If you want to relive the eruption that was Beatlemania, there are plenty of videos to rent. The 1982 documentary The Compleat Beatles gives the historical bird’s-eye view. The fictional A Hard Day’s Night (1964) distills the Fab Four’s personalities into a delightful false front. Robert Zemeckis’ nostalgic 1978 comedy I Wanna Hold Your Hand re-creates what it was like to be a teenager standing outside the Plaza hotel during the second week of February 1964.
But you’ve never had a view from inside that hotel suite. That’s what makes The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit so eye-opening. Not that any essentials are missing: the screaming fans, the cheeky press conferences, Ed Sullivan’s gnarled body language, and best of all, most of the Beatles’ musical performances from their two-week stay. What Visit shows you that you haven’t seen before, though, is four very young men overwhelmed, exhilarated, and finally ground down by a nation’s nonstop scrutiny. This video’s story lies in the faces of John, Paul, George, and Ringo as they slowly grasp the unparalleled nature of their fame and imprisonment.
The pieces that make up Visit have been floating around the bootleg circuit for years. The basic fly-on-the-wall documentary footage was shot by Albert and David Maysles (Gimme Shelter), on commission from British TV. What Apple Corps, the company that now owns the footage, has done is to insert almost all the Ed Sullivan Show performances and three songs from the Beatles’ first U.S. concert, in Washington, D.C., into their correct chronological context. While snippets of those musical numbers appear on The Compleat Beatles and elsewhere, this is the first time they’ve been presented uninterrupted, and a thorough digital remastering lets you hear the group’s sonic impact as if they had landed yesterday.
The cultural impact is equally obvious. Following the insouciant airport press conference (”Are you for real?” asks a jaded reporter. ”C’mon up and have a feel,” barks Lennon), the Maysles share a limo with their subjects: Girls plaster themselves against the car windows while Paul listens incredulously to the yammering Beatlemania on a transistor radio and all four crack nervous jokes. In the days that follow, the Maysles capture a barrage of images: deejay Murray the K, the fatuous self-styled ”fifth Beatle,” being called a ”wacker” by John and not getting the joke; Ringo and George hamming for reporters while Paul sits in a corner and quietly says, ”I’m not in a laughin’ mood, even”; two teenage girls who, having hidden in a hotel bathroom all evening, beg the camera crew to show them where the Beatles’ rooms are.
It’s surreal and heartbreaking and ridiculous, and it never lets up. By the end, Ringo’s clowning has gained a hyper edge — he’s like a child who has been up too long. Paul has gone sour: The media have cast him as the star, which goes against the very notion of the Beatles as a democratic unit. It also means that John Lennon, too complex and cynical to be labeled ”the Cute One,” has been shunted to the side. Undermiked on Sullivan, lurking in the background of the Maysles footage, John’s an almost invisible presence throughout this tape — except for a scary moment when, in the middle of an unself-conscious laugh, he sees the camera on him and quickly shuts down his face.
What saved them all — for the next seven years, anyway — was the music: ”This Boy” on the third Sullivan Show is evidence of that. At first it sounds merely great — creamy harmonies soaring out to 75 million viewers. On the solo bridge, though, John sings with such naked passion that the music and the moment fuse, and you understand — even 27 years later — what all the screaming was about. Visit captures an entire generation’s cultural ground zero: an instant so new, so fresh, so good that everything that came before it suddenly ceased to matter. A