Criterion Review: I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND (1978)

Robert Zemeckis takes on the craze of Beatlemania

For many, we’ll never truly grasp the phenomenon that was Beatlemania. Four lads from Liverpool set the world alight with their talent, with an appreciation stateside sparked off by an appearance in 1964 on a late night talk show. The latest release from Criterion tries to help immerse you in the frenzy of that time with a film focused on a group of starstruck teens looking to meet the band, in a debut directorial effort by Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Death Becomes Her).


On February 9, 1964, the Beatles made their first live appearance on American television on The Ed Sullivan Show, ratcheting up the frenzy of a fan base whose ecstatic devotion to the band heralded an explosive new wave of youth culture. I Wanna Hold Your Hand looks back to that fateful weekend, following six New Jersey teenagers, each with different reasons for wanting to see the Fab Four, on a madcap mission to Manhattan to meet the band and score tickets to the show. With this rollicking first feature, director Robert Zemeckis and cowriter Bob Gale established themselves as a film­making team par excellence, adept at mining America’s cultural memory for comedy and adventure with a winning mixture of sweet nostalgia and playful irreverence.

It’s an admirable, if daunting, notion, to try and capture some of that fervor that consumed so many in the ‘60s with Paul, John, George, and Ringo. I Wanna Hold Your Hand does so by following a group of six teens from New Jersey who head to New York to try and see The Beatles, who are due to play at Carnegie Hall. They have mixed reasons for going. Rosie (Wendy Jo Sperber) is obsessed with the band, to an exaggerated fashion. Janis (Susan Kendall Newman) has open disdain for the group, while Grace (Theresa Saldana) is a budding journalist who sees an opportunity for a story. Pam (Nancy Allen) represents a neutral sentiment, currently consumed by wedding preparations. The guys, Tony (Bobby DiCicco) and Larry (Marc McClure), just seem to be along for the ride and any trouble they find along the way. Varying viewpoints give the film a vein of authenticity, reflecting the different demographics at the time, but their arcs and experiences also showcase how the shared experience, being around such adoration and goodwill, is infectious. The result is a charming, feel good romp, bathed in the nostalgia of Beatlemania.

The film uses its young, genuine cast to great effect, showcasing the frenzied waves of adoration, hero worship, and ensuing compromised sensibilities that come with. Not to mention compounding problems from the rush of hormones fueling the impetuousness of youth. Vibrancy careers close to farce, silly behavior verges on the slapstick, but with such good intentions and joy you can’t help but get caught up in in all. You could imagine such an endeavor would burn itself out, or peak early on, but it’s a credit to Zemeckis (and co-writer Bob Gale) that the film sustains itself throughout. It’s a remarkably assured directorial debut, where technique matches the emotion of it all and delivers an entertaining burst of controlled chaos onto the screen that immerses you in a landmark cultural moment.

The Package

Criterion offers up a release with a new 4K scan from a 35mm original print, one supervised by Robert Zemeckis himself, along with co-writer/producer Bob Gale. Overall it’s a delight to behold, with impressive clarity, detail and vibrant colors. There does however seem to be a little inconsistency with some scenes, notably darker ones, showing a reduction in definition. Extra features are of the quality you’d expect from Criterion:

  • New conversation among Zemeckis, Gale, and executive producer Steven Spielberg: Largely focused on how the film was conceived and developed, but actually gets into some rather specific details about some technical approaches too.
  • New interview with actors Nancy Allen and Marc McClure: Some great memories about filming, including references to a specific scene for Allen that stands out in particular. The most interesting content are reflections on Zemeckis himself and his approach to filming and handling the cast and crew.
  • Audio commentary from 2004 featuring Zemeckis and Gale: An enthusiastic trip down memory lane for the pair. An insightful and infectiously entertaining commentary with some deeper technical and historical tidbits.
  • The Lift (1972) and A Field of Honor (1973), two early short films by Zemeckis: Cool insight into Zemeckis’ raw talent, and also his inspirations.
  • Trailer and radio spots
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Scott Tobias: In the traditional included booklet.
  • New cover by Manansseh Johnson

The Bottom Line

I Wanna Hold Your Hand captures the feel of Beatlemania with an infectious charm and energy. A testament not just to its young cast, but the assured work of Robert Zemeckis in his directorial debut. Criterion’s release and supporting extras give a wonderful insight into the talents of this filmmaker in this thoroughly entertaining throwback to another era.

I Wanna Hold Your Hand is available via Criterion from March 26th, 2019.

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