Rendered for splendid high-definition viewing, the digitally-enhanced re-release of The Four Complete Ed Sullivan Shows Starring the Beatles is a welcome sight indeed. Chockfull of extras, including Ed Sullivan’s 1964 London interview with the bandmates, the two-DVD set is worthy of purchase for the Beatles’ legend-making appearances on Sullivan’s weekly variety show.
The backstory of the group’s appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show is a key aspect of Beatles’ lore. The first trio of performances, conducted in New York City and Miami Beach, occurred on consecutive Sunday evenings, February 9th, February 16th, and February 23rd. On that fabled first night, the Beatles made their American debut at the Ed Sullivan Theatre for a blockbuster audience of 73 million television viewers.
In the blink of an eye, the band went from British cultural oddity to a juggernaut, performing such classic tunes as “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “All My Loving,” “Please Please Me,” and “Twist and Shout.” The collection’s fourth episode, which marks the Beatles’ last live appearance on the variety show, was originally broadcast on August 14th, 1965, the night before their groundbreaking Shea Stadium concert. For the August 14th episode of the Sullivan Show, the group performed their latest spate of hits, including “Yesterday,” complete with a prerecorded orchestral backing track, “Ticket to Ride,” and “Help!”
But what really makes the four episodes in the collection special are the mid-1960s-era acts and advertisements that adorn the original, unabridged episodes of the Sullivan Show. The Beatles’ performances are essential viewing, of course, but the period commercials and Sullivan’s weekly menagerie of guests from all walks of show biz are something to behold. Take Frank Gorshin’s edgy standup routine on the February 9th episode. In short order, the future Riddler from the Batman TV show lays waste to the politicians of the day. And then there’s the cast of Broadway’s Oliver! With future Monkee Davy Jones turning in a standout role as the Artful Dodger, the folks from Oliver! underscore the varied nature of Sullivan’s show, which was equally at home with the Beatles and Gorshin, Oliver! and the “Fast Pain Relief” of Anacin.
In its own way, the four-DVD collection helpfully provides us with a living historical context for understanding the Beatles’ American debut, a time when a seemingly black-and-white present collided head on with the band’s time-eclipsing sound. For the group’s first-generation fans, the Sullivan Show was ground zero for a rapidly encroaching future. But for those of us who weren’t there in front of the TV set on those magical Sunday nights, these DVDs offer a great place to start.