Film and Television Features

I Wanna Hold Your Hand (Robert Zemeckis 1978)

I Wanna Hold Your Hand was the film debut of Robert Zemeckis, who went on to direct box-office smashes such as Romancing The Stone, Forrest Gump, and the Back To The Future trilogy. It was executive-produced by Steven Spielberg, who at the time had gained clout as director of Jaws and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Despite the talent involved, the movie was a dismal failure.

With a negligible advertising budget and no marquee names, the odds were against this comedic gem that is still overlooked today. Its subject is compelling enough: The Beatles’ cultural impact on American youth. But this is no mushy coming of age story. Zemeckis wrote the screenplay with Bob Gale, a fellow USC graduate who shared his taste for cheeky satire and Three Stooges slapstick.

The story revolves around six New Jersey teenagers plotting to break into The Beatles’ New York hotel. The mastermind is Grace Corrigan (Theresa Saldana), an amateur photographer seeking to turn pro with exclusive pictures of the band. Pining for her is Larry Dubois (Marc McClure), an endearing doofus who seizes his father’s funeral parlor limo to take his friends to New York. Joining the road trip are two actual Beatles fans: straight-laced Pam Mitchell (Nancy Allen), who has just gotten engaged to a square-jawed conservative, and Rosie Petrofsky (Wendy Jo Sperber), a chubby force of nature prone to hysterics over Paul McCartney. Tagging along is Janis Goldman (Susan Kendall Newman), a stern folkie on a mission to boycott The Beatles, and Tony Smerko (Bobby Di Cicco), whose mission is to conquer her. He’s a street tough who’d do anything for Janis, crime being no object.

The limo arrives at the Beatles’ hotel, which has been barricaded by the police. Tony puts on a Beatle wig, leans out a window, and yells “Yeah, yeah, yeah!”, stirring the crowd of rabid fans stationed outside. The crowd goes berserk and makes a mad rush to the limo, and the group splits amid the commotion. The story’s farcical elements come to the fore then, with chases down hotel corridors, pratfalls, and physical gags. Yet every comedic tool is used with clockwork precision. Nothing overwhelms the story’s arc.

Zemeckis has a knack for nailing the spirit of the times. His staging of The Beatles’ American TV debut is worthy of Richard Lester. One notable scene has Pam Mitchell sneaking into that holy of holies: The Beatles’ hotel suite. Pam is transformed there. She moves around the suite like Garbo’s Queen Christina, caressing various objects with a mixture of religious devotion and lust.

The Beatles’ presence is felt throughout. Zemeckis mixes stock footage with well-staged recreations, a technique he’d later use to greater effect in Forrest Gump. There are some references to Beatles songs in the dialogue and visuals for those who pay attention. No music score was created for the movie since the soundtrack is filled with Beatles favorites. The movie looks more expensive than its 2.8 million budget, which was bottom-rung cheap even then. Working within those confines, Zemeckis confers excitement to a complex climax filled with crosscutting, suspense, and comedic timing. It should be required viewing for would-be filmmakers. 

The movie should’ve opened doors for Zemeckis and Gale, but it didn’t happen then. They were working for a staid studio system bogged down by union politics and disinterested executives. Their film previewed well and received glowing reviews, but the studio refused to put up an advertising budget that would match the movie’s negative costs. As a result, the movie failed to find an audience.

Spielberg kept his faith on Zemeckis and Gale, going on to direct their script for 1941, a World War II farce that became famous for its gargantuan budget and small profits. Even so, 1941 has gained status through the years as a cult film. Of the two movies, I Wanna Hold Your Hand is the real charmer. For one, Zemeckis bests Spielberg on comedic timing, a skill that Spielberg is still trying to master.
Zemeckis and Spielberg are now major movers in an industry that once resented their success. They had a hand in forging this world of summer blockbusters and megaplexes. And here’s the irony: Today, small movies like I Wanna Hold Your Hand are harder to produce and market. Nothing is geared to give filmmakers their first break, notwithstanding the fact that there’s a need for new blood. It won’t stay like that forever. Disillusionment brings forth revolutions, and out there is a new breed of hopefuls ready to take over.