I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978)

D: Robert Zemeckis
S: Nancy Allen, Bobby Di Cicco

Hilarious and highly inventive comedy from co-writers Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis (the latter of whom also directed) following the adventures of a group of friends attempting to get to see The Beatles during their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Though its confined settings and wealth of medium and close-up shots make it frequently feel like a TV-movie, director Zemeckis makes great use of the claustrophobia to evoke a sense of the all-encompassing hysteria of that moment in time and increase the intensity of his characters' dilemmas. The script in turn responds by throwing up all manner of bizarre supporting characters and incidental details which add to the fun and the mounting sense of insanity. There are plenty of plot twists and clever payoffs, and though there's hardly time to drawn breath and have a think about any of it, the cumulative effect is that of a merry roller coaster ride of good-natured madness. The film climaxes with the famous performance by The Beatles in which comedian Will Jordan does his O'Sullivan impression and clever use of long shots and archival footage place the band themselves on stage. The character sub-plots and loose ends are neatly wrapped up without pretension.

Central to the success of the film is its young cast, all of whom hit the right balance of farce and sincerity to carry their roles. Of particular note is the boisterous Wendie Jo Sperber in a full-tilt comic characterisation which consistently energises the film. Her obsession with the band, and Paul McCartney in particular, is matched only by the goofy (and slightly irritating) Eddie Deezen as an equally devoted male fan with a penchant for tearing up carpets and grass upon which band members have trodden. Of equal note is Susan Kendall Newman as the daughter of a record store owner. Her passionate dislike of the band (she favours Joan Baez and Bob Dylan) creates a nice dynamic with her fellows, all of whom fail to share her point of view apart from Bobby Di Cicco, whose motivations may be of a more personal nature. Nancy Allen (Carrie) is fairly restrained as the bride-to-be roped into this wild adventure against her will, but gets to have a particularly interesting moment of resolution best left to viewers to find out for themselves (but, apparently, true-to-life). The crowd scenes are handled nicely as well, and Gale and Zemeckis have as much fun with minor, one-off characters as they do with the leads, a comic writing technique they share with the great Preston Sturges. There is, in fact, a touch of the classic screwball farce to the film, at least on some level, although there is no real stable centre amid the anarchy (neither Allen nor Newman quite fit the bill).

The film does presume a certain affection for The Beatles, and perhaps a level of tolerance for Beatlemania itself. Despite the presence of the skeptical elements protesting the popularity of these unkempt limeys, the film playfully attempts to recreate that particular time in American culture at which youth stood poised to overwhelm adulthood, having broken through less than a decade before. A nice sub-plot revolving around a youngster with Beatles-style hair being hounded by his old-fashioned father provides the clearest indication of the social context for the action, which, on the whole, lies well below the surface and is of little real import. Yet it does inform the film on some level, because its nostalgia for that time stems from perhaps the same skepticism about present-day America (and youth in particular) which drove American Graffiti. I Wanna Hold Your Hand is considerably more lightweight than Lucas' film, and leaves less of an impression on the memory, but it is a lot of fun while it runs and should provide affable entertainment for those disposed to its charms.

From a contemporary point of view, it is interesting to see the Gale/Zemeckis team in their element with wacky comedy. After a brief, almost grinding halt writing Spielberg's 1941 (Spielberg was one of the producers of I Wanna Hold Your Hand), this film was quickly followed by equally inventive and very funny films such as Used Cars and Back to the Future before the collaborators took a bizarre turn into deathly serious American whimsy in Forrest Gump and philosophical rumination in Contact.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.