose rebel whose instincts tell him to reject whatever’s popular. Later in the decade, they’ll probably fall on opposite sides of the political divide between hippies and reactionaries, but today they’re both making a statement against mainstream culture, especially as it is hijacked by outsiders. Archival clips of the hubbub surrounding the British Invasion inevitably include types like these, who are out protesting singers who “look like girls,” have come to claim American money (and women) for England, or are trampling over more substantive, political music. But Janis and Tony are more sweetly considered here, like children splashing around in antiestablishment waters just to prove they’re not like everyone else.
And yet they are like everyone else, because the cultural forces at work are so much larger than they are. When Pam, the one Beatles agnostic in the group, winds up making it inside the band’s suite, the experience is so intoxicating that it briefly takes this PG comedy into more explicit territory. Tucking her engagement ring into her shoe, Pam slinks around the room in an erotic fantasia, taking in the sensual wonders of cloth napkins and cold coffee, sniffing suit jackets and rubbing her face with the lustrous extractions from a Beatle’s hairbrush. What Nancy Allen does to Paul’s bass guitar is beyond filthy—foreplay to her skirt-clutching reaction to the Beatles’ performance later that night, and a precursor to her arousal in airplane cockpits in 1941. Clearly, Zemeckis and Gale were not above a little juvenile eroticism—the next comedy that the pair cowrote and Zemeckis directed, the uproarious Used Cars, would pop that cork completely—but they find some essential truth here about the entrancing allure of fame, particularly the type that is plugged into an amplifier.
What’s also striking about I Wanna Hold Your Hand is how aptly Zemeckis and Gale’s screenplay mirrors the pristine syncopation of an early Beatles single. They, too, work in the realm of mainstream art, where frivolity is commonly confused for a lack of sophistication. But Zemeckis-Gale stories are always meticulously constructed—whatever its other merits, Back to the Future Part II (1989) may be the most thought-through science-fiction film about the effects of time travel—and much of the satisfaction here comes from how elegantly the various narrative strands come together. Once these six teenagers reach the hotel in New York, they are shuffled off into side adventures, but Zemeckis and Gale not only wrangle them into the balcony for The Ed Sullivan Show, they also offer the pleasing symmetry of the Beatles leaving in the same undertaker’s limo in which the kids arrived. Small details yield big laughs later, as when Janis’s dad’s terrible toupee reappears in a frenzied scene outside the hotel, where Tony sticks it on his head and pretends to be a Beatle (“I wanna hold your glands!”) and a maid shakes her black duster out a window. For Zemeckis and Gale, comedy is about timing and rhythm and carefully orchestrated payoffs, not an assortment of brainstormed gags.
That storytelling cohesion is essential to I Wanna Hold Your Hand, which is about a blissful kind of collective madness. A day that begins with a carload of kids heading to New York for different reasons—to get close to Paul, to impress a girl, to protest the band, or perhaps, in a couple of cases, just to stave off boredom—ends with surrender to a cultural phenomenon bigger than they could have ever expected, much less resisted. It’s also a statement of purpose for Zemeckis, a commercial filmmaker who has succeeded, time and again, in bringing these kinds of moments to a broad swath of American moviegoers. For him, Beatlemania is about the possibilities of shared experience, about what popular art can do to an audience. All perfectly normal.
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