If The Four Complete Historic Ed Sullivan Shows Featuring the Beatles only had all of the footage from the four appearances the Beatles made on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 and 1965 -- including performances of 20 complete songs -- it would be more than enough to qualify as a vastly important (and entertaining) historical document. The two-DVD package goes yet one step further, however. It really does have the complete original episodes, as they were originally broadcast on February 9, 1964, February 16, 1964, February 23, 1964, and September 12, 1965 -- all four hours' worth, including the commercials. That means you not only see everything by the Beatles, but also all of the other comedians, acrobats, singers, and cameo celebrity spots that also appeared on the shows featuring the group. On the one hand, it's cool to have a complete historical record of the shows as they were actually experienced. On the other, it's striking, particularly to generations of viewers who weren't around for the first broadcasts, at how mediocre all of the surrounding entertainment is. To focus on the portion that makes this worth buying in the first place, the Beatles' performances are magnificent (and entirely live, not lip-synced, with the exception of Paul McCartney singing and playing guitar live to an orchestral backing track for "Yesterday"). The 1964 shows in particular were the ones that, more than anything else, made them into superstars of an unprecedented scale in America, and include exciting versions of all of their biggest early singles, including "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "She Loves You," "Twist and Shout," "Please Please Me," "From Me to You," and "I Saw Her Standing There." Although they only appeared on one 1965 show, they played six songs on that broadcast, all of them memorable: "I Feel Fine," "I'm Down," "Yesterday," "Act Naturally," "Ticket to Ride," and "Help!" (on which John Lennon briefly messes up the lyrics). Unfortunately, there's nothing else on the four episodes that you could call ageless entertainment, and some of it's downright excruciating. There's dated comedy from the likes of Myron Cohen, Dave Barry, and, twice, Marty Allen (as half of Allen and Rossi); stilted puppetry from Pinky & Perky; card tricks from Fred Kaps; variety-show singing from Mitzi Gaynor, Tessie O'Shea, and the cast of Oliver! (in which, if you watch out for it, you can spot a pre-Monkees Davy Jones); trad jazz from Acker Bilk; and jazz-pop from Cab Calloway. Comedian Soupy Sales does his minor hit single "The Mouse," and the only other fellow British Invader, Cilla Black, does disappointing versions of "September in the Rain" and "Goin' Out of My Head" on the 1965 broadcast. It's all the kind of entertainment the Beatles were instrumental in eventually making passé, and there's not another pure rock & roll act in sight. Of course, the DVD format means it's easy to skip right to the Beatles portions if you wish, and those will indefinitely endure as vital documents of popular culture. The image quality (all in black and white) is good despite occasional wavy lines and flickers; it's unfortunate, though, that the Beatles' 1965 performance was filmed only weeks before the show went to color.
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