CBS’s Unwatchable Anniversary Special Illustrates How Not to Celebrate 50 Years of the Beatles

Last weekend marked the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ arrival in America and their initial, ratings-shattering performance on The Ed Sullivan Show. You may have heard about this anniversary. It’s been mentioned a few times! The half-centennial came to a head last night on CBS, which aired The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to the Beatles, a two-and-a-half-hour mixture of documentary tribute and performance footage. The performances were reportedly culled from a four-hour concert the night after this year’s Grammys; one can only imagine what was left on the cutting room floor, considering the depressingly disastrous stuff that aired.

To be sure, not all of it was terrible. Dave Grohl’s wisely chosen cover of a lesser-known album track, “Hey Bulldog,” was a highlight (as was his adorable daughter) — unsurprising, since he’s a lifelong fan and advocate. (I’d contend that the Foo Fighters’ cover of Paul’s “Band on the Run” surpasses the original.) The reunited Eurythmics did some interesting things with “The Fool on the Hill,” and Stevie Wonder does a killer “We Can Work It Out” (but we already knew that). But much of the evening was befuddling (Pharell Williams and Brad Paisley?), snoozy (John Mayer and Keith Urban managed to drain every ounce of raw emotion out of “Don’t Let Me Down”), or outright forgettable (the cutaway to a stone-faced Grohl during Maroon 5’s by-the-numbers cover of “Ticket to Ride” said it all). We got Alicia Keys over-singing “Let It Be,” Katy Perry overselling “Yesterday,” and Ed Sheeran over-twee-ing “In My Life,” all of them reducing complex, powerful songs into American Idol fodder.

And throughout, of course, were the endless cutaways: to Paul and Ringo and Yoko and Olivia, nodding approvingly at these vanilla bastardizations, and a giant pool of celebrities, reiterating the chummy, insular nature of the whole thing. With every shot of a self-satisfied celeb, I couldn’t help but remember John’s request to the crowd at their 1963 royal command performance: “Will the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewelry…”

Though there’s certainly precedent for it, there was still something mildly off-putting about the remaining Fab Two lowering themselves to this kind of glib, showbiz bullshit — a night that felt less like a celebration and more like a sales job, a Twitter-ready, Sound of Music Live-style package of boomer nostalgia and sops to “the young people” that was all ostensibly about the Beatles, yet never about what actually made them great.

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And never was this more apparent than in the sad spectacle that closed the evening, in which first Ringo and then Paul were wheeled out to create the closest approximation of Beatles performances that they’re currently capable of (which is to say, not very close). Ringo’s set was just plain depressing, every second of it tinged with the echo of some producer shrugging, “Well, I guess we gotta let Ringo sing,” his barely passable warbling of “Matchbox,” “Boys,” and “Yellow Submarine” backed by the musicianship of a particularly punchy karaoke track.

Paul fared slightly better, but even at his best, it’s tough to reconcile the Grandpa Rock he’s peddling with the vibrant energy of the clips surrounding it. Look, I’m not suggesting that these men no longer have anything to offer us musically (OK, with Ringo, maybe); Paul’s put out some good records in recent years, and his thrilling 1999 rockabilly tribute Run Devil Run is still in my rotation. But the further they get from these songs, the more they seem like they’re covering someone else — no worse than the Katy Perrys and Adam Levines of last night’s show, but no better.

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The documentary inserts were mildly interesting: biographical background, memories from fans and technicians at the Sullivan show, Letterman’s interviews with Paul and Ringo from that same stage. A special of that stuff, filled out and thought through, might have been worth seeing, though the idea of a Beatles special without music presumably wouldn’t sell. But that’s the point: those songs, and what they meant, can’t be recreated (not even by the men who made them). If you really want to celebrate 50 years of the Beatles, the optimal method remains the same: Put A Hard Day’s Night into your DVD player. Put Rubber Soul on the turntable. Put a playlist on your iPhone. No one can fuck up the purity and perfection of those originals — no matter how hard they try.