February marks the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ historic 1964 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show and their first tour of America. This watershed moment in American popular culture is being celebrated worldwide, and the Retro Set is delighted to be in on the festivities with a week-long retrospective of The Beatles’ influence on celluloid.
Robert Zemeckis’ debut as a director, and the first film produced by Steven Spielberg, was a financial flop. But I Wanna Hold Your Hand has since been re-evaluated by Zemeckis and Beatles fans, and the final verdict? It’s an under-appreciated and rollicking good time, that, zaniness aside, captures the zeitgeist engulfing the nation when the Beatles touched down on American soil 50 years ago.
The late 70s/early 80s saw a fresh and new take on comedy that was one part Mel Brooks, another part Saturday Night Live inspired satire and a third retro “element” that hearkened back to the Three Stooges. It was called “Gonzo,” the term appropriated from a “take no prisoners’” style of journalism, established by envelope pushing Hunter S. Thompson, that soon permeated not just prose, but film and television. If anything, it was “anti-intellectual,” and purposely unconventional to the point of pure outrageousness.
1978 was the year that this new version of old fashioned freewheeling humor hit the screens, and purveyors like Robert Zemeckis, Joe Dante, Steven Spielberg and the daddy of them all- John Landis, captured this spirit and applied it to everything from college life (Animal House) to huckster-ism (Used Cars), horror (Gremlins), World War II (1941) and, of course, the British Invasion (I Wanna Hold Your Hand) throughout the late 70s and 80s.
The godfathers of this revisionist style of history and humor are George Lucas, with his classic homage to the teen cruising scene of the early 60s, American Graffiti, and John Landis, and his sophomoric sketch comedy tribute, Kentucky Fried Movie. The mood was set for a look back to 1964 and the Beatles first Ed Sullivan appearance through a filter made up of one part nostalgia, and the other, tongue firmly planted in cheek.
It’s February 8th, 1964, and to the hysterical strains of I Want To Hold Your Hand, we see the now classic grainy B&W footage of the Beatles landing at Kennedy Airport, accompanied by the screaming, crying, fainting fans calling out for “Paul, “John,” “George’” and even “Ringo!” But this is the only good “look” we’ll have at the four moptops, because from this point on, we can only steal fragmented shots of crowd blocked heads, legs, feet and coats as we, like our protagonists, struggle to catch a glimpse of these music revolutionaries.
The story follows four teens from New Jersey on the cusp of womanhood who are very much still girls infected with Beatlemania. Rosie Petrofsky (Wendie Jo Sperber) is pure “id,” she will do anything and everything to win tickets to the Ed Sullivan Show that she can’t afford. She’s the hilarious, Lou Costello inspired team engine, who screams at the mere sight of a Beatles cardboard cut-out, constantly starting riots every time she thinks of a Beatle. She’s strong-arming her friend Pam Mitchell (Nancy Allen) to help raise money to get tickets, but of all of them, Pam is the most resistant. It’s the eve of her wedding, and rather than drop a dollar for a Beatles album, she preaches her need to save her money now that she’s no longer a “child” and about to be a wife. We can tell that Pam doesn’t believe what she’s saying about the sanctity of marriage, but she’s “willing” herself to not get caught up in the fervor.
At a local record store, the two bump into their friend Grace Corrigan (Teresa Saldana) who wants to be a serious photojournalist, and thinks getting an exclusive photo of the Beatles at their hotel is just the ticket.
She tries to get the girls to help raise money to rent a limo; a vehicle that will insure they get past the police line where girls are getting pulled out of taxis, and land them smack dab in front of the hotel. The fourth member of their team is Janice Goodman (Susan Kendall Newman aka Paul Newman’s daughter) who is a nod to the socially conscious, if misguided, teenager of the emerging political 60s, as she protests the Beatles and their PR machine that she accuses of propaganda. Why don’t the record stores push Joan Baez or Bob Dylan as much as the Beatles, she wants to know?
Conning a neighborhood kid with access to his mortician father’s casket limo, the kids, along with an obnoxious Beatle hating “greaser” Tony Smerko (Bobby Di Cicco), make their overnight pilgrimage to the Beatles hotel. Their plan actually works, and amidst the flurry of excitement, three of the four girls make it inside. However, the fates are against them, and all three get separated, and begin their own personal adventures, suffering the trial and errors of getting just a quick glimpse of the Fab Four.
Sperber collides with a self-proclaimed Beatles expert, a manic little nerd with more than a passing resemblance to man-child Jerry Lewis, Richard “Ringo” Klaus, played with hilarious absurdity by emerging character actor Eddie Deezen. They try everything from selling fake Beatles’ sheet squares cut from JC Penny’s bed linens, to attacking phones every time the local radio station offers up tickets for correct answers to Beatle trivia.
Allen as the fervently “celibate” Pam, hits the jackpot by hiding in a bellman’s cart and getting whisked directly into the Beatles suite. Hiding her engagement ring in her shoe, she plays out a hilariously orgasmic hunt for everything the Beatles have used or touched in their room. From performing fellatio on a guitar neck to shoving hair from a comb down her blouse, she breaks free of her initial modesty and goes crazy.
Not just an opportunity for slapstick zaniness, the script and direction really do take great pains to keep the situations believable to the period; as well as accurately rendering many details:
• For instance, while Pam hides under the bed, the Beatles return to their suite, and we hear them singing “Surfing USA;” completely believable since the Beatles loved the Beach Boys and at one time thought them their greatest rivals.
• When Smerko is trying to make a daring comment in the back of the limo, he asks Goodman if she knows the words to “Louie, Louie.” The song was originally banned when the Kingmen’s version was released; the vocalist’s levels so low it was incorrectly assumed he was singing “dirty” lyrics; an urban myth that survives to this day.
• Much like Pam’s hotel room break-in, in reality there was a fan who broke into the Beatles hotel room named “Pam,” who John Lennon wrote and dedicated the song; “Polythene Pam,” as well as “She Came In through the Bathroom Window.”
By the end, all the girls make it into the theater, and not only is history made, but the four have very different experiences and reactions, as this becomes a pivotal moment in their journey to adulthood.
Spielberg, the film’s producer, really believed in not only Zemeckis, the director and co-writer, (he re-hired Zemeckis to write his Gonzo version of the Japanese scare along early WWII’s California coastline, and produced six more Zemeckis directed films over the years) but four of the leads as he recast them all in 1941. Wendie Jo Sperber, Eddie Deezen, Nancy Allen and Bobby DiCicco played characters almost identical to their parts in IWHYH.
The soundtrack is pure Beatle heaven, including “Boys,” “Love Me Do,” “P.S. I Love You,” “Do You Want to Know A Secret,” “There’s a Place,” And “Twist and Shout” off their first US Release, Introducing…the Beatles, as well as four off the album seen selling off the shelves, Meet the Beatles; “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Til There was You,” and “I Wanna Be Your Man.” The other smattering of songs had been released as 45 singles, thus the track selection remained as authentic as possible as far as what American consumers would have been able to purchase at the time.
While a fictionalized “fantasy” based on true events, I Wanna Hold Your Hand is probably the best film to capture the insanity and freedom surrounding the Beatles historic performance on the Ed Sullivan Show. It may not be an authentic time-capsule, but its accuracy lives less in the facts, and more in the mood.
A Special “Thank You Girl” to Editor Carley Johnson for use of her DVD of the film.
I Want to Hold Your Hand is one of my all-time favorite films. I remember when it came out. My friend had gotten tickets and neither of us knew what to expect. But from the moment it started, it had us laughing and rolling in the aisle. It was brilliant. I think it flopped because it didn’t get any publicity. It really wasn’t promoted anywhere that I recall. We happened into it, but I guess few others did. Glad it’s found new popularity since.