In February of 1964, you could see it everywhere you looked — in high school hallways, diners and malt shops, your local record store (definitely in your local record store). It started with a cold sweats and clammy palms; later symptoms also included screaming, swooning, heart palpitations, a burning desire to sing about not wanting to dance with another (wooo) and the inability to control your bladder. It was called Beatlemania, and when the boys from Liverpool with their funny haircuts touched down at JFK airport, the epidemic was just about to hit its zenith. They arrived in America with the intention of playing on The Ed Sullivan Show. And four young women from New Jersey were determined to see the band perform on that stage, live and in person, come hell or high water.
Released in early 1978, I Wanna Hold Your Hand followed a quartet of teens named Pam, Janis, Grace and Rosie who go to extraordinary lengths to get within shrieking distance of Paul, John, George and Ringo. The misadventures of this not-quite-so-fab four would involve others, including a few smitten guys, a kid dodging his authoritarian dad, a Beatles superfan named Ringo Klaus and a Garden State greaser who couldn’t see what the big fuss over these Brits was all about. It was the sort of manic, madcap comedy that rarely let you catch your breath, whipping up a combination of burgeoning boomer nostalgia and go-for-broke slapstick. It managed to be both an innocent look back at a gamechanging moment in pop culture and a reminder that raging hormones helped fuel this phenomena. “You’ll believe a man can fly” boasted a different spirit-of-’78 movie; I Wanna Hold Your Hand may be the only film of the decade that could make you believe that greasily fondling a Rickenbacker bass can be a risqué sexual act.
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It was the perfect introduction to the filmmaking team of Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, who’d go on to give the world Used Cars (1980) and the Back to the Future trilogy. (You can see the duo workshopping a few Future elements here, from a character telling a creep to “get your damned hands” off a young woman to a key plot point involving someone being hit by lightning.) And while it may not the final word on the fever of Beatlemania, the movie does capture that moment in time when four guys in suits who had some jaunty tunes could inspire riots. “I want you to be prepared for excessive screaming, hysteria, hyperventilation, fainting, fits, seizures, spasmodic convulsions … even attempted suicides,” Ed Sullivan tells his ushers before the show. “All perfectly normal.”
In honor of a new Criterion DVD/Blu-ray being released this week, Zemeckis and Gale reminisced about making their debut feature, the perils of trying to make a movie about the Beatles when you aren’t allowed to show them and how they pulled off recreating that classic Sullivan show performance.
How’d this movie come about?
Bob Gale: We were sitting in my apartment one night, listening to a Beatles album — one of the really early ones. We started reading the liner notes on the back of the album, and it mentioned this thing called “Beatlemania.”
Robert Zemeckis: It was that moment where people were trying to do things like trying to crash the Plaza Hotel when the band was staying there and buying scraps of bedsheets they’d slept on … you can see the sort of fervor they were inspiring in A Hard Day’s Night. When they first came to America, it was like that times 100.
BG: We started talking about how crazy everybody was in 1964 about the band, and we both sort of simultaneously came up with this idea of making a movie about girls waiting in line to see the Beatles. You could have done it as a play, I guess — Waiting for Godot but at a concert! But that was the original idea: Could you make a movie in which the whole thing took place with just people waiting in line?
RZ: We’d been impressed by American Graffiti, which has this really intricate screenplay that cuts between these four characters that are involved in parallel stories happening on the same night. We thought, why couldn’t we do this with Beatlemania? It’s four girls, four stories, it all takes place in one day. That was the idea.
BG: We’re big fans of what Bob has called “bottle movies,” where you have stories that take place in a very limited amount of time and/or space. Graffiti is sort of like that, although it also has the structure of a Shakespearean comedy: You have all of your characters at the beginning, they all get separated and then they all end up together at the end.
RZ: Our pitch was always, “It’s American Graffiti meets Ben-Hur.“
BG: You never saw Jesus’s face in Ben-Hur.
RZ: And you wouldn’t see the Beatles’ faces — just the boots, shadows, voices. Everyone sort of got it immediately.
You could have called it Beatle-Hur.
RZ: Except we couldn’t use the word “Beatle” in the title. At all.
BG: We’d planned on calling it Beatlemania, but the Broadway show was just coming out and they’d taken it. It was the show where you had four guys onstage pretending to be the Beatles and playing their songs — “not imitators but an incredible simulation.” The lawyers made then put that on the poster.
RZ: Then when we couldn’t use that title because of the stage show, it was going to be Beatles 4-Ever.” Then we were told, “No, you can’t have the word Beatle in any way, shape or form.” It got bogged down in the studio legal department.
BG: We pitched it in ’76, and honestly, it was one of the easiest pitches ever. When Bob and I came up with this idea, we thought, ok, the way to get this thing off the ground was to pitch to female producers. We talked to Alex [Rose] and Tamara [Asseyev], and they got it instantly. We had a strong female contingent on our side; even then, the idea of making a female-centric movie was considered a really good idea by a lot of folks. It just took a while for the rest of the industry to come around. A long while.
We originally pitched this to Warners, and the studio correctly noted that they wouldn’t make a development deal on the script until they could secure the rights to those early Beatles songs. Because they knew that without the music, there was nothing there. That process took about eight or nine months.
RZ: Remember, the songs we use are only from the first two albums. Just up to February 1964 — we wanted to be accurate.
BG: And this was long before Michael Jackson bought the rights to the Beatles catalog.
RZ: Eventually, thanks to Steven Spielberg, we were able to the movie going at Universal. We were lucky in that we landed at a place where the songs that we needed were the ones that were controlled by Capitol Records, I think. So the actual Beatles estate didn’t have complete control of these songs. For some reason, the label decided to sell the mechanical and publishing to Universal, which was how we got them. I think there was one song from Meet the Beatles that studio wasn’t able to get, but yeah, that was how we were able to get this done.
BG: Bob Zemeckis and I went to Mobile, Alabama, where Steven was shooting Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He wanted us to do more rewrites on 1941; that was going to be his next picture. And just as we setting up the changes that Steven wanted us to do, we got the call that we’d finally cleared the music rights. “Could you guys come back to L.A. and start working on the first draft of Beatlemania ASAP?” At that time, the movie was still called Beatlemania.
BG: The way we write, it’s us sitting around in a room and throwing a lot of ideas around. We knew we needed to open it up from just kids waiting in line for tickets. Ok, so, we have to have the girl who’s completely out of her mind: That’s Rosie (Wendie Jo Sperber). We have to have the guy who hates the Beatles, because that was part of the whole thing: That’s Tony (Bobby Di Cicco). We were fixated on the idea that there was this intersection of rock music and folk music and protest music, and we wanted a character that had an epiphany about how revolutionary the band was: That was Janice (Susan Kendall Newman.) In our minds, the Beatles really represented the start of the youth counterculture. We’re making a movie about this important cultural event, and we need to note that it wasn’t just goofy, loud music. It was a harbinger of something more.
They also took on the tight-ass Sixties establishment, so we came up with a character that was liberated from that because of the Beatles: Pam (Nancy Allen). And we needed to have a motor for the story, so we came up with Grace (Theresa Saldana), who needs to get to the Beatles for her own selfish reasons, and ends up being one who naturally ends up sacrificing everything for the greater good.
RZ: There weren’t a lot of young actresses at that point who were big names that we could get. I mean, Nancy Allen had done Carrie at that point, but that was it. Wendy Jo Sperber hadn’t done Bosom Buddies yet; I think this was the very first thing she did. She might have been 16, which meant we could only film her for four hours or so a day, so I’m pretty sure she lied about her age to get the part. And there was nobody that could have measured up to Eddie Deezen. He was perfect for the part of Klaus Ringo. Just look at him.
BG: Even in 1977, there was still a tremendous amount of extreme Beatles fandom happening. There were Beatles memorabilia conventions happening on a fairly regular basis. I remember connecting with folks at a few of these, and I think the Beatles talcum powder we used in the movie was the real thing … we borrowed it from one of the fans. And then later, he got pissed off at how much we used in the scene with Eddie. [Laughs] “Hey, that’s actual Beatles powder! Don’t waste it!” Sorry, kid. All bets are off when you deal with those weirdos from Hollywood.
RZ: We wanted to start filming at the Plaza Hotel, where the Beatles stayed before their first Ed Sullivan appearance. but then it wasn’t going to work with our budget. Remember, this was our first movie.
BG: We actually scouted it as a possible set. And they just went, “You want to do what? With how many extras? We already went through this once with the real Beatles, and once was enough!” Also it would have been a huge expense to film it in New York anyway
RZ: So we had to make I Wanna Hold Your Hand in L.A. Which is ironic, because it used to be a lot cheaper to make a movie in Los Angeles and now, forget it. It’d be cheaper to film at the Plaza Hotel today than build a set on a studio backlot in Burbank.
BG: To me, there are three scenes that really stand out to me, and that prove that Zemeckis really understood the vocabulary of movies right out of the gate: he scene in the barbershop; the scene with Nancy Allen is in the Beatles hotel room, hiding under the bed; and the climax, where we used the monitors and the actors to make you think you were watching the Beatles on Ed Sullivan’s stage.
How’d you guys pull that sequence off?
RZ: That’s an interesting story. So we were told by the Universal folks that, apparently, we would have no problem getting the actual Sullivan footage — CBS told the studio, “Yeah, sure, you can use the footage. It will cost you X amount of money. But you have to get permission from the Beatles and indemnify us from any legal action they might take against us.” Well, immediately, Universal’s legal team is like, “No way, you can’t use any footage. We are talking about the Beatles. We would get sued by people who have enough money to win.”
BG: We actually had lawyers tell us, “If you make the movie, you can’t show the Beatles at all — no likenesses, stock footage, anything.” We had to show them storyboards for how we were going to not show the Beatles. They’re lawyers — they don’t have imaginations. All they know is there’s a girl in the Beatles’ hotel room, and in the script it says you only see their legs. But they don’t know how to read a script. They don’t get it.
So we storyboarded the hotel room scene for them. And we storyboarded the scene where Nancy Allen is hiding in the closet and then go down the service elevator, and you can only see the backs of their heads. All good. But when it came to the Sullivan show, they were adamant that we only show the audience.
Bob and I went to go have dinner, and we’re thinking to ourselves: We’re building up to this big, iconic concert for the whole movie, and if we don’t show it, the audience is going to burn down the theater! Is it irresponsible for us as filmmakers for us to have all four of these musicians we’d hired play and not film any of it? Or are we never going to get the chance to make another movie if we don’t do what we’re being asked? The latter argument won out.
RZ: We actually shot the entire scene with just the audience — you saw the crowd going nuts and you could hear the music, but we never cut to the stage. We’d assembled the movie to play that way. So then we showed the movie to [Universal President] Sid Sheinberg, who was this great, old-school studio-system maverick, and he goes [affects old-timer studio executive work], “Guys, guys, guys, this just doesn’t work!”
BG: We reminded them that we had written the script that way in the first place. He turned to us and went, “You know, you guys are right. We can’t release the movie like this. We need to pay off the Beatles.” We gave us his permission and another week to got redo it.
RZ: “You gotta see the band! Go back and shoot that.” I said, “Well, what about the Beatles taking you to court?” And he said, “Well, at least we’d have them in the same room! That’s worth a lawsuit, don’t you think?
BG: “I’ll tell the legal department, fuck ’em — if the Beatles wanna sue us, let them! I’ll have the movie rights to having the Beatles together again in a courtroom.” A year or so after the movie had come out, Tamara Asseyev had lunch or dinner with Ringo Starr’s manager at the time. And he told her, “We all watched your movie and decided we would not sue.” By we, she interpreted that all of the Beatles had, in fact, seen the movie. I told this to Sid and he said, “What could they have sued us for? On what grounds? It’s a love letter to the Beatles! All this could do would sell more records for them.”
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RZ: We shot all of that performance footage in one day. I don’t think we had time to do many takes; we didn’t have time to screw around. We had there four guys who were Beatle fanatics … they just studied and studied the footage. They knew exactly how the Beatles held the picks for each guitar. We knew they were going to do those three songs, so they rehearsed it to death. By the time we shot, they had every tiny movement from the Sullivan performance down pat.
BG: I don’t know if you remember Leave It to Beaver, but in the later seasons, there was this character named Richard who was always getting Beaver into trouble. He was played by an actor named Rich Correll, and this guys was a huge Beatles fan — almost as big a fan as Eddie Deezen’s character. We hired him to choreograph the Ed Sullivan sequence. He was like a drill sergeant with these guys, getting them to mimic everything that happens in that performance.
RZ: The other interesting thing about that sequence is that I Wanna Hold Your Hand is one off the first movies to ever have video footage seamlessly synced up with the shutter of the camera. Every time you shot a video screen prior to 1977, you saw what they call a “shutter bar” — those rolling lines you’d see on old TV screens — but they’d finally come up with technology to fix that. We were one of the first movies to end up using it. So we made history. Sort of.
BG: About a month ago, they pulled a DCP of this new restored version and were showing at U.C. Santa Barbara, as part of this Beatles-oriented film festival. So Nancy Allen and I went up there to speak — it was great to see it with an audience again. They were a handful of people who had not only seen the film but knew it really well. But there were a lot of young people who’d never seen the film, and they couldn’t believe the hysteria surrounding the band.
RZ: If nothing else, the movie was a testament to Beatlemania. And, y’know, still is.
BG: That scene where the woman says she’s going to married to John, and she’s reminded that John is already married, then replies, “Well, his wife could die” — everyone thought we were exaggerating stuff like that. That exchange was taken from a real TV or radio interview we’d found when we were researching this! People who weren’t there are amazed when they find out that we did not make that up. That was Beatlemania. That was what it was like!