Robert Zemeckis’ directorial debut is hard to dislike—every iota of the film’s energy is devoted to stimulating audience engagement—but at the same time it’s unlikely to generate much in the way of passionate adoration. Slight in the extreme, the picture spins a fictional ensemble yarn around the Beatles’ first Ed Sullivan Show appearance in 1964, thus presenting in microcosm the whole scope of the “Beatlemania” phenomenon. First among the problems with this approach is the way the movie dances around the onscreen absence of the real Beatles. The Fab Four licensed more than a dozen of their early songs, so the soundtrack explodes with the joy of “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Please Please Me,” “She Loves You,” and the title song, among others. Yet whenever the Beatles are involved in a scene, Zemeckis uses stand-ins, vocal imitators, and cheat angles that show only backs or legs or such. (Admittedly, his staging of the band’s actual Ed Sullivan performance, footage of which is shown on the monitors of cameras during taping, is highly resourceful.)
On a deeper level, I Wanna Hold Your Hand suffers from the use of stereotypical characterizations. None of the fictional people in the movie are offensive, per se, but they range from drab to obnoxious, so it’s hard to care what happens to any of them. The main characters are four young women from Jersey. Grace (Theresa Saldana) wants to shoot exclusive photos of the Beatles so she can start a career as a photojournalist; Janis (Susan Kendall Newman) hates the Beatles and plans to picket their appearance; Pam (Nancy Allen) is a nice girl who claims she’s above Beatlemania but, of course, ends up taking crazy risks to get near the lads from Liverpool; and Rosie (Wendie Jo Sperber) is a screaming superfan who’ll do anything to meet Paul McCartney. The guys who take part in the distaff quartet’s adventure are even less dimensional than the ladies. Larry (Marc McClure) is a nebbish who tags along because he’s hot for Grace; Tony (Bobby De Cicco) is an insufferable bad boy who hates the Beatles and therefore serves as a mild sort of antagonist; and Richard (Eddie Deezen) is a borderline-psycho nerd who matches Rosie’s fanaticism.
As was the case with so many early Zemeckis projects, the story unfolds in a screwball-comedy style, with accidents and coincidences and misunderstandings colliding against each other to create chaos. There’s no question that co-writers Zemeckis and Bob Gale evince tremendous imagination throughout I Wanna Hold Your Hand, and the scribes treat their characters with obvious affection. But, man, after a while, the car chases and pratfalls and shouting matches get awfully loud and repetitive. That said, I Wanna Hold Your Hand marked the arrival of a naturally gifted filmmaker, and it’s impressive how well many scenes work given that the overall movie is so lightweight. Plus, of course, the excitement of the film’s soundtrack is impossible to deny.
I Wanna Hold Your Hand: FUNKY