A DAY IN THE LIFE
On Feb. 7, when the Beatles landed at New York's Kennedy Airport, documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles had never heard of them.
"I received a call from Granada Television saying that the Beatles would be arriving in two hours, do you want to make a film of them?," Maysles recalls. "I put my hand over the phone and asked my brother [David]: 'Who are the Beatles, are they any good?' Fortunately, he knew and he said, 'Oh yeah, they're good.' So we both got on the phone and made a deal with Granada right away, jumped into a cab with a camera and tape recorder, got to the airport just as the plane was coming down, and then spent the next four or five days with them."
The Maysles were pioneers in what has come to be called "direct cinema" documentary filmmaking, utilizing unobtrusive technology -- in this case Albert's hand-held camera and David's cable-free sound recorder -- to let stories tell themselves, or, as Maysles puts it, "getting to the event itself rather than having an illustrated lecture with a story carried by someone else."
Given total fly-on-the wall access, they ended up shooting virtual home movies of the Beatles in classic settings: the hilarious airport press conference; inside the limo delivering them to the Plaza Hotel with girls plastered to the windows; the bustling hotel suites where the Beatles gleefully listen to their songs on American radio for the first time; twisting the night away at the Peppermint Lounge; Starr entertaining the media with all kinds of physical comedy; the jovial train ride to Washington; the hysterical reactions as the Beatles performed at the Washington Coliseum.
"The First U.S. Visit" has been referred to as "the Real 'A Hard Day's Night,' " which started filming in March of 1964 and was released that August. Like the Maysles brothers, director Richard Lester filmed the justifiably acclaimed "A Hard Day's Night" in black-and-white, making ample use of jiggly hand-held cameras to lend a documentary feel to his semi-fictionalized look at the Beatles.
"Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! The Beatles in New York," a 36-minute documentary using the Maysles' footage but edited and produced by Dick Fontaine, was broadcast in England on Feb. 12 (without any Washington footage or Sullivan material); that was three weeks before production began on Lester's film. Albert Maysles, who says he never saw that version, then contacted Granada. "We said we wanted to make our own film, as well, so my brother went to England in time for the Beatles return, and I continued filming here. We made a deal that we would be able to show the film in America and split the world [marketing and profits] 50-50."
By the time they finished their documentary, however, the Beatles refused to release the rights because United Artists had finalized the deal to do "A Hard Day's Night." Apparently, UA didn't want competition that might have exposed what Albert Maysles describes as "eerie parallels," though Alun Owens's Oscar-nominated script for "A Hard Day's Night" was actually finished in December 1963. "It was a real-life version of the dramatized version of the real-life story," Maysles notes wryly, adding "documentary filmmakers are prejudiced to think that the real thing is always better. What did bother us, of course, is that we couldn't get our own film out."
A 55-minute Maysles film, "What's Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A.," was shown once on CBS in late 1964. But "The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit," expanded to 83 minutes, wasn't released until 1991 (when Apple bought it from Maysles and edited in the Sullivan and Washington concert footage). On Tuesday a DVD version will be released featuring upgraded sound and video as well as a bonus disc, the 50-minute "Making of the Beatles First U.S. Visit" that is mostly previously unseen footage. In addition to 18 minutes of train and Washington concert footage in the original film, the bonus disc features another 15 minutes from the train ride as well as scenes from the notorious British Embassy party. One wonderful sequence finds the Beatles exploring and playing with the Maysles brothers' film equipment and doing synchronization cues.
The Washington Coliseum concert was videotaped by CBS, transferred to kinescope and shown in 100 movie theaters (and the Washington Coliseum) March 14 and 15, fleshed out with totally separate performances by the Beach Boys and Lesley Gore. Three full songs are featured in "The First U.S. Visit": "I Wanna Be Your Man," "She Loves You" and "I Saw Her Standing There." The last two, plus "Please Please Me," are included in "The Beatles Anthology" (episode 3). A bootleg DVD of the full concert appeared briefly last fall before being squashed by Apple's lawyers -- there are no immediate plans to release the Washington concert officially.
Ironically, Albert Maysles says his Coliseum footage was also "bootleg."
"I wasn't supposed to be in the Coliseum with a camera," Maysles recalls. "I had to slip in and I took a seat quite a distance from the stage. But I was lucky in that I could get a much wider shot and with the zoom lens I could go all the way in to a single shot if I wanted to. In a way it was much better than being close."
The Maysleses captured the Beatles more up-close and personal than anyone had before, or managed to after. While the Beatles had been groomed to act for cameras, still and motion alike, "our human relationship to the Beatles loomed larger than the technology," Maysles says warmly. "They trusted us and we trusted them. It was a weird and a very special combination of them not being conscious of what they were doing along with a determination to please the camera by acting for it. But by then it was irresistible on their part just to be themselves."
WORDS OF LOVE
The Beatles first appeared in the pages of The Washington Post in an Oct. 29, 1963, story by London-based Foreign Service reporter Flora Lewis titled "Thousands of Britons 'Riot' Over the Beatles" They were "rioting" for tickets. The Beatles, Lewis explained, "are four wide-eyed, wacky boys in their early 20s, with a carefully ragged fringe of hair down to their eyebrows, black sweaters over a neat shirt and tie, and short, round-necked jackets without lapels. They look like limp, upside down dust-mops. When they sound off, everything begins to fly and it seems that everyone in the country not yet anchored down by age and dignity begins to shiver, shake and scream."
On Monday, Feb. 10, Leroy Aarons reviewed the Beatles' Sullivan debut under the headline "The Beatles Prove Fairly Tame Chaps." Aarons noted that "despite the encouragement of a hysterical [sic] of young females, they behaved in a more civilized manner than most of our own rock and roll heroes. There were no Presleyan gyrations, no leering, no grimacing, no screeching. Except for the outrageous bathmat coiffures, the four young men seemed downright conservative. In matter of fact, the Beatles are rather asexual . . . homely . . . Their faces are fixed in vacant, almost angelic expressions when they sing and their most provocative maneuver is a slight shaking of the head and a smile . . . The songs, while very much in the teen age genre, were restrained in comparison with the jungle calls popular here."
The day after the Washington Coliseum concert, Post TV critic Laurence Laurent added his thoughts on the Sullivan show in a column titled "Beatles Set Back Cultural Exchange." Laurent branded them "part of some kind of malicious, bilateral entertainment trade agreement . . . imported hillbillies who look like sheepdogs and sound like alley cats in agony." Those reviews, by the way, were in keeping with the general mainstream media reaction to the Beatles.
Laurent, who worked at the Post from 1951 to 1982 and is now an adjunct professor in critical writing and reviewing at George Washington University's School of Journalism, stands by his first impression. "I still think when they arrived, they sounded like people who couldn't make it in Nashville," he says. "They got a hell of a lot better after they got here. I became a real admirer when the content and the style both changed. But what would they have done without 'yeah yeah yeah'?"
It was Aarons who reviewed the Coliseum concert, writing mostly about how loud the screaming had been in a story headlined "Crowd Steals Beat From 'The Beatles'."
"An 8000-voice choir performed last night at Washington Coliseum in the premiere of what is likely to become an American classic. Call it in B for want of a better name. The choir was accompanied, incidentally, by four young British artists who call themselves the Beatles. Their part was almost completely obscured by the larger choral group, but one imagines they'll be heard from again," Aarons wrote.
As for the audience, "One was impressed by the versatility of the choral group, most of whom seemed to be teen-age girls. Their range invites comparison with Yma Sumac, their intensity of emotion with the victim in a Hitchcock film. Caruso would envy their volume. The greatest belly dancer could hardly match their physical agility. . . . While their voices are a bit thin, [The Beatles] possess the quality of semi-hysteria so necessary for this kind of performance. Also, they sweat and smile a lot."
"We were a couple of old fogies over 30. I was completely wrong," says Aarons now. An award-winning journalist and playwright, Aarons was a national correspondent for The Post until 1976 and executive editor of the Oakland Tribune, as well as founder and past president of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. Currently a visiting professor at the Annenberg School of Journalism at USC, Aarons admits "the initial Beatles product sounded like junk to me. I made a big thing about the screaming crowd, reviewed them more than Beatles, because you couldn't hear them, though all the kids knew what they were singing. I look back on it, it was a bad call," he adds.
In February, fans can return to Beatlemania, hearing the Beatles on the radio, seeing the Beatles in films and DVDs, as well as on art gallery walls, or reading about them in newspapers and magazines (a special anniversary edition of Rolling Stone appears Friday).
"A HARD DAY'S NIGHT" -- On Feb. 6, the American Film Institute's AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring launches a week-long 40th anniversary tribute to the Beatles with screenings of a newly restored print of "A Hard Day's Night." That film, which Time magazine hailed as "the Citizen Kane of Jukebox Musicals," began shooting just weeks after the Beatles' Washington visit. On Feb. 6, the 7 p.m. screening will be followed by a special 8:50 screening that will include highlights from the Beatles' Ed Sullivan appearances and a post-screening panel discussion with Beatles scholars Martin Lewis, producer of the DVD edition of "A Hard Day's Night" and associate producer of the new "Ed Sullivan" DVD, and Bruce Spizer, author of "The Beatles Are Coming! The Birth of Beatlemania in America." Post writer Richard Harrington will moderate. Spizer will be available to sign copies of his new book. On Feb. 11, Martin Goldsmith, director of classical music programming for XM Satellite Radio and former host of National Public Radio's "Performance Today," will introduce a screening with added documentary footage and will also sign copies of his new book, "The Beatles Come to America."
"THE BEATLES! BACKSTAGE AND BEHIND THE SCENES" -- Black-and-white photographs drawn from the archives of CBS Television and Life photographer Bill Eppridge, currently on display at the National Museum of American History (see review, page 29). The show runs through July 5.
WBIG'S BEATLES IN WASHINGTON CELEBRATION -- On Feb.11, WBIG-100's Goldy will, for the 10th straight year, re-create the Beatles' Washington visit. At 8 p.m., he'll offer an all-Beatles request hour so listeners can call in their favorites and share their memories. At 9 p.m., he'll play the Carroll James interview with the Beatles, followed by a re-creation of the Coliseum concert. Among his guests: Cousin Brucie, the legendary New York DJ who introduced the Beatles at Shea Stadium; WBIG's own Johnny Dark, who introed their August 1964 Baltimore concert; and Johnny Holliday, who introduced the Beatles last concert at San Francisco's Candlestick Park in August 1966.
XM SATELLITE RADIO -- From midnight Feb. 7 to midnight Feb. 8, XM Satellite Radio begins a host of Beatles 40th anniversary specials with Beatles-around-the-clock on XM6, the '60s channel. Over the next three months, XM Live will be serve up "40 Hours for 40 Years," drawing on various BBC programs in its collection. From Feb. 9 to 14 at 6 p.m., XM Live will air the six-part "The Beatles Story," mostly told in their own words. The celebration concludes April 6 with a 26-hour marathon, "The Beatles A to Zed," a historic audio documentary two years in the making.
"The Four Complete Historic Ed Sullivan Shows Featuring the Beatles" -- In October, Sofa Entertainment released a two-disc DVD with all four of the Beatles' Sullivan shows in their entirety.
"The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit" -- The Albert and David Maysles documentary will be released Tuesday on DVD with a 50-minute bonus disc.
"Once There Was a Way . . . .Photographs of the Beatles" -- Abrams has published a new, expanded edition of Harry Benson's classic photographs charting the rise of Beatlemania in England, France and America in 1964 and beyond. For the 40th anniversary of the Beatles coming to America, Benson has published a limited-edition box set of 12 photos (www.HarryBenson.com or email info@harrybenson).
"The Beatles: A Private View" -- Robert Freeman was the Beatles' official photographer from 1963 to 1966 and shot their first five album covers, including 1963's "With the Beatles" (known here as "Meet the Beatles"), which is often hailed as the quintessential rock album cover.
"The Beatles Are Coming! The Birth of Beatlemania in America" -- Bruce Spizer's fifth Beatles book is the definitive story of the year leading up to homegrown Beatlemania, with hundreds of photos and documents revealing just how difficult that birth was.
"The Beatles Come to America" -- Martin Goldsmith's cultural history of America in the '60s traces the impact of John F. Kennedy's assassination and the emotional release provided by the Beatles.
"Ticket to Ride" -- Larry Kane was the only journalist to accompany the Beatles on their epochal first American tour in the summer of 1964. The book includes a 60-minute CD of Beatles interviews from that tour.
Richard Harrington is the pop music writer for Weekend.