#13 in my ranking of Robert Zemeckis films.
Ensemble pieces are hard, and Robert Zemeckis lands one pretty well with his very first movie. The newest wunderkind and protégé of Steven Spielberg got his first movie with Universal on the promise that Spielberg would finish the film if Zemeckis didn’t work out. Well, work out Zemeckis did, going on to a long film career that includes several classics. Working with his friend and writing partner Bob Gale, Zemeckis started his career with this feature film that pointed to a lot of things he become rather well-known for and what made him such an enduring voice in popular American film.
It’s 1964 and The Beatles are coming to America to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show. A group of teenagers in New Jersey has made it their mission to get to New York just to get close to the new rock group whose music is sweeping the nation. Among them are Pam (Nancy Allen) who is due to elope and become a married woman the very next day, Janis (Susan Newman) hates the Beatles and wants the world to realize it along with her, Rosie (Wendie Jo Sperber) who is a Beatlemaniac and knows everything about them, and Grace (Theresa Saldana) who wants to get an exclusive picture of the Beatles to sell to the local paper and get her started as a photographer. Each character has very clear desires and motives for getting them to New York and eventually into the audience of the show, a hallmark of Zemeckis’ later characters. They are all clearly defined with well-established desires all revolving around a single MacGuffin. It’s a roller coaster ride, and it works quite well.
So, they convince Larry, the son of the local funeral director, to borrow his dad’s limousine so they can get close to the hotel and inside, one step closer to the Beatles. As soon as they’re in New York, though, the group begins to splinter, and that ends up being where a lot of the fun is to be had. One of the joys of Robert Zemeckis’ filmography is the clockwork method he plots everything. Introducing a lot of small things early that end up playing out later, the movie is a jigsaw puzzle that throws everything up in the air and then assembles it intricately in order on the fly. Pam accidentally hides in a cart that goes into the Beatles’ room while they’re out and, alone with their instruments and things, she lets out her Beatlemaniac, eventually getting caught and gifted a ticket to the show. Janis takes Larry around trying to get a kid a hair cut so his father will give him the three tickets he has for the show in return. Rosie meets up with a male Beatlemaniac and they bond over their mutual love but fight because the other isn’t as big a Beatlemaniac as the other, coming together in the end because Rosie wins a pair of tickets on the radio. Grace ends up pretending to be a prostitute to get the $50 she needs in order to pay off the stage hand who’s going to let her in the stage door, but she hides in the closet instead and jumps out with her camera while the John is with the real prostitute, getting her $50 through extortion rather than prostitution.
As this varied group of stories all come together, the movie really picks up steam. One complaint about the film is that the first hour feels surprisingly calm for what seems to be a madcap adventure, but that goes out the window as soon as the wheels really start moving to bring everyone back together. The movement of characters through the plot up to that point is consistently entertaining, just lacking the madcap energy one might expect. The group of friends all end up coalescing at that theater, seeing each other as they charge in for that seminal performance, it really feels like the audience is in very sure and even practiced hands.
None of these characters are particularly deep, largely defined by individual character traits and goals, but that sort of approach to character building can work quite well for an ensemble piece. Everyone is gathered around a single thing and they all want to get it for their different reasons. The differences provide new flavors while the single thing provides cohesiveness to the entire exercise. It’s a balancing act that is rather amazingly achieved by first time director Robert Zemeckis.
It’s a fun film that uses body doubles amusingly to recreate the Beatles’ prime time performance. Energetically acted and with a really entertaining third act, it represents Zemeckis’ confident first step into feature filmmaking.