I Wanna Hold Your Hand
Director: Robert Zemeckis (1978)
“Someone from down the hall appeared with a copy of the actual record–you could actually buy this stuff?–and anounced with great fake solemnity that it was the first 45 he’d purchased since “All Shook Up.” Someone else–who played a 12-string guitar and as far as I knew listened to nothing but Odetta–began to muse that ‘even as a generation had been brought together by the Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Nite,” it could be that it would be brought together again–by the Beatles.’”
Greil Marcus (on the response in his college dorm following the Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show). “The Beatles.” The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll (1980 edition)
WARNING: (Slightly outrageous claims made below. Proceed at your own risk.)
I’ve probably seen I Wanna Hold Your Hand at least a dozen times and it’s never failed to make me laugh as hard as I did when I was evidently one of about six people to see it in a theater on its initial 1978 release.
I can’t think of any other comedy that’s rewarded me so thoroughly and so often.
The plot’s simple enough. Four girls from Jersey enlist some questionable male companionship and take a ride to New York city on a Saturday night in February of 1964 and–each for her own reasons–spend Sunday scheming how to get into the Sullivan show for the first American television appearance of the Beatles.
One way and another, they all make it–even the one who doesn’t actually get inside.
Except, of course, that it’s much, much more.
The film’s makers, the writer/director team of Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis, went on to become enormously successful and–not always a given–also make some fine movies. But they’ve never come close to matching the speed and fluidity they showed here in their first outing.
No shame in that, because as far as I know, no one else has either.
It’s that good: part physical comedy tour-de-force; part valentine to what was already (a whole fourteen years later) a by-gone age, which was to a large degree by-gone because of the forces the movie observes being set in motion; part historical drama related to known facts but not ultimately bound by them (check Ronnie Spector’s autobiography for what was really happening in the Beatles’ hotel rooms on the momentous occasion–let’s just say rock star behavior hasn’t changed much through time–and, for truth and beauty, I’ll take Nancy Allen leaving something sticky on Paul’s bass any day); part loving satire (the hardest kind to pull off and the only kind that ever matters past the first laugh); part homage to good old American energy and ingenuity (would that it were still common for them to be put to such high purpose) and, perhaps best of all, part knowing glance–two cups specific, one cup general–at the tensions of teenage existence in the age of mass-whatever (communication, transportation–in this case, a hearse–and hysteria).
Straight exposition would be pointless, so I’ll just come out and admit that I’ll always come back to the movie for all those reasons, plus a few more:
Start with the key performances by Wendie Jo Sperber (who careens through this like a bowling ball which has sprouted legs and a dazed smile, skipped its lane and is now determined to knock down every pin in the alley–especially any that are standing between her and anything that looks remotely like Paul McCartney), Nancy Allen, Theresa Saldana and Eddie Deezen, all proving they were capable of much, much more than modern Hollywood would have to give.
Then add the most effective use of the Beatles’ music on film this side of A Hard Day’s Night.
Then add the beautiful ambience of sixties-era settings you rarely see even in actual sixties’ movies–the inside of the Sullivan theater in all its pastel glory, a barber-shop with gleaming red leather chairs and a gum-ball machine, a record store with actual teenagers in it!
And don’t leave out those moments near the climax of the film when the various parties are finally making their way from the darkened streets to the beacon light of the theater’s famous entrance, filmed in such a way that the pure exhiliration of the moment and the dark uncertainty of the future are both present and accounted for (Allen’s flight from her prig-thuggish fiance’s car is especially striking).
Or Deezen and Sperber’s escape from a stalled elevator, which nearly choked me to death on the floor of a Dothan, Alabama multiplex the first time I saw it and still floors me.
I mean there’s more, but that’s enough to justify coming back I think.
So now all that’s left is to ask myself why something this good has been virtually forgotten–considered hardly worth mentioning in the careers of Gale and Zemeckis, let alone the history of seventies’ Hollywood.
Granted such things are subjective…but are they really all that subjective? I mean, I’m a mainstream, suspicious-of-cults-by-nature sort. Can I be that wrong?
Maybe, but that doesn’t mean I have to accept it! I’m going to seek reasons!
Granted also it didn’t make money. Surely that’s a problem. But let’s make a note that, in matters of reputation, similar objections have been overcome before.
Granted, finally, that most of the movies made in what will likely turn out to be American film’s last really great decade took on what were presumed to be far weightier subjects. But the heavy-makes-for-worthy mindset hasn’t prevented flame-keepers from esteeming Duck Soup or His Girl Friday on a level with the great dramas and crime films of the thirties and forties. Or Some Like It Hot from being rated on a similar level in the fifties.
I Wanna Hold Your Hand is every bit as good as those films and can bear the same kind of scrutiny. More really, because while those wondrous creations–and others I could mention, starting with the name Preston Sturges–are pure confections, this one rings true to something very much like life.
Which is what we’re always being told should be so mightily esteemed. Right?
So why no love?
It never really occurred to me that I was missing a vital link in the crit-illuminati’s logic-chain until I began reading Sheila O’Malley’s voluminous (and extremely enlightening) blog posts on Elvis Presley and his complex relationship with both his audience and what passes for our intelligentsia. While the straight story of this very wonderful movie is ostensibly about Beatlemania–which might be something that the usual assortment of bemused egg-heads would be prepared to get excited about, especially if the public has been seen rejecting it!–its real subject is not the Beatles’ part of the equation, but the other part.
That would be the fans.
And not just any fans.
A very specific group of those fans.
Not the Lenny Bernstein crowd.
Not the college crowd Greil Marcus described in the quote above.
Not the serious-minded souls biding their time, waiting for Sergeant Pepper (or at least Rubber Soul) to arrive so they would really have something to talk about.
No, not those fans.
Any movie this great made about those fans wouldn’t need me to make a case for it. There’s no need to even speculate about this because those fans have in fact had great movies made about them–principally American Graffiti and Diner (the time frame is slightly shifted I know, but I can imagine nearly all the male protagonists of either film milling about Greil Marcus’ dormitory, making–or nodding along to, or sneering while privately admitting there just might be something to all this–just the sort of comments he reports).
And, yes, that includes the ones who weren’t headed to college.
Plenty of love exists for those movies and their subjects–love that will probably be reiterated in future posts in this category.
But they aren’t better than I Wanna Hold Your Hand, which is about those other fans–perhaps even more despised and marginalized in the Beatles’ story than they are in Elvis’ (where they’ve been deeply scorned at every turn but at least never quite made invisible).
Those silly things.
Young girls. Screaming girls. Girls who won’t stay put.
Also smart girls. Tough girls. Nice-but-nobody’s-fool girls.
Girls who are a half-step away–at most–from being those same kind of women.
For all that intellectuals are forever insisting they prefer the company of such women, a wall sure does seem to come down way more often than not when it comes all the way down to giving them their cultural due.
This movie–oddly enough written and directed by men who have spent the best parts of their careers helping prop up that very wall–gives them that due in spades.
However accidentally, it posits the powerfully insidious notion that, without them–without them very specifically–you don’t have any Elvis or any Beatles or any of the good things those words have come to imply, musically, politically, culturally and every other way.
And then backs that notion to the hilt.
Which means it’s not just a very wonderful movie but something of a miracle.
Now we just need to hope for one more miracle–one small step to a better understanding.
Recognition of the obvious.