Manhattan goes nuts as thousands of Beatles fans arrive to celebrate the arrival of the Mop Tops from Liverpool. Experts at wringing manic fun from crazy chaotic farces, Bob Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s first film to hit the screen is still one of their best, due to its brilliant craft and a fresh-faced cast of relative newcomers that deliver old-fashioned enthusiasm and big-time laughs. Not since the Marx Brothers have hotel corridors and backstage shenanigans added up to so much mirth. The image of Beatlemania at full flower is dead-on accurate, and more nostalgic than a bag of Beatle wigs.
I Wanna Hold Your Hand
The Criterion Collection 967
1978 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 104 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date March 26, 2019 / 39.95
Starring: Nancy Allen, Bobby Di Cicco, Wendie Jo Sperber, Eddie Deezen, Theresa Saldana, Marc McClure, Susan Kendall Newman, Dick Miller, Christian Juttner, Will Jordan, Vito Carenzo, Newton Arnold, Kristine DeBell, Murray the ‘K’.
Cinematography: Donald M. Morgan
Film Editor: Frank Moriss
Written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale
Produced by Tamara Assayev, Alexandra Rose
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Steven Spielberg’s first and most lasting creative bond aiding fellow young filmmakers was with the Bobs from USC, Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis. 1978’s I Wanna Hold Your Hand was written after but filmed before 1941, the screenplay that first sold Spielberg on the pair. I Wanna was likely pitched to Universal with the idea that it was an extension of George Lucas’s American Graffiti, the teen nostalgia epic that was considered a dog until it became one of the studio’s top grossers ever. Still, the idea for I Wanna was a risky proposition — were audiences going to jump to see a Beatlemania epic asking ‘Where Were YOU in ’64?’
Either audiences didn’t jump or Universal didn’t properly promote the show, which is a shame as it’s been a stealth favorite ever since. Launching their house brand of frenetic comedy, Zemeckis and Gale formed an immediate stock company with a hand-picked cast of relative beginners and unknowns. Nancy Allen, Bobby Di Cicco, Wendie Jo Sperber, Eddie Deezen, Dick Miller and Vito Carenzo all come off better here than they did in the next year’s 1941. It’s not necessarily that Robert Zemeckis was a better comedy director than Steven Spielberg, but those that appreciate how 1941 abandoned its central ensemble cast to showcase bigger and crazier Saturday Night Live stars, will understand that the I Wanna kids weren’t at fault.
It’s no news that Zemeckis and Bob Gale functioned as a super-creative team. Their specialty was giant, convoluted, eclectic farces. Used Cars is a major guilty pleasure, and the Back to the Future movies are sensational entertainments — B&B embraced a neglected Sci-fi subgenre and concocted the most labyrinthine, joyous family film ever. I remember my young kids charting out a timeline to connect hundreds of events across the three time machine pictures. I never personally got them fully straight; when Zemeckis and Gale were crafting one of their birds-nest storylines, I wonder how many times they wrote themselves into a narrative cul-de-sac, and had to back out and start over.
It’s obvious why I Wanna had to be backed by a major player like Spielberg — it required the licensing of scores of Beatles songs, an up-front expense that Hollywood would underwrite only for projects that were surer-than-sure. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was even more amazing in the ‘licensed content’ department — it seemed so impossible that Disney and Warners would allow their cartoon characters to co-exist, we could barely pay attention to the story. Spielberg had faith in his protégés from the beginning, and their first film communicates enthusiasm and fun equal to what Zemeckis and Gale brought to their later huge hits.
In February of 1964, the Sunday variety show of Ed Sullivan (Will Jordan) is a madhouse — The Beatles have landed in America and are going to perform. Converging on Manhattan are thousands of brain-addled Beatles fans, crowding the streets around both the CBS TV theater and the Beatles’ hotel. On the way from somewhere in Jersey is a carload of teenagers, each of which has an insane mission to fulfill. Total fanatic Rosie Petrofsky (Wendie Jo Sperber) is so Beatle-crazy that she jumps out of a moving car to reach a pay phone to try to win a radio contest. Budding reporter Grace Corrigan (Theresa Saldana) badly wants to get exclusive photos of the Fab Four. She knows that limousines are the only kind of vehicle allowed to approach the Beatles’ hotel, so she’s conned her meek boyfriend Larry Dubois (Marc McClure) into stealing one from his father’s funeral parlor. Serious folk music fan Janis Goldman’s (Susan Kendall Newman) is eager to protest what she considers an unwelcome Brit Invasion. Along for the ride is the newly-engaged Pam Mitchell (Nancy Allen), who is afraid to admit that Beatlemania has as big a claim on her heart as does her disapproving husband-to-be. Pam has misgivings about coming along, but not so the raucous punk Tony Smerko (Bobby Di Cicco). He mainly wants to snuggle up to Janis and Pam — but he hates the Beatles even more than Janis does.
The teens have incredible luck but also suffer unexpected reversals. NYPD Sgt. Bresner (Dick Miller) repels intruders from the Beatles’ hotel room, but Pam accidentally finds herself alone in the suite, and experiences a sexual thrill from just being around their discarded drinks and musical instruments. Not content to foment a near riot with the crowds of fans, Janis and Tony seek to gain tickets to the big show by helping young Peter Plimpton (Christian Juttner) avoid having his Beatle-length hair cut off. When Grace’s big plans to sell fake Beatles souvenirs is frustrated, she considers getting the money to bribe a CBS guard (Vito Carenzo) by answering a middle-aged conventioneer’s order for a call girl. Thinking that Grace has gone the way of all flesh, the impressionable Larry gets drunk.
The irrepressible, unsinkable Rosie has the most extreme adventure. Hiding in the hotel, she meets an equally Beatle-manic male counterpart, Richard Klaus (Eddie Deezen), who calls himself Ringo. Richard has taken over a disused room to scour the hotel for souvenirs — Rosie joins him to rip up carpeting outside the Beatles’ suite. Most make it into the big show one way or another, but the insanity continues. Deciding that the Brit rock stars are a menace to the nation, Tony Smerko goes radical. He heads to the CBS roof antenna with an axe, to knock the broadcast off the airwaves. Will the show go on?
The first thing we thought in 1978 was, ‘where’d they find all those great kids?’ Most of the talented cast had been in films before, but top-billed Nancy Allen was the best-known due to her role in Brian De Palma’s Carrie. Marc McClure had some standing because he would soon be the new Jimmy Olsen in the upcoming Superman: the Movie. The others were ‘out there’ and ready to burst forth in the right comedy vehicle. The adorable Wendie Jo Sperber and the uniquely madcap Eddie Deezen form a cohesive comedy team, with neither playing the straight man; when she’s sobbing and he’s pacing the floor they are a classic duo. Bobby Di Cicco is charming in a way he’s never been since. His broadly-played Tony is a lovably vulgar jerk, especially when trying to seduce every unattached teen girl in sight.
None of the great jokes and comic situations in I Wanna is lazy or scattershot-random. Nothing misfires; a blind man could see that the Zemeckis-Gale team knows what it’s doing. The storylines diverge and re-converge as elegantly as character threads in La ronde, but with a fat scoop of Top Banana raucousness. Each new comedian is given the space to unfold a winning personality, something that didn’t happen for those that moved on to 1941.
The more memorable set pieces are golden. Locked alone in the sacred Beatle hotel suite, Nancy Allen lovingly caresses the neck of Paul’s guitar and pulls hair from John’s hairbrush, until she registers multiple orgasms. When it looks like she’ll be caught flopping on Ringo’s bed, her expression of utter panic belongs in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Theresa Saldana gets trapped hiding in a closet watching a hooker at work, a farce situation for which the movie finds a hilarious non- R-rated solution. Little Christian Juttner’s appointment with an executioner-like barber will hit home with kids of the 1960s, when many fathers thought any boy with hair longer than a Marine buzz cut was a fairy.
Practically everything with Deezen and Sperber is a fall-down funny keeper. They shove guards around, commandeer elevators and barrel their way through glass doors. Wendie Jo seems indestructible, while Deezen’s physicality belies his gangly spastic act. Can I say that? It’s what we thoughtless dolts would have said in 1964.
The production is quite nimble, especially considering that I Wanna didn’t cost a great deal. To obtain close-ups of Beatles albums flying from store shelves, Zemeckis and Gale sneaked an insert shoot in Columbia’s hanger setup for 1941. The Universal main street (I think) provides acceptable New York settings, helped by crane moves through barren February trees. The crowds of Beatlemaniacs are more than believable, although I think we can see an A.D. or two in some crowd shots, egging everybody on. One daytime alley is supposed to be in New York, but it’s really the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. It’s the same angle seen in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown — it’s where Jake Gittes meets Evelyn Mulwray for a fancy luncheon, when he’s got a big bandage on his nose.
I remember that several articles in 1978 waxed enthusiastic over the tricks the film uses to show the Beatles, without actually showing them. Pam only sees shoes and pant legs when she hides under Ringo’s bed. In the concert scene, we see some well-rehearsed doubles in the far background. Direct closer views are blocked by the studio cameras — that naturally display the actual Ed Sullivan show feed on their monitors!
To provide something like a third act crisis point, I Wanna invents the notion of Tony Smerko threatening an act of anti- Beatle sabotage. When we see Di Cicco climb a ladder on the roof in a lightning storm, we now realize how much Zemeckis & Gale believed in auteurist themes. Rooftops and clocktowers with lightning or gunfire figure in crucial scenes in 1941, Used Cars and Back to the Future, almost as if the boys were lining up thematic threads for future film study theses. I Wanna shares a great many dialogue bits and physical gags with 1941. The party spirit is so high that we’d never complain — although the jokes hit the funnybone more consistently in this show.
I Wanna Hold Your Hand is nostalgic for us boomers, due to its accurate depiction of crazed fandom, the folk-music backlash, influential radio disc jockeys, demanding parents, and even some slick publicity manipulation: a sharp-minded Beatles PR man enlists the post-orgasmic Pam to verbalize her ecstasy for the news cameras. Some of the most believable fun comes from the mob of fans in the street. Individual Beatle-crazy girls tell the news cameras why their favorite Beatle must marry them only, even if a present wife or two need to get accidentally killed first. Any outcry in the crowd will start an involuntary fan frenzy, the way a loud noise can trigger an avalanche.
Most of us caught up with I Wanna on cable TV, much the same as happened fifteen years later with Matinee, another modern classic that Universal abandoned to the wolves on its theatrical release. If you’ve never caught up with I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Criterion’s disc is a great opportunity to see it right.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of I Wanna Hold Your Hand is a new and approved 4K restoration. Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale signed off on the perfect picture and sound, and all the original music cues are intact, including the Beatles classics so beautifully edited by Frank Moriss (Duel). I assume that the 5.1 sound is a later remix.
The show repeats Universal’s audio commentary from 2004 with the Gale/Zemeckis team, where they explain all the odd things that happened on the film, and introduce us to their great cast of comic actors. A lengthy new interview places the pair with their executive producer Steven Spielberg, who seems to enjoy talking about old times, when filmmaking was perhaps a little less complicated. Other interviews give us Nancy Allen and Marc McClure, explaining how I Wanna fit into their respective careers.
Also included are two of Robert Zemeckis’s USC student films, the ones that helped the pair get noticed by Spielberg. They certainly have qualities that Spielberg would admire and seek out. Sometime soon after Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg ceased being a major Hollywood director and became an institution unto himself, and a hundred times less accessible to ambitious student filmmakers. Spielberg would champion other potential protégés, but Z and G were likely his most successful collaborators.
Scott Tobias provides the liner note essay for the insert foldout. The actual Blu-ray disc is amusingly decorated to resemble an original 45 rpm Beatles single.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
I Wanna Hold Your Hand
Supplements (from Criterion): New conversation among Zemeckis, Gale, and executive producer Steven Spielberg; New interview with actors Nancy Allen and Marc McClure; Audio commentary from 2004 featuring Zemeckis and Gale; The Lift (1972) and A Field of Honor (1973), two early short films by Zemeckis; Trailer and radio spots; insert foldout with an essay by critic Scott Tobias.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 23, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson