"Back to the Future" team Zemeckis, Gale and Spielberg boring their early Beatles comedy to Criterion.
We love them, yeah, yeah, yeah. The Beatles have been such beloved entrenched cultural giants for so long that many a music fan takes them for granted. Likewise, many a cinephile has long ago reached the point of taking Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale and Steven Spielberg for granted.
Thus, the recent Criterion Blu-ray release of their 1978 film I Wanna Hold Your Hand hasn’t been met with the level of excitement and anticipation typically heaped upon the first film of a major directorial talent. That director, in this case, is of course Zemeckis, having crafted an impressively manic if sometimes abrasive comedy about four Jersey girls in New York City looking to meet the Beatles during the craziness of their 1964 U.S. visit to The Ed Sullivan Show.
Zemeckis was aided closely by his creative cohort Gale and mentored throughout the making by his pal Spielberg. For Spielberg, Zemeckis and Gale would write 1941, a process they’d begun prior to getting the green-light on this one. Later, the collective would give the world Used Cars, Who Framed Roger Rabbit (sans Gale), and the Back to the Future trilogy. I Wanna Hold Your Hand may not be altogether platinum on the level of some of their later work, but it’s got more than enough gold to warrant this kind of lavish treatment.
And lavish it is, as Criterion’s Blu-ray edition not only rocks its feature presentation in the A/V department, it’s also got boss bonus features that roll right alongside of it. There are two newly recorded video interviews on the disc.
The shorter of the pair features actors Nancy Allen and Marc McClure, in which he at one point corrects her that that was no ordinary guitar her character got intimate with, “You were making love to a bass.” It’s a fine, if fairly awkward interview, as it’s rather obvious that McClure and Allen probably haven’t kept up with one another all that much.
The real gold, though, is the forty-plus minute discussion between Gale, Zemeckis, and Spielberg- marking all of their Criterion debuts, at least since its DVD era began. Whether one is a fan of any of the specific participants or simply just a fan of well told tales of the Hollywood film business, all three men enthusiastically deliver.
For anyone interested in the mentality and milieu of that time, when the golden age moguls were still kicking around their weight, but large corporations were also starting to gobble up movie studios, this chat is worth the price of the disc. To hear them tell the tales of what they got away with amid the inherent confusion of shifting realities in Hollywood, and the well-intentioned younger studio executives caught in the wake of both buy-outs and the confounding emergence of the youth culture (nearly a decade after Easy Rider shattered moviemaking templates, the struggle was still real) almost makes one long for the chaotic old days they speak of.
Along the way, Spielberg states that, based upon the crudely witty sensibility of their witty student film, 1973’s A Field of Honor (included here, along with another early short, The Lift), he identified Zemeckis and Gale as “socially irresponsible” filmmakers (in a good way). Though he himself is ever the straight arrow, their uncaring flair for subversion appealed to him.
I Wanna Hold Your Hand is rated PG (“parental guidance suggested”) in its native U.S., it’s flirtations, inferences and not-so-subtle innuendos regarding the flailing libidos of a thousand screaming girls would, without question, land a PG-13 or even R rating today. Thoughfully clothed throughout as opposed the example given, it’s quite safe to say that the film is “a 1970’s PG,” the long-gone variety that permitted a moment of full frontal nudity in something as kid-baiting as the dystopian sci-fi Logan’s Run.
The film itself tells the story of Pam (Nancy Allen), Grace (Theresa Saldana), Rosie (Wendie Jo Sperber) and Janis (Susan Kendall Newman) as they navigate fever pitch Beatlemania in attempts to get at the Fab Four. Each has her own reason to be caught up this.
Rosie’s is perhaps the most typical of the moment, as she’s just another hot n’ bothered teenager with a voracious momentary appetite for the visiting Liverpudlians. Per Sperber’s great comedic chops, her character is so enraptured that when a Beatle trivia question is asked on the radio, she jumps from a moving car to get to a pay phone, literally throwing coins at it.
Cooler to the whole phenomenon is Pam, the levelheaded but engaged one. Though Pam is essentially dragged along on their mod, slapdash trip to NYC, she eventually and ironically finds herself closest to the band (seen only in passing via actual archival footage in the film).
Grace’s journalistic ambitions are her ticket to ride. A budding Lois Lane, she goes to crazy lengths for the possibility of a picture of the Beatles. Finally, there’s the mature Janis, only there to protest the group’s hijacking of the spotlight away from the more socially minded likes of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.
Their plan? Sweet-talk a well-meaning boy (Marc McClure) into borrowing his father’s funeral parlor’s limousine, then driving it right up the front door of the Beatles’ hotel. A flawed plan, for sure, but they do get surprisingly far. But of course, it wouldn’t be a wacky comedy if everything went according to plan.
Along for the ride is macho meathead Tony Smerko (Bobby Di Cicco), who decides that protesting the Beatles is a good idea, but only because they’re stealing the attention of all the girls. Meanwhile, sneaky reporter Grace is waylaid by what has to be one of the loudest, most deliberately obnoxious movie characters, Richard “Ringo” Klaus (Eddie Deezen), a bombastic know it all who’s also the premiere Beatles memorabilia hoarder and dealer.
His prized possession? A plot of sod on which Paul McCartney once set foot, stored lovingly in a cake pan under the bed of his stolen hotel room. Dick Miller has a fun appearance as a stressed security guard.
Unlike The Beatles themselves or the subsequent careers of the men who made the film, I Wanna Hold Your Hand was not successful. All the parts were in place for comedy gold, yet the audience didn’t show up.
Now, after all these years, Criterion has seen fit to contextualize and deliver a fine Blu-ray for fans for any of the above names, or good, rollicking comedy told exceedingly well, this is not a Blu-ray to take for granted. Or as the Fab Four might later say, “It’s certainly a thrill. We’d love to take it home with us; we’d love to take it home!”