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I Wanna Hold Your Hand

Universal // PG // September 28, 2004
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted September 27, 2004 | E-mail the Author
Robert Zemeckis's first feature, I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978) is a surprisingly effective comedy that captures that turning point in pop culture history when Beatlemania struck the eastern seaboard with all the force of Hurricane Ivan. Reviewers tend to over- or underrate what ultimately is a modest but almost completely successful work. It lacks the conflicted, emotional verisimilitude of American Graffiti (1973), the film that likely inspired its production, but it does capture quite accurately the hysteria of that time, and is infinitely superior to Universal's Big-Budget Beatles movie released that same year, the notorious Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The film is set in New York in February 1964, as the hours tick down to the Beatles famous first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, CBS's top variety series, and revolves around a group of high school students. Die-hard Beatles fan Rosie (Wendie Jo Sperber) and budding photojournalist Grace (Theresa Saldana) sweet-talk shy Larry (Mark McClure) into driving them in from Jersey to the Beatles' hotel, hoping the hearse owned by Larry's undertaker father will get them past the gauntlet of security and win them access to the fortress-like hotel.

Dragged along for the ride are Janis (Susan Kendall Newman), a militant folk music snob who wants to protest Beatles commercialism; ambivalent fan Pam (Nancy Allen), dragged along the night before her wedding; and greaseball Tony (Bobby Di Cicco), who hates those limey bastards.

Incredibly, Zemeckis was only 25 years old when the film was in production (and co-writer/co-producer Bob Gale was just one year older). That the film plays as well as it does is a testament to their talent. It also bears all the hallmarks of the Zemeckis/Gale oeuvre, from 1941 (1979) to Used Cars (1980) through the Back to the Future trilogy: loud, fast, frantic action, often very clever but sometimes overbearing and obnoxious.

Fortunately, all of that is exactly what's required in a movie like I Wanna Hold Your Hand. As outrageously desperate the cast is to meet the Fab Four, none of it is far from the truth. In one scene, Nancy Allen's Pam sneaks into the Beatles' hotel suite while they're away and stumbles across a hairbrush. Pulling a few strands of hair out of the brush she leans back, drops the hair on her face with an uncontrolled orgiastic glee. Ridiculous, yes, but probably quite an accurate reflection of true mid-sixties Beatlemania.

Pam's scenes eventually go way overboard as the experience unlocks a raw sexuality she didn't know was within her. In one especially obvious scene she caresses the neck of a guitar that, shall we say, sharply belies the movie's PG rating.

By far the best thing about I Wanna Hold Your Hand are the scenes with Wendie Jo Sperber and Eddie Deezen, the latter playing ubernerd "Ringo" Klaus, whose obsession with the band is absolute. She is like a force of nature not to be stopped, he squirrelly like Jerry Lewis's "kid" character, a proprietary collector type completely out of control. (The pride of his collection -- a clump of grass one of the Beatles stepped on: "I'm not exactly sure which blade he stepped on, but it's all in there! That's why I got such a big clump!") Both became typed playing similar characters (Deezen's is a specialty act if ever there was one), but they were never as endearing as they are here.

Also good are the adventures of Grace and Larry, whose last scene gives the film its sweet twist ending. Saldana and McClure are quite charming; she about to play Jake La Motta's first wife in Raging Bull, he ready to solidify his image as Jimmy Olsen in the Superman movies.

Less successful are Beatles protestors and unlikely allies Janice and Tony. Newman (daughter of actor Paul) is fine but di Cicco is merely obnoxious, and their scenes play forced and veer too far from the main action. Sam Fuller put di Cicco to better use playing a similar character in The Big Red One a few years later. Overall though, the film is extremely well-cast, with its young cast (Sperber was 15, Allen was 27, but most were in their early-twenties) on the cusp of bigger and better things. Will Jordan is amusingly accurate in his impersonation of stiff Ed Sullivan; Dick Miller has several good scenes as a beleaguered hotel security sergeant.

Video & Audio

Presented in 16:9 anamorphic format, I Wanna Hold Your Hand looks quite good for its age. The film elements seem to have been kept in pretty decent shape, while the 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround remix sounds good without going overboard sweetening it up from its original (mono?) release. The title includes subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.

Extra Features

There's no trailer, a shame as it would have been interesting to see how this picture was marketed. In its place is an audio commentary track featuring Zemeckis and Gale, one on par with their other commentaries. A photo gallery is also included.

Parting Thoughts

I Wanna Hold Your Hand is the Zemeckis-Gale team doing what they do best. That it's without a huge budget or state-of-the-art special effects is refreshing; only Used Cars would be made under similar circumstances. It's not profound but it captures the period's mania and its characters win us over.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.

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