Why Did I Watch It? The Blank Check podcast are doing Robert Zemeckis.
On February 9, 1964, The Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show for the first time, and popular culture would never be the same. Caught up in the mayhem: a handful of regular kids from Jersey, who will stop at nothing to get into the band’s first live appearance. Over the course of a long day and night they scheme, they hustle, they run around like maniacs, they learn a few small things about themselves.
There has never been anything like ‘Beatlemania’. They were the original overnight sensations; four handsome young lads from Liverpool, who went from playing a rock club in front of a few hundred locals, to global sensations, in an instant. Their rise marked the beginning of modern celebrity. They didn’t just have catchy pop songs, but a package; their look, their clothes and hair, their droll humour, their sex appeal. It was fresh and different, and they were backed by a burgeoning hype industry (also a new and evolving idea) to whip their young fans into a frenzy. There have been other cultural sensations, but they were the first, and their imprint casts a long shadow.
Director Robert Zemeckis was 12 when the Beatles played Ed Sullivan, and you imagine it must have made a huge impression. His debut feature, focusing on a group of slightly older kids, plays as a kind of fantasy: this is probably what he day dreamed about doing, if he could. Zemeckis’ early films are energetic, and the manic pace he favours suits this story well. This is a movie about people losing their minds; scores of screaming, fainting teenagers, doing whatever they can to get a glimpse of their icons.
The film also plays a bit like a proto ‘Back to the Future’, and features a number of indicators pointing to that project. It opens with a title card showing the date and precise time, just as BttF would, and the final climax revolves around a lightning storm and a tower. As a storyteller, Zemeckis was enamoured with the America of his youth, and a number of his early films pay homage to the post World War II boom. ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ is set in 1940s LA, BttF takes place in the mainstreet USA of the 1950s, and this film gives us the pre-summer of love innocence of the early 60s. These movies are all affectionate homages to earlier times, that manage to avoid hagiography; a knack Zemeckis would lose with the saccharine sentimentality of ‘Forest Gump’.
His young cast perfectly capture the spirit of the moment. The best known of them is Nancy Allen (later to play Robocop’s partner) as the WASPy Pam, but the real standouts are Wendy Jo Sperber and Eddie Deezen, as a perfect pair of hyperactive superfans. I also enjoyed Susan Kendall Newman, Paul Newman’s daughter, in one of her few film roles (she also did some theatre, before giving up acting) as Janis, an activist teen who thinks the Beatles are damaging local culture. But the whole ensemble is excellent, and play off each other perfectly. It was a surprise to see that most of them did not kick on to larger careers.
Fast paced and lively, the action is backed by a wall-to-wall soundtrack of early Beatles hits, and topped by a perfect happy ending. Everyone got what they wanted! Seems entirely fitting for this era, and this movie. Irresistible.