Most weeks this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: with Yesterday, an Oscar-winning director looks at what might happen if the medium-changing popularity of the Beatles happened here in the 2010s. Four decades ago, a future Oscar-winning director took at look at what actually happened when they were popular in the 1960s.

The images are some of the most indelible & iconic in the history of pop music: veritable armies of teenage girls, captured in frozen moments of some undescribable ecstasy, torn between extremes of pleasure and convulsion, tears of real agony streaming down their ebullient faces. Or perhaps it is not a still, but a moving image, from the opening of A Hard Day's Night, in which a stream of women pour around buildings and into the street, as four young men in tidy suits run at top speed away from them. This is the image of Beatlemania, one of the founding cornerstones of Baby Boomer culture, a defining pillar of the legend of The Beatles. What the 1978 film I Wanna Hold Your Hand presupposes is, what if it was all a little bit ridiculous?

The movie was the brainchild of two men who were both born in the Midwest in 1951, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale. They were thus twelve years old at the time of the events the film depicts, and pretty far removed from the place it shows, and I think this was crucial. For reasons big and small, the film I am invariably drawn to compare I Wanna Hold Your Hand To is 1973's American Graffiti, the decade's other music-driven nostalgia piece made by a future superstar director who was, at that point, still mostly just a promising film school graduate. Both depict the events of a single highly productive day, both are fundamentally about the way that adolescents use music to define themselves and construct a worldview, both unabashedly presume a viewer who's already familiar with the pop culture landscape of the United States in the first half of the 1960s, both were produced by an established superstar director going a bit out on a limb to do a favor for a buddy.

The biggest difference, for my current purposes, is that American Graffiti was ripped out of George Lucas's self: it took place in the town where he lived when he was the age of the film's characters, the four leads are all derived from aspects of himself, the culture it depicts was his culture. I do not know, in truth, the opinion Zemeckis and Gale specifically hold towards The Beatles, and it could well be their twelve-year-old selves were exactly represented by the film's own tween boy character. But I do know that I Wanna Hold Your Hand is mostly about four 18-year-old girls who presumably have little if any to do with the writers' historical selves, and the mood is not, as with American Graffiti, a loving memoir in which unbridled nostalgia is foregrounded (however tinged with adult knowledge and detached amusement). It's held off at an arm's remove: the vibe feels closely observed and lived, but without the sense of something deeply personal at stake. The difference, I think, is genre: Lucas made a melancholic character study, while Zemeckis and Gale made a farce. Lucas believes what his characters believe; Zemeckis and Gale are 100% okay with letting them be pretty silly.

As it goes along, I Wanna Hold Your Hand picks up more characters and plots, but at least initially, it's about three friends in New Jersey on 8 February, 1964, who like a great many teenagers across the country that day can barely contain their excitement for the following night's appearance of The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. Our biggest Beatlemaniac is Rosie Petrofsky (Wendie Jo Sperber), who does all the weeping and wailing and swooning that pop culture remembers from those days; Grace Corrigan (Theresa Saldana) is merely giddy, while Pam Mitchell (Nancy Allen) is so preoccupied with her impending elopement that she's only sort of looking forward to it. They've caught wind of the information about where the band is staying in New York, and Grace (who wants to sneak some photographs to prove herself as a journalist) and Rosie (who wants to marry Paul McCartney) both agree that it would be a swell idea to break into the hotel. To do that, they need a ride that can get close enough to the heavily-guarded building, so they drag in the shy Larry Dubois (Marc McClure), whose dad is an undertaker with a few limousines, to serve as driver. They also manage to pick up a pair of inveterate Beatles-haters with protest on their minds: Janis Goldman (Susan Kendall Newman), a folk-loving self-professed intellectual who despises the band's jangling, inane music and empty lyrics, and Tony Smerko (Bobby Di Cicco), who thinks their long hair, peppy melodies, and pretty features are a ghastly, effeminate insult to the rugged real men of God's Own United States.

What starts out as a road trip turns into something much shaggier and more idiosyncratic once the sextet arrives at the hotel. What the filmmakers seem to have in mind with this film is to do a sort of "long night of the soul" routine, in which each character (or anyway, the four women) has a chance to come to grips with the sort of person she wants to be; they want to have these four stories take place in isolation; and they want them to be zany comedies, rather than sober character dramas. The surprise is not that, ultimately, this doesn't always work (Janis's leg of the film especially; her alleged "dramatic arc" is more like a spontaneous spiritual revelation), but that two first-time writers, one of whom was also a first-time director, should make it work for as long as they do and in as many different ways. It's not just a wacky comedy, it's every kind of wacky comedy: there's a slapstick car chase, dialogue-driven scenes, a lot of silent comedy bits involving Pam hiding in a service cart, and even, for one short scene, a perfectly-executed slamming door farce, though this last seems to have taxed Zemeckis enough that he doesn't do much with it. Even more impressively, this broad comic tone comes at the expense of the characters (at no point does the film buy into the mystique of the Beatles or Beatlemania so much that it allows us to think that any of this behavior is in any way reasonable, defensible, or sane), but without disrespecting the characters (who are always admired by the film for their passion and resourcefulness, and treated with absolute sympathy).

It's a lot to balance, and the film balances it extremely well. There are bits that don't work - a con to steal tickets to the show involving a conservative dad and a barbershop sucks up all the film's momentum at a time it desperately needs to build - but for the most part, the film keeps its many plotlines spinning and switches between them fast enough that we keep getting a sense of the hectic mania of that extraordinary night, but not so fast that it seems addled, or rushed, or disinterested in any of the characters. Zemeckis and editor Frank Morriss create a marvelously punchy film, one that builds energy fast and keeps it up, even in the most prosaic scenes. Plus, Zemeckis's career-long interest in having an inquisitive, roving camera starts right here, as he and cinematographer Donald M. Morgan use pans and tracking shots to move us around the spaces built for the movie with wide-eyed curiosity, as well as some unexpectedly close compositions that let objects and faces suddenly loom into the frame. It's a movie that demonstrates handily Zemeckis's great skill for making sure our attention goes where it needs to, without screaming at us "look there!", and it's absolutely no surprise that he so impressed producer Steven Spielberg that Spielberg kept trying to force the director down the public's throat even after this film and 1980's Used Cars tanked at the box office despite strong reviews (it wasn't until his third feature, 1984's Romancing the Stone, that Zemeckis finally made a profitable movie; Spielberg finally got his wish to produce a popular and successful Zemeckis hit the following year, with Back to the Future).

It also demonstrates a keen facility with actors and characters that feels very different from Zemeckis's later work. The film lacks a central spine or a main character (Pam, maybe, gets the most attention, but that also might just be an illusion created by Nancy Allen having by far the most visible subsequent career of any of the principles); at the same time, focusing on individual narrative strands keeps it from feeling like it's an ensemble film. It's a very '70s sort of vibe, basically, something that probably didn't seem particularly noteworthy at the time and now feels much shaggier and freer than anything the director has done subsequently. It's content to dive in and let life spill out around it, roughly assembling its material by thematic overlap and a general mood, rather than clearly defined narrative mechanics. For a director who has subsequently proven himself so extremely good at mechanics, this casual aura is strikingly out of character; yet it's been executed quite well, despite the odd clunker of a scene here or there.

Despite its name, its plot, and its extremely costly all-Beatles soundtrack, I Wanna Hold Your Hand isn't, ultimately, all that much about the Beatles, nor about the audience's presumed affection for them (compare it to 1978's other Beatles movie, the nightmare that is Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band: that film is constantly looking over its shoulder at us with a leering, coke-fueled grin, asking if we like all the references and covers and iconography and DON'T YOU LOVE THE FUCKING BEATLES? Whereas I'm not sure if I Wanna Hold Your Hand even takes for granted that its audience enjoys their music at all, though it probably helps with some of the exposition if you know without prompting who, say, "John" is). It's about being a teenager, about caring about something that goddamn much that you can for whatever short time bend your whole life around it. Beatlemania is a good pretext for that, but it's not the movie's purpose. The Beatles themselves are what you might call a structuring absence, always pointedly offscreen, heard but not seen, perceived only as blurry figures and backs of heads. They matter because the characters think they matter, but its the characters we're here for, and their access to enthusiasm that should strike us sensible adults of years later as quite goofy and overwrought even as we get to wish that could have that level of enthusiasm for anything.

Insofar as the film needs to be about February 1964 and the band's first performance on the Sullivan show, it's only because there are regular cutaways to the process by which that performance was put together: we spend time watching Sullivan (Will Jordan) break down the sausage-making of how things get decided, negotiated, and staged. Sometimes this happens in the main characters' view (hearing Sullivan patiently, then less-patiently, explain how the live program is going to go to an audience clearly not interested in variety acts is fascinating little snapshot of media history), sometimes it does not. It is, in some sense, the most characteristically Zemeckis-ian part of the movie, with its attentive depiction of how technical work gets done. But more to the point, it's completely non-romantic. The Beatles on Sullivan is not, in this film, an epochal moment in defining a generation. It was an episode of television put together by professionals, some who cared about the music and the group, and some who complained that having three guitarists made it hard to know which one got which title card. This de-romanticisation is a little part of the film, but crucial: it means that we can't really be nostalgic. Take American Graffiti again: that film is more nuanced than it gets credit for, I think, and it points out that nostalgia lies and simplifies, but it's also yearning and swooning enough that it doesn't mind us being nostalgic. I Wanna Hold You Hand, I think, does mind if we're nostalgic. It wants us to be more sensible and objective than that, so we're thinking about the characters as characters, not simply identifying with them in some Pavlovian way. Beatlemania was a real thing, the film argues, and not by any means a shameful or embarrassing thing; but Beatlemania wasn't special. It was just part of being a teen - maybe a teen girl specifically, but maybe not - and thus a story about Beatlemania shouldn't be about how The Beatles are interesting, but how being a teenager is interesting. Because after all, many more of us were teenagers at some point in our lives than were Beatles.