On April 28, 1964, the Beatles played on and hosted an hourlong British television special titled Around the Beatles that hasn't been too easy to see since its original broadcast. This not wholly kosher-looking DVD contains not only the original special, but also a film of their first American concert in Washington, D.C., in February 1964, as well as a film of one of their performances in Tokyo in mid-1966. It's the Around the Beatles portion that commands the most attention, though, both because of its relative rarity and because it was one of the best rock & roll television programs of its time, due to the performances of both the Beatles and numerous guests. The Beatles themselves cited Around the Beatles as their favorite television appearance during the filming of what became Let It Be, and it's easy to see why: they, the other artists, and the audience seem to be having a blast. The Beatles, it should be noted, only take the stage to play music for the extended finale, most of the program being devoted to other British Invasion performers, often introduced with a few words by the Fab Four.
Admittedly, the special does get off to something of a slow start with an extended, not-too-funny sketch satirizing a scene in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the Beatles taking four different parts from Shakespeare's play. After that, though, it's nonstop rock & roll, filmed on a soundstage surrounded by tiers of catwalks, the audience starting off at a fevered pitch and staying there. True, the other acts -- Cilla Black, P.J. Proby, Sounds Incorporated, Millie Small, Long John Baldry, and the Vernons Girls -- might be something of a B-team of the British Invasion. But in a way, that makes it even more interesting, as relatively little footage of these artists has been seen (particularly in the U.S.). And all of them perform with admirable, sometimes frenetic energy, Cilla Black doing both her biggest American hit ("You're My World") and a cover of "Heat Wave," a weirdly awkward Baldry tugging at his suit as if he's trying to wiggle out of an oversized dog collar, and Millie Small doing her global mega-smash "My Boy Lollipop." The songs follow each other with barely (or no) pause for breath, leading up to the finale where the Beatles finally hit the stage, and the kids in the audience really raise the roof. Although this isn't a live performance, it was mimed to an audio track recorded specifically for the show, meaning that these are not the versions you hear on the records, which makes for a pretty credible emulation of a genuinely live program. And the Beatles' segment is great, including "Roll Over Beethoven," "Long Tall Sally," "Twist and Shout," "I Wanna Be Your Man," a medley of excerpts from "Love Me Do"/"Please Please Me"/"From Me to You"/"She Loves You"/"I Want to Hold Your Hand," "Can't Buy Me Love," and a rip-roaring cover of the Isley Brothers' "Shout" to close the program (although the Beatles never recorded "Shout" in the studio, this particular version found official release in the 1990s on Anthology 1).
As for the other items on the DVD, the film of the February 1964 Washington, D.C., concert -- originally broadcast in cinemas on closed-circuit television in March 1964 -- is also both enjoyable and historically valuable, even if the image quality and audio fidelity aren't the greatest. Most of the concert is caught on celluloid in a low-budget, no-frills fashion, though unfortunately it cuts off in the middle of the next-to-last song, "Twist and Shout" (omitting the finale, "Long Tall Sally," altogether). However, little other footage of the Beatles so palpably captures the frenzy of Beatlemania, both in the screaming audience and the exuberant on-stage group, though they had to cope with primitive, sometimes malfunctioning equipment. It's especially amusing to watch Ringo Starr and roadies continually turning the drum set around the boxing ring-cum-stage so that everyone in the audience could get at least a few minutes of facing the Beatles straight-on. Most of the group's most famous early songs are played with dynamic force, including "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "Please Please Me," "She Loves You," and "All My Loving."
In contrast, the Tokyo film is disappointing -- not so much for the performance of the Beatles (though it's not up to the level of the other two parts of the disc) as for a substandard transfer to DVD. Filmed in color for Japanese television, this program has long made the rounds on bootleg videos in much better image quality. Certainly seeing it here is better than not seeing at all, as the Beatles are caught at a different phase of their career doing mostly different material, all the way up to "Paperback Writer." The enthusiasm of their performance was lagging a bit -- as was their ability to keep on key and in time -- when they entered their final touring days, though Paul McCartney at least seems as fired up as ever. But if you do want to see this, you should really search for a better copy. (In fact, there are two Tokyo shows in circulation -- the one on this DVD is known as the "light suits" version for their clothing, to differentiate it from the other performance, known as the "dark suits" Tokyo show.) In fact, it's likely that should an official release of all three components of this disc be arranged, the image quality of the transfer will be appreciably better for all the films, if the best available copies are scrounged for copying. The Around the World and Washington concert portions, though, don't suffer nearly as much as the Tokyo one -- Around the World in particular isn't far from as good as you'll get considering the age and obscurity of the source material -- and as of this 2003 release, it was the best you could find on DVD if you wanted to see these films.