The Beatles' arrival 50 years ago -- Feb. 9, 1964 -- in black and white is celebrated in musical hues of tangerine, yellow and green on "The Night That Changed America" special that airs Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on CBS. History weaves in and out of material from the Beatles' career in the 1960s, but it's the Fab Four's later material, worked with vigor by Pharrell Williams, Joe Walsh, Dave Grohl and Gary Clark Jr., that stands out in the interpretations.
The band's "The Ed Sullivan Show" appearance on that day -- the first live televised performance from the Beatles in the United States -- provides the show's hook as Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr revisit the Ed Sullivan Theater with David Letterman, delivering the sort of observations one might expect.
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McCartney and Starr thought the theater was much larger when they played there. "It's like going back to your old school," McCartney says, noting it no longer seems huge. A Teamster made Paul nervous before he sang "Yesterday." The Beatles' success was a combination of luck, coincidence and talent.
They're at their best talking about performing and trying to hear through the screaming. We catch a glimpse of how well-rehearsed and in sync they were as musicians and, through the clips of the five performances that night, how broad their material was from the start; not only were they the first British act to arrive, they were also the ones capable of interpreting multiple styles of American music and processing something new for a younger generation.
Strong reminiscences come from crew and audience members who felt the impact of the night immediately -- how reactions were different, the staging was different and the interaction with the talent was unique. The Beatles are shown disarming the mainstream media of 50 years ago with bits of nonsense and wisecracks; the tone of comments from musicians and actors, on the other hand, are worshipful.
Guitarists are the stars of "The Night That Changed America." Walsh, Jeff Lynne and Dhani Harrison crate a 3-D rendition of "Something"; Keith Urban and John Mayer duel over on "Don't Let Me Down"; Grohl barks "Hey Bulldog"; and Clark and Walsh make "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" the night's instrumental standout. Peter Frampton and Toto's Steve Lukather share guitar duties in the house band led by bassist Don Was and they, too, add heft and flair to numerous performances.
Alicia Keys and John Legend provide the program's strongest quieter moment with "Let it Be." The superb sound mix has definitely helped a few of the performances that felt off-kilter during the filming on the night after the GRAMMYs.
Nostalgists will undoubtedly revel in the clips of the Beatles' performances and have every right to say not one singer or act is capable of capturing the Lennon-McCartney-Harrison blend. Grohl mentions the timbral singularity of John Lennon's voice and while that's an ingredient that cannot be re-created, neither can the elemental ease with which they performed.
On "I Want to Hold Your Hand," they're slightly off-key and the tempo slips in the middle of the song, but they bring it home for a strong close. You can't pinpoint who errs or who makes the fix, though. They functioned as a team -- rocking in rhythm and even in taking their bows -- aware of their individual role and with the knowledge that they others had a command of theirs. It's as evident in "All My Loving" as it is in the "Don't Let Down" performance from the 1969 Apple Corps headquarters rooftop concert. They played as an exceptional multi-talented team rather than as an assemblage behind a leader. It manages to come through on "With a Little Help From My Friends," a most-welcome reunion of Paul and Ringo on the special's penultimate number.