For a film whose subject is one of the most famous events in the history of American popular culture, Robert Zemeckis’ I Wanna Hold Your Hand is actually quite intimate. It’s less concerned with representing the scale of the Beatles’ cultural influence, and more interested in the emotional weight on the level of individuals — a day in the life of a handful of Beatlemaniacs, so to speak. The film follows a pack of New Jersey teenagers who make a trek to New York City in the hopes of seeing the Beatles’ first American performance on The Ed Sullivan Show. The friend group represents a sort of cross-section of Beatlemania: devoted fanatics, skeptics, and those somewhere in between are all accounted for here. Upon arriving in the city, they quickly split up, each pursuing their own particular quests. Zemeckis spends the bulk of the film cross-cutting between their various exploits until their storylines reconvene, in somewhat miraculous fashion, for the climactic performance.
“I want you to be prepared for excessive screaming, hysteria, hyperventilation, fainting, fits, seizures, spasmodic convulsions, even attempted suicides,” Sullivan (Matt Jordan) tells his crew of ushers as they’re preparing for the show. “All perfectly normal, it merely means that these youngsters are enjoying themselves.” This pep talk opens the film, and establishes its absurdist tone. But it never really devolves into the full-bodied satire one might expect. Zemeckis is keyed into the farcical qualities of Beatlemania, and he plays them for laughs repeatedly. (One of the best bits comes when a woman’s foot is stepped on, and her cry of pain is misinterpreted by the surrounding crowd as a cry of recognition — in an instant, the entire mob is screaming their heads off, certain that a Beatle must be nearby.) But where someone like Joe Dante (a fellow Spielberg acolyte) might push deeper into the troubling implications of this sort of mediatized spectacle, Zemeckis seems more interested in tapping into those fanatical feelings, and simply taking them for what they are. There are moments of darkness, like when Theresa Saldana’s wannabe photojournalist nearly resorts to underage prostitution to pay her way into the show, but such instances tend to get diffused via cartoonish gags, and the tone remains light. Zemeckis’ approach is ultimately a deeply empathetic one; for all of the teasing, one gets the sense that he fundamentally respects these teens and their mania — owing, perhaps, to the fact that he himself was an adolescent in 1964.
The effect is such that we can see quite clearly the ludicrous nature of these people and their behavior, yet much like the more dubious characters, we find that by film’s end we’ve given in to the pleasure and excitement. This is embodied most memorably by Nancy Allen’s Pam, a character initially caught somewhere in between the more extreme positions of her peers. She’s somewhat resistant to Beatlemania, not because she morally objects like her friend Janice (Susan Kendall Newman), but because she feels guilty on account of her soon-to-be husband, whom she imagines would disapprove. That she feels guilty in the first place indicates some sort of lurking desire, and indeed that desire is teased out over the course of the film. We see it first when she glimpses the band from behind as they’re whisked out of the hotel, but it’s fully unleashed in perhaps the film’s most memorable scene: hiding from hotel security in a room service cart, she finds herself conveniently delivered to the Beatles’ suite, which is currently empty. Upon realizing where she is, she’s overcome by a sense of euphoria. She crawls around the room, elated just to touch the things they touched, breathe the air they breathed, to be where they’ve been. At one point she even fondles and kisses the phallic neck of Paul’s Hofner bass. It’s an excellent bit of physical comedy, but Allen also manages to tap into something deeply touching in these moments of bliss. There’s a purity to her hysteria; she doesn’t really know what to do with herself, she’s just trying to soak up every possible sensation she can. “It was the most wonderful feeling I’ve ever had in my life,” she tells reporters afterward, and the glimmer in her eye is seriously moving. Later, another character tells a new friend and fellow enthusiast, “You know you’re the first boy I ever met that I could really talk to!” The joke is that the only thing they’ve actually talked about is the Beatles, but even while it’s making fun, the film manages to demonstrate a substance therein. There’s something real, and even beautiful, in that adolescent fervor, and the connections it can foster.
When we see images from the Beatles’ tours, it’s natural to wonder what those hordes of screaming fans actually wanted. What would they do in the event that they found their way backstage, or broke into the band’s limo? I Wanna Hold Your Hand toys with those questions by realizing some of its characters’ abstract desires, from Allen writhing around on John’s bed, to Saldana’s photographer finding the band accidentally ushered into her backseat. From here one can start to connect Zemeckis’ debut film to the body of work that followed: these playful notions of wish fulfillment notably crop up again in Romancing The Stone, and perhaps even in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, if we take its premise as an exploration of the childish fantasy of living in a world where cartoons are real. J. Hoberman has pointed out the tendency in Zemeckis’ protagonists to forge “emotional bonds with fantasy beings” (see Cast Away, What Lies Beneath, Welcome To Marwen, etc). It’s a pattern that has its roots here, where the Beatles, real as they may be, are effectively fantastical figures with whom legions of teenagers have developed “illusory relations.” Consider also how I Wanna Hold Your Hand preempts films like Back To The Future and Forrest Gump in its integration of fictional characters with major moments in pop culture. And while this low-budget affair is not at all the special effects extravaganza that many readily associate with Zemeckis, his representation of the Fab Four themselves — integrating archival footage with body doubles and strategic framing — suggests an ingenuity that lends itself to the sort of forward-thinking effects work that he soon became known for.
We can see that most evidently in the climactic performance of “She Loves You” on the Ed Sullivan Show: it’s a brilliant bit of obfuscation, with playback screens in the foreground showing the actual footage, and the band framed distantly in the background, out of focus enough that we can’t make out their faces. (Beatlemaniac viewers will be impressed at the attention to detail — I was pleased to note how accurately the actor playing John mimicked his iconic bow-legged stance on stage.) But it’s also a wildly ecstatic set piece, the crowd already in a frenzy before Sullivan can even finish his introduction. At one point God himself seems to intervene on behalf of the band, and by song’s end, even the bitterest Beatle-hater of the group can’t help but smile. The film’s most memorable line, and in many ways its overriding sentiment, is uttered by Pam as she decides to abandon her fiance in favor of attending the show: “There are more things in life for me besides marriage,” she cries. “Like the Beatles!” Ironic as that may read, Zemeckis’ film suggests that she’s right.
Part of Robert Zemeckis: Movie Magician