And never was this more apparent than in the sad spectacle that closed the evening, in which first Ringo and then Paul were wheeled out to create the closest approximation of Beatles performances that they’re currently capable of (which is to say, not very close). Ringo’s set was just plain depressing, every second of it tinged with the echo of some producer shrugging, “Well, I guess we gotta let Ringo sing,” his barely passable warbling of “Matchbox,” “Boys,” and “Yellow Submarine” backed by the musicianship of a particularly punchy karaoke track.
Paul fared slightly better, but even at his best, it’s tough to reconcile the Grandpa Rock he’s peddling with the vibrant energy of the clips surrounding it. Look, I’m not suggesting that these men no longer have anything to offer us musically (OK, with Ringo, maybe); Paul’s put out some good records in recent years, and his thrilling 1999 rockabilly tribute Run Devil Run is still in my rotation. But the further they get from these songs, the more they seem like they’re covering someone else — no worse than the Katy Perrys and Adam Levines of last night’s show, but no better.
The documentary inserts were mildly interesting: biographical background, memories from fans and technicians at the Sullivan show, Letterman’s interviews with Paul and Ringo from that same stage. A special of that stuff, filled out and thought through, might have been worth seeing, though the idea of a Beatles special without music presumably wouldn’t sell. But that’s the point: those songs, and what they meant, can’t be recreated (not even by the men who made them). If you really want to celebrate 50 years of the Beatles, the optimal method remains the same: Put A Hard Day’s Night into your DVD player. Put Rubber Soul on the turntable. Put a playlist on your iPhone. No one can fuck up the purity and perfection of those originals — no matter how hard they try.