Judge Patrick Bromley has another clue for you all: The walrus was Paul.
"I want you to be prepared for excessive screaming, hysteria, hyperventilation, fainting, fits, seizures, spasmodic convulsions, even attempted suicides—all perfectly normal. It merely means these youngsters are enjoying themselves."
In the spirit of the KISS-obsessed Detroit Rock City or the Ramones-driven Rock 'n' Roll High School comes the directorial debut of Robert Zemeckis, the Beatles-obsession-driven I Wanna Hold Your Hand (that it pre-dates the other two films suggests that they were copying this one, not the other way around). The 1978 feature now comes to DVD care of Universal.
Facts of the Case
February, 1964: The British Invasion is underway as The Beatles, arguably the most important rock group of all time, land on American soil for their first visit to the States. On the eve of their legendary performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, three teenage girls, the about-to-be-married Pam (Nancy Allen, Robocop), crazed Rosie (Wendie Jo Sperber, Bachelor Party), and the opportunistic Grace (Theresa Saldana, Raging Bull), will do anything and everything for the chance to get a glimpse of the Fab Four in person.
Robert Zemeckis has always existed in a realm somewhere between Joe Dante and Stephen Spielberg, alternately proving himself to be both the fanboy geek of the former and the sentimental tech-kid nerd of the latter. He's even got some Lucas in him, in that he seems forever interested in pushing the envelope of special effects and film technology (though, unlike George Lucas, Zemeckis still bothers to make actual films in which to show off his wizardry).
The Zemeckis of earlier films like Back to the Future and Romancing the Stone seems to have all but disappeared now, abandoning the wacky and exuberant in favor of more mature work. Like it or not, he's Grown Up as a director—these days, Zemeckis seems to have taken his mentor Spielberg's approach and focuses on making primarily "important" (or at least weighty) pictures like Contact or Cast Away. Even when trying to recapture some of his early inspirations by creating a straight genre film, the 2000 thriller What Lies Beneath, the result is a calculated and cold exercise in technique—a filmmaker's show-offy experiment.
I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Zemeckis's first film, has wackiness and exuberance to spare—it shows clear signs of the director finding his way over the next decade and a half. Stylistically, it has the energy and pacing of a live action cartoon, comparable to some of Zemeckis's later work—Death Becomes Her, or, more accurately, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. Its protagonists are teenagers, as would be the case in 1984's Back to the Future. The similarities to Zemeckis's later output, however, are pretty much nonexistent—aside from some clever manipulation combining historical reality with cinematic fantasy (which he would put to greater use in Forrest Gump, the film that most solidifies the turning point in his career), there is little evidence to indicate the direction Zemeckis's career would eventually take. That may be because his more recent films are concerned with bigger questions and more sophisticated storytelling, whereas I Wanna Hold Your Hand is content to be a smaller picture of a specific time and place.
Unfortunately, unlike other films potentially of its kind, I Wanna Hold Your Hand fails to transcend its already limited subject matter. Take Joe Dante's Matinee, for example: Though it essentially substitutes monster movies for the Beatles, it allows itself to actually be about much more—the Cuban missile crisis, or being the New Kid, or the relationship between a military family, or the loss of innocence in America.
I Wanna Hold Your Hand, though, isn't about anything but chaos. And while onscreen anarchy can certainly work in a comedy—which Zemeckis would go on to prove in his next film, Used Cars—there's nothing particularly inspired about it here. Girls scream, people get knocked over, girls scream, things fall down, and it all becomes awfully repetitive and mundane. It's the same approach that would mar Zemeckis and Gale's next collaboration, the screenplay to Stephen Spielberg's 1941. There, the two writers took a historical event—in this case, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—and used it as the backdrop for what would essentially be one giant pie fight. At least in that case it could have worked; panic and disorder are reasonable responses to such an attack (though the film was ultimately undone by a sense of self-satisfaction and "more is more," big-budget cynicism). Here, Pearl Harbor has been replaced by the Beatles' first U.S. visit, but to basically the same effect.
I Wanna Hold Your Hand is energetic, but in a joyless way; lively, but not fun. There's no fondness or nostalgia for the time period—the film lacks any sweetness. That's not to say being sweet is a prerequisite, but at least it would make for a point of view on the material—something the film is lacking. It has no real affection for the time period or for its characters, leaving the viewer searching for something to grab onto and coming up short. Even the post-squeaky-clean '50s, pre-Vietnam innocence of the period is missing. A badly miscast Nancy Allen brings too much of her Carrie-fied sex-kitten persona to scenes like the one in which she finds the Beatles' instruments in their hotel room—her borderline pornographic reactions disrupt the tone of the film.
There's not even a reverence for the band itself—Beatlemania isn't explored in any real way, merely exploited for comic effect. We're meant to take everything at face value; girls scream and faint only because that's what we've heard they did. There is no attempt to understand what it was that drew such reactions from teenagers, or the impact that the band had on their lives. The film doesn't really even provide any kind of historical context, which, while not exactly servicing the human story, would have at least added another dimension to the proceedings. It's simply a film without a discernible point of view.
The film is, thankfully, loaded with Beatles tunes—though, to be fair, not necessarily with original Beatles tunes. Whether because the film takes place relatively early on in their recording career (when these songs made up a large chunk of their catalog) or because the rights were easier to obtain, the soundtrack is populated primarily by Beatles cover versions of earlier songs like "Please Mr. Postman" and "Money (That's What I Want)." Still, in a film that revolves around the Fab Four, it's good to hear so many of their songs on the soundtrack.
Universal's release of I Wanna Hold Your Hand with a 1.85:1 transfer, enhanced for 16x9 playback. Despite some mild softness (most likely due to age), the transfer looks decent at best and washed out at worst. The 5.1 audio track comes as a bit of a disappointment, too, in that it hardly makes use of its own possibilities—even the Beatles tunes fail to register or liven things up. The only two extras appearing on the disc are an entirely dispensable photo gallery and a feature-length commentary by director-cowriter Robert Zemeckis and his longtime collaborator, cowriter and associate producer Bob Gale. Given Zemeckis and Gale's propensity to sit for chunks of time without speaking, the track can be slow going in spots. When they get rolling, though, it's a great ride—the two are such old friends, so comfortable with one another personally and professionally, that their dialogue has a real ease to it. They're also both fairly forthcoming about what it was like to make the film, warts and all—there's not as much of the blanket praise or political correctness found on most commentaries.
In the somewhat limited films-named-after-Beatles-songs genre, I Wanna Hold Your Hand probably ranks somewhere between Can't Buy Me Love and A Hard Day's Night. Fans of the Fab Four had best look elsewhere, as should those looking for some sort of historical document of the Beatlemania phenomenon. The only thing documented in I Wanna Hold Your Hand is the start of a great directorial career.
The Court finds Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale guilty of mismanaging their own premise, but dismisses all charges in lieu of years of good behavior and memorable films.
Oh, yeah—and I Buried Paul.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Writer-Director Robert Zemeckis and Writer-Producer Bob Gale
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