In an era when cable channels like MTV and Lifetime deliver teeny-tiny programming ideas to teeny-tiny niche audiences, it’s startling to return to a show that glories in being really big. The Ed Sullivan Show actually did offer something for everyone: Opera stars, contortionists, rock dreamboats, and Topo Gigio coexisted peacefully within a 60-minute jamboree hosted by a guy with a face like a Tammany ward heeler and a canny nose for what people wanted to see, whether they knew it yet or not.
That astonishing variety propels the first two video volumes of The Very Best of The Ed Sullivan Show, even as it hamstrings both tapes. Directed and cowritten by documentary filmmaker Andrew Solt (Imagine: John Lennon), the videos are longer versions of the shows that CBS broadcast last year; even with the extra running time, though, Solt crams in so many acts that quality sometimes gets sacrificed to quantity. Not every performance here is edited to start or fade out in the middle, but the ones that are — like the Stones’ doomy rendition of ”Satisfaction” in 1966, or James Brown’s slam-dunk medley of ”Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and ”I Got You (I Feel Good)” that same year — are choice enough to make a viewer feel cheated out of history.
That’s the bad news; the good news is that, truncated or not, almost every moment here works as pop epiphany, mile-high camp, or some inspired combination thereof. Because The Ed Sullivan Show cut such a wide swath through American culture, these tapes are far more than just pleasant nostalgia; they’re a profuse, bottomless archaeological dig. And Solt makes sure we never lose sight of Ed’s genius for putting it all together.
Throughout Unforgettable Performances, the first volume, you can sense the director searching for a structure. He even tries to get topical, inexplicably intercutting news footage of the JFK campaign into a 1960 Bobby Darin performance. Still, you can’t fault the high points: Bo Diddley raving on his namesake song, two numbers each from Elvis and the Beatles, Ella and Sammy Davis Jr. duetting on ”S’Wonderful,” Judy Garland belting ”I Could Go On Singing” while looking as if she’s about to drop like a sack, Joplin, the Jackson Five, and the infamous Jackie Mason ”obscene gesture” scandal — replayed in slo-mo. Additional trivia nugget: the reason Bob Dylan never made it past the show’s rehearsals. B+
For all that, volume two, Greatest Entertainers, is the better bet. The performances are on a par with the first tape, but Solt has found just the right tone of deadpan surreal delight. A wonderful segment on ventriloquists features the ineffable Senor Wences and winds up in 1971, with a baby-faced Albert Brooks as an intentionally bad voice thrower — the lone sample here of the ironic, conceptual comedy that would blossom with Saturday Night Live. There’s also a staggering 1957 example of When Acts Go Wrong, in which animal trainer Clyde Beatty loses control of one of his lions: The camera quickly cuts to a nervously grinning Sullivan introducing audience celebs like Walter Brennan — all the while being interrupted by offscreen roars and gunshots. Peak musical moments: Jackie Wilson (”Lonely Teardrops”) and Richard Burton with Julie Andrews (”Camelot”). A tape this rich just has to get an A.