With all the recent hoopla and hullabaloo surrounding the 30th anniversary of Back to the Future, it’s easy to forget that the cinematic creative genius dynamic team of Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale, and Steven Spielberg made some pretty adventurous films prior to it, films that in a way set the stage for this timeless classic.
There was Used Cars, the 1980 comedic quilt of craziness which starred Kurt Russell, and 1979’s notoriously panned 1941. But, before that was debut of the team and their glorious work with 1978’s I Wanna Hold Your Hand. The film — executive produced by Spielberg, and directed by Zemekis, who co-wrote the screenplay with Gale — was a love letter to not only The Beatles, but the American milieu and craziness that surrounded Beatlemania circa 1964, when the British foursome first landed on New York soil and played The Ed Sullivan Show.
Pretty much under the radar by even cinephiles of Zemeckis, I Wanna Hold Your Hand is much more than a curio of cinema of the 1970s. It’s a zeitgeist within a zeitgeist, a fun romp in which Zemeckis already shows his clever knack for his handling of comedic action and dialogue driven characters. Although The Beatles weren’t actually in the movie (even though all four members were still alive in 1978), through intricate and glorious camera angling and editing, Zemeckis manages to deftly make it seem as if the moptop era of the Fab Four is vividly alive in the film.
The film’s simple yet highly effective story centers on a group of young teenagers and their quest to get into The Ed Sullivan Show to see The Beatles’ performance — one which is now regarded as folklore and a benchmark in American television history — and their wild pursuits to attain such a summit. Zemeckis is able to perfectly capture the look and feel of the times, which were swirling with a kind of manic buzz and energy, like the hysteria of Elvis Presley times four.
Starring popular character actors of the time like Nancy Allen, Theresa Saldana, Marc McClure (who also appeared as Jimmy Olsen in the original Superman film that same year), the-always-perfectly-captured-as-lovable-nerd Eddie Deezen, and the late Wendie Jo Sperber (who also appeared in Back to the Future), the film bristles with a constant off-kilter hilarious kind of ensemble presence that is instantly indicative of the Zemeckis stamp that he would employ in pretty much all of his films that followed, in which characters are at once sharp, smart, dumb, and dumbfounded, and usually either in control or ridiculously out of it.
What makes I Wanna Hold Your Hand work is the aforementioned look and feel of the era; one can almost insert themselves right in the center of the action, and Zemeckis and Gale, clearly huge Beatles zealots, don’t miss a (pun intended) beat in their handling of the production. Having Steven Spielberg, fresh off of twin successes with Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, executive produce the film (as he also eventually did for their Back To The Future franchise) only adds to the kind of high budget class that the product needs, especially in terms of the art direction. There are so many details throughout the film, from perfectly rendered Ludwig bass drums with that famous “The Beatles” font to Beatles’ props consisting of Meet the Beatles vinyl and toys and merchandise of the era, right down to a replica of the marquee at the old CBS Ed Sullivan Theater with its matching stage set inside it. For a young director at the time such as Zemeckis, who pretty much was given free rein by Universal Pictures and a budget that seems more on screen than it actually was, there’s a sure-footed, confident approach in every frame that is a wonderful embryonic kind of starting point to the massive success he would have in the ensuing decades, with films like Cast Away, the multiple Oscar-winning Forrest Gump, and of course the Back to the Future trilogy.
Having The Beatles’ original music is the icing on the cake, something that would no doubt cost a fortune today, but most of the band’s biggest songs of the early part of their career are prominently displayed within and throughout the film. There’s also a sundry amount of references for Beatles fanatics, and like everything that was the best of The Beatles, there’s a kind of comfort zone for both casual fans and fanatics to absorb and dissect. For sure, it’s not only a celebration of The Beatles, but of an era and a time that seemed innocent, even though it really wasn’t in many ways (the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was still thick in the air at the time, and a Vietnam war was escalating at every turn as the days progressed). But still there remains a sort of fantasy within this film that borderlines on lunatic and comedic whimsy, and it’s a testament to the fresh out of the gate passion of Zemeckis and Gale that makes this work, and sets the stage for what was to come in their careers.
For fans of Back to the Future and the works of Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, I Wanna Hold Your Hand remains fun essential viewing, and like Back to the Future, it’s pretty much for everyone, save for some of the PG style sprinkling of light raunchiness that permeates both films at times with certain jokes and moments that might go over younger viewers’ heads. The film is currently available on DVD, and it’s a great rainy day kind of movie, and usually the best films are reserved for such a day, I Wanna Hold Your Hand notwithstanding. See for yourself.