Along for a fab ride

Director's debut recalls really big shew

Published: Jun 24 2015, 01:01:am

Saturday, April 29, 1978.

I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND. Co-written by Bob Gale. Features the music of The Beatles. Co-written and directed by Robert Zemeckis. Running time: 104 minutes. General entertainment with the B.C. Classifier's warning: some swearing and coarse language.

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 8, 1964: Ushers employed by the CBS television network's Ed Sullivan Show are assembled for a final briefing. Sunday, the show will introduce America to The Beatles.
    "Be prepared for screaming, hysteria, fainting, fits, seizures, spasmodic convulsions, even  attempted suicides," Sullivan (impressionist Will Jordan) tells them. ''It's all perfectly normal. It merely means these youngsters are really enjoying themseIves.''
    Enjoyment? Yeah.
    Or, more precisely, yeah-yeah-yeah.
    Also fab, gear and soo-per. I Wanna Hold Your Hand just happens to be the best movie to open here so far this year.
    It's Beatlemania. More than that, though, it's a terrific comedy, a picture with pace, perspective and a whole lot of heart. I haven't had so much fun at the movies since American Graffiti.
    It marks the feature film debut of director Robert Zemeckis, who, together with Bob Gale, had a great idea for a movie (see following item). The result is I Wanna Hold Your Hand, the warm and witty story of four Maplewood, New Jersey, teenagers who are determined to meet The Beatles.
    Zemeckis and Gale, both 26, have got to be great guys. In their screenplay, they've managed to create a cast of characters that are not only credible, but likeable, something that's all too rare in movies today.
     You have to fall in love with Pam, Rosie, Grace and Janis, the kids for whom Beatlemania becomes a living force. The group's leader is Grace Corrigan (Theresa Saldana), an aspiring photo-journalist who sees an opportunity in the British rockers' American debut.
    Convinced that exclusive pictures of the mop-topped musicians could launch her career, she talks Larry Dubois (Marc McClure), the local undertaker's son, into ''borrowing" one of his father's limousines. A limo, she reasons, will get them past the police surrounding the Beatles' hotel.
    Rosie Petrofsky (Wendie Jo Sperber), the true fan, wants nothing more than to see her idols in person. She has an endless supply of dimes, all held in readiness for radio phone-in contests offering Ed Sullivan Show tickets as prizes.
    Although she loves Paul, she finds a soulmate in Richard ''Ringo" Klaus (Eddie Deezen), a skinny, self-proclaimed ''greatest Beatle expert in the universe." It's practically love at first shriek.
     Janis Goldman (Susan Kendall Newman) would rather the British had not invaded America's musical scene. A folkie, she's making the trip to Manhattan to display a protest banner declaring that The Beatles lack "artistic integrity."
    Pam Mitchell (Nancy Allen, Sissy Spacek's chief tormentor in Carrie) is dreamy and quiet. She just goes along for the ride. Secrectly engaged to her high school sweetheart, she is aware only that this is her ''last night as a single woman."
    Well, maybe not.
     There is a big world out there, Pam. After The Beatles, can you really be satisfied with a guy who believes that "plastic furniture covers are the thing of the future"?
    Zemeckis has produced a film brimming over with sharp characterizations and
marvellous, memorable moments. In one, Grace and Rosie are riding the hotel's service elevator to The Beatles' floor.
    Fearing security guards, Grace gets off at 11, one floor short of their goal. Rosie stays aboard. The elevator rises to 12 and stops.
    There is a long, tense pause. The doors refuse to open. Have they been fixed? Has Rosie come this far, come this close only to be frustrated?
     Suddenly, the doors part and . . .
    But why spoil it? Go and see the movie. You'll love it. I know I did.
    *    *    *
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE BEST KIND: Three years ago, Robert Zemeckis, a film student at the University of Southern California, met Steven Spielberg. The Jaws director looked at Zemeckis's award-winning thesis film and was impressed.
    Last year, when Warner Brothers, holders of the original option on I Wanna Hold Your Hand, wanted to fire the two young writers, Spielberg came to the rescue. He undertook to "guarantee" the property to Universal Pictures.
     Their unique arrangement called for Universal to buy the Zemeckis-Gale script, provide them with a $2.6-million budget and let Zemeckis direct the picture. In return, Spielberg took on the job of executive producer.
    If anything went wrong, he promised to complete the project, thus giving Universal a new Steven Spielberg picture. Universal couldn't go wrong.
    Fortunately for all concerned, there was nothing wrong with Spielberg's instinct. Midway through, Universal decided that it liked what it was seeing and signed Zemeckis to a three-picture contract.
    Filmgoers, meanwhile, are being introduced to a major new talent.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1978. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Given how thoroughly entertaining it is, it's something of a surprise to recall that I Wanna Hold Your Hand was a commercial failure. The same fate greeted Robert Zemeckis's second feature, 1980's Used Cars. His talent went unrecognized in corporate Hollywood until 1984, when his third directorial effort, Romancing the Stone, made multi-millions for 20th Century Fox. Universal was next to benefit from the  public's taste for his cinematic innovations, releasing the hugely popular Back to the Future in 1985, followed by its sequels, Part II (1989) and Part III (1990). Disney's Touchstone enjoyed its big payday with 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Paramount was delighted to distribute the best picture Oscar-winning Forrest Gump (1994), the feature that brought Zemeckis and Tom Hanks together for the first time. They made two more pictures together, and both are on the founding board of trustees of Wendie Jo Sperber's weSPARK Cancer Support Center.
    Among the ensemble of players Zemeckis directed in I Wanna Hold Your Hand was Marc McClure, since remembered as Jimmy Olsen in all four of the Christopher Reeve Superman
films, and the single Supergirl movie. The focus of actress Theresa Saldana's life changed in 1982, when she was the victim of a near-fatal stalker attack. Following her recovery, she became an advocate for victims' rights and has successfully lobbied on behalf of anti-stalking legislation. The daughter of actor Paul Newman, Susan Kendall Newman might have pursued her acting career but for the 1978 death of her older brother Scott, just seven months after I Wanna Hold Your Hand's release. An apparent drug-overdose suicide, the tragedy led to the creation of the Scott Newman Center in 1980, with Susan taking on the responsibility of the foundation's day-to-day administration. Nancy Allen's previous film was Brian De Palma's Carrie (1976). She went on to co-star in the original RoboCop (1987).