Repackaging footage reportedly inaccessible for decades, “The Beatles: The Lost Concert” presents what’s billed as the Fab Four’s only available complete live show — their first U.S. one, played to 8,000 screaming teenagers at a Washington, D.C., sports arena in February 1964. The short set is heavily padded with archival footage of the era, plus worshipful responses from present-day musicians who have little of interest to say. The desultory results are being shown at theaters nationwide May 17 and May 22, following a world preem at Gotham’s Ziegfeld May 6; completists who miss those dates will doubtless make the home-format release a profitable one.
The show was also originally broadcast via closed circuit in theaters for two days, one month after the gig itself, reportedly drawing 2 million ticketbuyers to the tune of $4 million. That package presumably included materials beyond the Beatles’ half-hour performance; we don’t see opening acts the Caravelles, Chiffons and Tommy Roe here, though Roe is among the present-day interviewees.
Playing for their biggest audience at the time (though much larger ones were soon to come) on a short initial American trip, just after their first “Ed Sullivan Show” appearance, the Liverpool lads seem a bit nonplussed, perhaps in part because the Washington Coliseum was unsuitable as a music venue. There were no monitors to allow them to hear themselves, and the PA system was intended primarily for sports-event announcers. The sound quality here is highly variable, to say the least. Still, that’s better than most attendees got: As one recalls, unless you were seated in the front rows, you could only hear “the beat and a lot of screaming.”
The set opens with George Harrison fronting a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven,” then flows through early hits including “From Me to You,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “All My Loving,” “Please Please Me,” “She Loves You” and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” Novelties include the close three-part harmonies that dominate the lesser-known “This Boy,” and Ringo Starr’s rare lead vocal on “I Wanna Be Your Man” — though his mike barely registers, and that may be a mercy. Throughout, there are cutaways to mostly female viewers in varying states of extremis, albeit sitting politely. (It is noted that most U.S. teens scarcely knew how to behave at a concert then, erring on the side of caution.) Visually, multicamera footage is on the level of most live-event TV coverage of the era, primitive by today’s standards.
All this will be manna to nostalgic loyalists, if only mildly impressive to anyone else. “Lost Concert” is probably not the ideal intro to the Beatles for later generations, as their repertoire was still fairly one-note, and what distinguished them then requires explanation now. To that end, several surviving business associates, journos and fans recall Beatlemania’s impact and the era in general as illustrated by the requisite archival materials. That’s OK as far as it goes, though underwhelming; few insights will be news to most viewers, some trivia aside, though the idea that the band benefited from media hunger for a happy news story, at a time when the mourning period for President Kennedy was due to end, is an interesting theory.
The pic’s biggest waste of space, however, comes in the form of celebrity musicians who are mostly shot watching the footage, presumably agog with adoration. Too bad almost none of them — including two Strokes, Aerosmith’s Steve Tyler and Joe Perry, Brit pop thrush Duffy and Chuck Berry himself — have anything remotely intelligent to say.