Discovering Beatlemania Rarities with Editor Martha Karsh
By Andrew Chan
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.”
“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.”
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