I Wanna Hold Your Hand

Dir: Dir: Robert Zemeckis, 1978. Starring: Nancy Allen, Bobby Di Cicco, Wendie Jo Sperber, Marc McClure, Susan Kendall Newman. Comedy.
I Wanna Hold Your Hand

I Wanna Hold Your Hand by the young first-time feature director Robert Zemeckis is officially the best non-documentary Beatles movie that does not actually feature The Beatles. (So A Hard Day's Night and Help! are out of the competition). No -- instead of being one of those Beatles bios this is actually about the fans and the frenzy the mop-topped boys caused on their first visit to the colonies. And hey, their backs, knees and shadows appear, as do some of their songs! Emerging in 1978 as part of a short wave of youthful period comedies that were pushed along by the success of National Lampoon’s Animal House (the genre hitting box office gold with Porky’s and critical & artistic silver with Diner), I Wanna Hold Your Hand was actually the first and best of many would-be biographies, re-imaginings and Beatles origin stories, including The Birth of The Beatles, The Hours and The Times, Backbeat and Nowhere Boy. Since it’s really just a sweet tribute to Beatlemania and the innocence of the era it may be the least ambitious, but it comes the closest to hitting its mark.

In February of 1964, as The Beatles first touch down in America, four young women from New Jersey make their way to Manhattan to try and see them perform live on The Ed Sullivan Show. Wannabe journalist Grace (Theresa Saldana) is a big fan but her pushy friend Rosie (Wendie Jo Sperber) is psychotic about the band. They are joined in their adventure by Janis (Susan Kendall Newman, Paul’s daughter), who prefers folk music to rock & roll (she’s going along just to put up a folkie protest) and Pam (Nancy Allen), only a casual fan, more excited about her upcoming marriage. They have an idea to rent a limo and try to drive The Beatles to the show, but they settle for a hearse, driven by their shy friend, the undertaker’s son, Larry (Marc McClure, who also that year would play Jimmy Olsen in the Christopher Reeve Superman movie). Along the way they also pick up the cynical tough kid, Tony (Bobby Di Cicco), who is less about The Beatles and more into bedding the girls. The gang get split up and end up in adventures and compromising positions around The Beatles’ hotel and The Ed Sullivan Theater. Rosie  meets her male equal in obnoxious Beatles obsession, the hotel’s bellboy, Richard "Ringo" Klaus (Eddie Deezen). Think of it as a good version of what Detroit Rock City was trying to do -- or how about The Hangover Lite.

I really need to point out this is the best performance by Eddie Deezen, the Marlon Brando of nerd-actors and this is his On The Waterfront. It was his first big part and he’s funny and physical, yet grounded in reality. His awkward goofball schtick would be put to great effect in Grease as Eugene and then as Herbie in 1941 (and the lesser seen Midnight Madness) before he would disappear into less memorable junk like Zapped! and Grease 2, though he would later triumphantly reestablish himself as a voiceover actor superstar. But his work here (a sort of higher energy, less intelligent version of young Woody Allen) really is the standard for a generation of nerd characters; Pee Wee Herman, most of Rick Moranis’ roles, Marty McFly, Steve Urkel and Revenge of the Nerds all seem to evolve from Eddie Deezen.

Maybe a mere eight years was too soon for the world to understand its own obsession with The Beatles. I Wanna Hold Your Hand was not a box-office success. ‘78 would also see the release of the shockingly lame Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band; the film quickly destroyed any acting ambition that Peter Frampton or The Bee Gees might have secretly harbored. A few years later, in ’81, the film Beatlemania would be released in actual theaters. It's a sorta concert film with some guys who kinda look like The Beatles playing their songs. It wouldn’t really be until ’95, with the everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know-about-The Beatles television documentary series The Beatles Anthology that the full impact of The Fab Four was fully analyzed in a non-book form. (This is the same way the 1970s were full of forgettable B-movies about the Vietnam War; it wasn’t until ’78 that The Deer Hunter and Coming Home really broke through commercially and critically, opening the doors for Vietnam-on-film to be a mainstream subject matter.

And as for wunderkind Zemeckis, he was the protege of the film’s executive producer, the ultimate cinema wunderkind himself, Steven Spielberg. It would be the beginning of a fruitful career and collaboration with his mentor. Zemeckis cowrote the screenplay for I Wanna Hold Your Hand with his longtime writing partner Bob Gale. The pair also wrote Spielberg’s next film, the WWII comedy 1941, which would also employ four of I Wanna Hold Your Hand’s cast members (Allen, Di Cicco, Jo Sperber and Deezen), forever linking the two films as an obvious double feature. But where 1941 goes for the bigger-is-better brand of comedy (a la It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World), I Wanna Hold Your Hand sometimes feels like it's pushing hard to get to that over-the-top place but luckily falls back on character-driven, earned laughs. Zemeckis and Gale would follow it up with one of the best comedies of the '80s, Used Cars. Those first two films were not considered hits. But then Zemeckis became a box office slayer and creative F/X wizard with a slew of smashes: Romancing The Stone, The Back To The Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, cumulating with his Oscar-winning Forrest Gump (beloved by many and equally disliked by many, a cause not helped when it beat Pulp Fiction and Quentin Tarantino for the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars). Zemeckis would also make some actor-driven films like Cast Away and Flight, but for me, all the riches and awards don’t equal the beauty of the first two comedies --  especially the charming I Wanna Hold Your Hand.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jun 29, 2017 3:19pm
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