Maybe America wasn’t ready yet for ‘60s nostalgia in 1978. Maybe 14 years was too soon, and too much had happened in the meantime. Robert Zemeckis’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” was a box office bomb, despite being a perfectly delightful and effervescent comedy that doesn’t dwell on Beatlemania as much as surf on it for laughs.
But watching it now, on the new Criterion Collection edition, the first film by Zemeckis (“Back to the Future”) and his longtime screenwriting partner Bob Gale is a lot of fun. From the first joke, in which a worker is correcting the spelling on a marquee from “Beetles” to “Beatles,” “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” is a good time.
The film takes place at and around one of the biggest pop culture events of the 20th century, the night in February 1964 that the Beatles performed on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” This was the height of Beatlemania, with hundreds of screaming teenage girls hounding the Fab Four every step of their way through the British Invasion.
“I Wanna Hold Your Hand” follows four young women from New Jersey who make a pilgrimage across the George Washington Bridge with the hopes of seeing John, Paul, George and Ringo up close. Janis (Susan Kendall Newman, daughter of Paul) is a Dylan fan who wants to scoff at all the hubbub. Pam (Nancy Allen, in a much sweeter role than her debut in “Carrie”) is an engaged woman looking for one last fling of teenage irresponsibility before marriage. Grace (Theresa Saldana) is an aspiring photojournalist who wants snaps of the Beatles to further her career. And Rosie (Wendie Jo Sperber) is an obsessed superfan whose love for the Beatles borders on a religious fervor. (By the way, the initials of all four girls is something of an Easter Egg.)
With two teenage boys, a shy undertaker’s son (Doug McCLure, who would play Jimmy Olsen in that year’s “Superman”) and a skeptical thug (Bobby Di Cicco) who prefers Frankie Valli, the teenagers make their way to the Plaza Hotel where the Beatles are ensconsced to try and get a glimpse of them.
After that first act, the four teenage girls split off into their own separate misadventures in the second act as they try various schemes to get to the band, avoiding cops, security guards, and other zealous fans. The comedy is deliberately broad, as when the over-the-top Sperber teams up with the even more over-the-top Eddie Deezen as a fellow superfan. But Allen may have the best scene, as infiltrating the Beatles’ empty hotel room and snooping through their stuff unleashes the repressed Pam’s inner libido.
Somehow, the four girls all reunite in the crowd at “The Ed Sullivan Show” for the finale – actually, one doesn’t quite get there, for reasons you should see the movie to understand. Unlike other nostalgic movies like “The Big Chill” or “American Graffiti,” “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” gives absolutely no hint of the turbulence to come, for the Beatles or for the nation. It preserves that moment of pop culture innocence in amber for all time.
Despite its disappointing box office, Zemeckis and Gale clearly have a lot of affection for “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” (there’s what seems like two clear callbacks in “Back to the Future,” one involving a character on a tower being hit by lightning, the other involving the line “Get your damn hands off her!”) In one of the Criterion bonus features, Zemeckis and Gale talk to executive producer Steven Spielberg, who acted as a kind of mentor for the two men. Spielberg was making “1941” around the same time, and says as a young man he was attracted to the same kind of comic carnage in “Hand.”
There’s also a lovely interview with Allen and McClure, who wax fondly about their own experiences seeing the Beatles as well as making the film 14 years later. With Danny Boyle’s “Yesterday” coming out this summer and potentially rekindling a new wave of interest in the Beatles, it’s high time to take a look at this forgotten gem of a B-side in Zemeckis’ career.