Do you want to know a secret? Too bad, because it’s not exactly hush-hush that Sunday, February 9th, 2014 marked exactly 50 years since The Beatles’ landmark 1964 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, a five-song live performance that was watched by more than 70 million viewers (a record for the time) and skyrocketed the Fab Four onto the American pop culture scene. This golden anniversary was celebrated in print, on the radio, and with a slew of TV specials, but there’s also a wide array of home video titles available for fans old and new to treat their Beatlemania blues.
That February 9th broadcast–in which the band performed “All My Loving,” “Till There Was You,” “She Loves You,” “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hold”–was the first of four times John, Paul, George and Ringo would appear on Sullivan’s long-running Sunday-night variety show in 1964 and 1965 (they would later provide what were then called “promotional song clips,” the precursor of music videos, for airing). All four shows–with such other acts on the bills as actress/dancer Mitzi Gaynor, bandleader Cab Calloway, funnymen Soupy Sales and Myron Cohen, and the comedy stylings of Allen and Rossi–are featured in a two-disc set entitled (logically enough) The 4 Complete Historic Ed Sullivan Shows Starring The Beatles.
Before he won an Academy Award for helming Forrest Gump, Robert Zemeckis made his feature directorial debut with 1978’s I Wanna Hold Your Hand, a comedic look at a group of teens in 1964 New Jersey trying to get into New York City to see The Beatles’ Sullivan show debut. A disappointment in its brief theatrical run, the movie–which starred Nancy Allen, Eddie Deezen, Marc McClure, and Wendie Jo Sperber–has picked up a minor cult following in the decades since.
2014 is also the 50th anniversary of the band’s first feature film, director Richard Lester’s mock “day-in-the-life” documentary A Hard Day’s Night. Filled with six new songs and the lads’ trademark quirky humor, the movie was a global hit and earned two Academy Award nominations. Unfortunately, A Hard Day’s Night isn’t currently out on DVD or Blu-ray (the video rights are, as they say, “between studios”). However, the foursome’s 1965 spy spoof Help! and their psychedelic 1968 animated romp Yellow Submarine (which features songs by the band, if not their actual voices) are available, as is their 1967 TV special Magical Mystery Tour. As for Let It Be, the 1970 film chronicle of what would prove to be some of the quartet’s final days in the recording studio as a group (along with the famous impromptu London rooftop concert), a variety of legal issues–coupled with Paul and Ringo’s opposition to what some see as a negative depiction of the bickering bandmates–have kept it out of the public eye since the early days of VHS and laserdiscs.
Solo big-screen appearances by the Beatles have, with one exception, been few and far between. As a favor to his old pal Richard Lester, John Lennon had a supporting role as Private Gripweed in the filmmaker’s 1967 WWII satire How I Won the War, starring future Broadway Phantom Michael Crawford. As for “the quiet Beatle,” George Harrison made a few small cameos in various projects, among them the iconoclastic Monty Python’s Life of Brian, co-produced by Harrison’s HandMade Films company. Other notable HandMade efforts included Time Bandits, Mona Lisa, Nuns on the Run, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and…Shanghai Surprise (well, nobody’s perfect). Harrison also contributed the soundtrack (the first solo work by one of the lads) for the strange, psychedelic 1969 suspenser Wonderwall.
When it comes to the two surviving moptops, Paul McCartney wrote songs and lent his voice to three acclaimed animated shorts–Rupert and the Frog Song (1985), Tuesday (2001) and Tropic Island Hum (1987), all featured on the Paul McCartney: The Music and Animation Classics collection–and played himself (sort of) while searching for missing album tapes in the 1984 musical/comedy Give My Regards to Broad Street, which also featured an appearance by Ringo Starr. It’s Ringo, of course, who went on to have the biggest acting career, with notable turns in The Magic Christian (1970), as millionaire Peter Sellers’ adopted son; the oddball Spaghetti western Blindman (1971), as an outlaw; and as “the Pope” in Ken Russell’s bizarre tribute to 19th-century musical celebrity, Lisztomania (1975). Missing from the video scene at the moment is a fur-clad Starr as a hapless Stone Age Romeo in 1981’s Caveman, a prehistoric romp which gave early roles to Dennis Quaid and Shelley Long and introduced Ringo to his future wife, co-star Barbara Bach. And don’t forget, Ringo, Paul and George all lent their voices to separate episodes of The Simpsons.
There have also been a few movies about the group’s origins. 1994’s Backbeat, a look at their early ’60s Hamburg, Germany days, featured Stephen Dorff as bandmate Stu Sutcliffe, who died in 1962, and Ian Hart as John Lennon. Three years earlier, Hart had first played Lennon in the controversial drama The Hours and Times, a speculative look at a 1963 Spanish vacation the musician took with the Beatles’ gay manager, Brian Epstein (played by David Angus). Another “what if?” tale, set post-breakup, was the 2000 made-for-TV drama Two of Us, where a 1976 visit by Paul (Aidian Quinn) to John (Jared Harris) at his Manhattan apartment nearly led the duo to make an impromptu joint appearance on Saturday Night Live.
Of course, I could always mention the 1978 all-star tribute musical Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, featuring Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees, but in the interest of “peace and love” I think I’ll just…let it be.