Released in 2004, The First U.S. Visit offers a complete discourse on the Beatles’ first visit to the United States. From the minute they land at JFK, to their three appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, the 83-minute film covers just about every angle of that fateful two weeks in February 1964. Originally conceived by Granada Television and filmed and recorded by Albert and David Maysles with the title What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A., The First U.S. Visit DVD is pieced together in such a way as to take you on the white-knuckle ride the Beatles themselves were on when they came to the States.
The Maysles Brothers’ “direct cinema” approach enabled them to capture some incredibly intimate footage and sound bites. They rode along with the Beatles to their hotel as they were chased by screaming fans. There’s the photo shoot in Central Park without George Harrison and there’s the Beatles mixing it up at the Peppermint Lounge where Albert Maysles says shooting Ringo Starr dancing with the girls was a real challenge and highlight for him. If you watch closely, you can pick up on the general vibe within the inner circle. Paul McCartney is clearly the most upbeat of the bunch, constantly tapped into the Pepsi vending machine transistor radio tuned to 1010 WINS when he isn’t charming everyone within earshot. Ever the sinister wit, John Lennon lounging in a hotel chair calls Murray The K a “wacker” (more likely the British slang word “wanker”) without the DJ realizing it’s a disparaging rub.
Because the Beatles spent much of their downtime sequestered in NYC’s Plaza Hotel, the Maysles were on hand to film them as they chatted with Murray the K over the phone (and in person), received updates on their sales and chart positions, clowned around and mugged for the camera. At one point, Lennon starts blowing into a melodica, seemingly playing the first two notes of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” In another sequence, manager Brian Epstein calmly conducts himself over the band’s affairs and his secretary fields calls. In virtually every frame, the cigarettes are ablaze and smoking endlessly.
The Ed Sullivan Show footage of their three appearances is what a lot of fans will want to see. Each of the Beatles’ names pops up on the screen — Paul, Ringo, George, and John (Sorry girls, he’s married). The camera seems to love the smiling McCartney. Musically, the tight chemistry between the four is apparent. Harrison plays a simple, yet beautiful passage during the middle break of “Til There Was You.” And, of course, it’s hard to ignore the youthful power behind Lennon’s iconic vocal on “Twist and Shout.”
There’s also footage from Washington D.C. where the Beatles played their first concert in the states. Watching Ringo Starr slam through “I Wanna Be Your Man” is priceless, as are the moments when roadie Mal Evans has to rotate the drum pedestal every few songs so as to accommodate the audience that surrounded the stage.
Filled out with lots of extras, including unused footage, commentary, and an interview with Albert Maysles, The First U.S. Visit is as comprehensive as you can expect, aside from a couple other stellar events from those two weeks — namely the group’s two performances on February 12 at Carnegie Hall and their fabled photo-op with Cassius Clay (aka Muhammad Ali) in Miami on February 18. Albert Maysles happens to mention they weren’t allowed to film everything. Nevertheless, he maintains The First U.S. Visit serves as a lasting record of who the Beatles were at that time in history. Sixty years later, that hits home more than ever.
~ Shawn Perry