BOOTLEG FILES 787: “The Beatles Forever” (1977 all-star train wreck).
LAST SEEN: On YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: No serious person would put this out in front of the public again.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Unlikely.
Fuck that three-part Disney+ rehash of mountains of discarded footage from the making of “Let It Be” – the real Beatles rediscovery emerged on YouTube last week via someone going by the handle of Denton115. This beautiful individual has brought back one of the most brilliantly embarrassing television specials ever dropped on an unsuspecting world: “The Beatles Forever,” a one-hour atrocity that NBC threw on an unsuspecting America on Thanksgiving night of 1977.
The 1970s were the apex of so-bad-they’re-good television specials, which mostly offered a line-up of B-list celebrities engaged in musical-comedy activities for which they were wholly unsuited. But even by the wobbly standards of that era, “The Beatles Forever” gets off on two wrong feet with a pompous introduction by tuxedo-clad Tony Randall as the show’s host (huh?) and then runs so far and so fast in the wrong direction that the viewer is left smacked mercilessly by the zaniness that flashed across the screen.
Following Randall’s intro, there is a montage of still photos and footage of the Beatles’ halcyon days – including a few seconds of their “Your Mother Should Know” number from the film “Magical Mystery Tour,” which may have been the first time any scenes from that production turned up on American television.
From there, the show takes a massive nosedive when Randall returns to try (and fails) to put his spin on “A Little Help from My Friends.” This leads to the appearance of Anthony Newley, Paul Williams and Mel Tillis – three people that you never mention in the same sentence, let alone expect to see teaming with Tony Randall on a Beatles tribute show. That unlikely trio performs “She Loves You” – but the viewer will want to reject the “yeah, yeah, yeah” chorus in favor of “no, no, no.” Two lovely ladies with admirable Broadway experience, Diahann Carroll and Bernadette Peters, show up to sing snippets of Beatles tunes, but the arrangements do not do justice to their distinctive vocal abilities. All of these performers somehow get stuck in a tacky-wacky Vegas-style lounge act where their yeah-baby song-styling of Beatles rock tunes is so hopelessly square – albeit in a charming retro manner.
But that’s just an appetizer for the crazy circus-based segment with the diminutive Williams dressed as a clown while singing “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” Randall is the droll-hammy Mr. Kite in this segment, a circus charlatan who tries to seduce the curvy ingenue Peters. Yes, it is as bad as it sounds.
From here, “The Beatles Forever” abruptly becomes a genuine entertainment when Ray Charles briefly shows up to offer his distinctively bluesy take on “Yesterday.” His performance seems to come out of a completely different production. Mercifully, this lapse into real entertainment returns to its kitsch roots with an extended bad ballet featuring ace dancer Anthony Dowell dressed as priest – specifically, Father McKenzie of “Eleanor Rigby” fame.
And then, we hit the gold standard. Dear friends, you have never experienced pure mad genius until you experience Anthony Newley caterwauling his way through the sitar spaciness of “Within You Without You.” Dressed in a white tunic like a cheapjack swami, Newley bellows George Harrison’s hippie-dippie lyrics like a mad elephant bathing in the Ganges while he wanders amid stoned-out extras. I’ve played this every day since rediscovering it and I plan to play it daily until the day I die – and I will update my will to have it played at my funeral.
From there, Diahann Carroll tries to breathe life into a symphonic presentation mix of “In My Life” and “Here, There and Everywhere” – Carroll was a great talent, but she was truly wasted here. Thankfully, Ray Charles comes back and injects some much-needed energy with “The Long and Winding Road” – until Randall, Williams and Newley mince their way through “When I’m 64.” And then poor Mel Tillis attempts to get a handle on “Here Comes the Sun” before Carroll returns with a much too serious take on “Fool on the Hill.” Bernadette Peters makes a return appearance to join Newley in “She’s Leaving Home” (can you blame her?).
Thank God for Ray Charles – he is ushered in with a “Let It Be” that pushes back at the show’s silliness with a power and intelligence that transcends pop music into a profound realm. The misfit cast of this weird endeavor suddenly find their inner light and provide a powerful chorus to Charles’ vibrant performing. Sadly, Randall gets the last word in closing the show with a pompous send-off – too bad that Charles couldn’t rule the closing credits.
Even back in the 70s – that decade that good taste forgot – “The Beatles Forever” was immediately branded as a warped concoction. It is impossible to image any label would go through the expense of clearing music and performance rights issues to put this out on a commercial home entertainment release, and for too many years the extant production was missing from grey-market channels.
But, good friends, here it is, in all of its crazy glory. You’re welcome!
IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.
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