Magical Mystery Tour
Directed by The Beatles
Written by The Beatles
Starring: Paul McCartney, John Lennon,
George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Victor Spinetti, Jessie Robins, Mal Evans
Not Rated | 52 Minutes
Release Date: October 9th
Magical Mystery Tour, the colorfully wild mess of a film by The Beatles, has been released on Blu-ray and it’s one of the few times in the bands illustrious and innovative career that the term “mixed bag” can be applied when summing up one of their projects.
But suffice to say, Magical Mystery Tour, while an absolutely charming and irresistible piece of delectable eye candy to gaze upon, and even more so now with the spit and polish of the Blu-ray remastering, still ultimately remains nothing more than a curio of The Moptops at their psychedelic peaks, still in the cosmic high of their Sgt. Pepper period, the idyllic peace, love carefree metaphoric lounging on eiderdowns in their native England. It’s a hollow and disjointed piece that has it’s only reliable saving grace in the wonderful soundtrack, which is remastered as well, with the memorable musical strains of The Beatles in all their sonic glory at peak levels.
Out of print for years, and only existing by way poor transfers of bad 35MM blowups from second and third generation 16MM negatives on VHS home releases, Magical Mystery Tour has had quite a shabby treatment in its release to the public in the home market for the most part, until now, with this release on Blu-ray, it’s first release in any digital format of any kind.
Magical Mystery Tour was originally released in 1967, a by-product of the Summer of Love that year, which spawned their Sgt. Pepper album and changed the game of what pop/rock and roll music could be and how it could be executed. A little after that time, their manager, the one who almost singlehandedly introduced them to the globe with his upper crust savvy business sense and proper generic English manner, Brian Epstein, died. About two weeks later, The Beatles undertook the project, the first independent of their late manager and mainly spearheaded by Paul McCartney, who took his recent influences of psilocybin ingestion, coupled with some of the new innovations (at the time) from the French wave of cinema, which was a very influential medium in its heyday, telling stories mainly in a very untraditional style and in a much more visual sense, using close-ups, jump cuts, superimposed imagery, color and light, all components which pushed it’s respective narratives. At its best, Magical Mystery Tour was born and bred of said influences, and at it’s worst, Magical Mystery Tour was born and bred of said influences as well.
McCartney envisioned a short film (it clocks in under an hour but still feels longish when viewing it) in which the band, accompanied by friends, co-workers and a motley and pseudo-eclectic crew of bizarre individuals, all board an oversized coach, and travel through the English countryside, pretty much winging it along the way in terms of narrative. There was no script, cast members were told to show up at a particular area on a given day, given a rather loose framework, and the cameras would capture the action. If the sequence turned out usable, so be it. If it didn’t, it was trashed and on to the next. That was pretty much the way the itinerary worked on making Magical Mystery Tour. After about two weeks of filming sequences, mostly on the bus, some out in the countryside and other lovely looking scenic areas, The Beatles wound up with about 10 hours of footage. They whittled it down to under an hour, struck a sight unseen deal with the BBC to arrange a television airing of the project, who readily agreed just on the strength of course of it being new Beatles product, and it aired on what is known as “Boxing Day” over in England, a day after Christmas, 1967.
With the charm of the holiday season still fresh, forget about chestnuts roasting on an open fire, this time it was the Fab Four who got roasted. a regular shellacking from the critics and the fans as well for what they perceived as a self-indulgent, happy mess of a film that, if anyone else had tried to undertake it with the same circumstances, would have been laughed out of the BBC’s studios. In The Beatles’ defense, the original airing of the film on television was shown in Black and White, which stripped it of it’s colorful, kaleidoscopic visual essences and in essence presented another film all together ultimately. The failure of the project was one of the first big slaps in the face for the group, who had gotten free passes for virtually everything else they did (and would subsequently do) in their career by the fans and critics, and the critical and audience response to Magical Mystery Tour set a precedent in Beatle history as being what is essentially the first (possibly only) dud of their careers.
So is Magical Mystery Tour really that bad? Well, like everything the Fab Four did, it certainly has a charm at the core, the typical cheeky manner which was the groups trademark. Credited to The Beatles but directed mainly by McCartney and lensed for the most part by newly coined Director of Photography Richard Starkey (Ringo Starr), what remains the highlight of this adventurous undertaking is the way it presents itself in it’s terms of showcasing what film can do. As mentioned earlier, the film draws heavily on European influences of film making, and like a lot of that New Wave cinema, this film also shows purposely haphazard editing, quick cuts, jump cuts, superimposing, extremely creative use of color and light, gymnastic camera angles, hand held camera work, all done in 16MM originally. It’s definitely a visual curio and in essence a primer of what was basically non-linear filmmaking at the time. The cast is game also, characters straight out of PT Barnum and even Tod Bowning’s 1932 film Freaks, but always done with a slight tongue-in-cheek and “we are all having a good time ultimately” kind of vibe that permeates most scenes.
There are many set pieces included within, a strange highlight with the late character actor Victor Spinetti (who was in the Beatles productions A Hard Day’s Night and Help prior to MMT) who has fun and a field day spouting gibberish as an Army Drill Sergeant instructing all the onlooker travelers on the coach how to attack a stuffed cow and famed British actress Jessie Robins as the rotund Aunt Jessie, who Ringo accompanies on the trip and has a crazy sequence in which a scene in a restaurant finds John Lennon playing a waiter, replete with parted in the middle slicked down hair and an oily mustache and demeanor, literally shoveling heaps of spaghetti on her plate, while other patrons of the trip dance around semi-nude. If you are shaking your head reading this “synopsis” and wondering what the hell does all this mean, you are not alone. Watching the picture itself and witnessing those scenes and others as well, makes one want to reach for the off button on their Blu-ray player. But, like a lot of their product, it’s the wondrous charm of the four Liverpudlians which makes this watchable. Barely watchable, but watchable. At least once.
Of course, as always, it’s the music however that saves this production from sinking into the English Channel. Some of the great tracks, recorded at the tail end and during the peak of the Sgt Pepper sessions for the most part, included the majestic title track and the crazy word quilt and imagery of John Lennon’s “I Am the Walrus,” in a clunkily staged sequence where again the jump cuts and haphazard editing during it probably made viewers at the time roll their eyes at its pretenses. The clip has been seen many times since however, largely independent of a viewing of the complete film.
George Harrison, who is pretty much persona non grata in this production (in fact, him and Lennon are barely glimpsed in this movie until about 20 minutes into it, another arguable nail in the coffin of the approach of this film) has a nice, 60s visual zeitgeist moment with his mystically trippy tune “Blue Jay Way.” McCartney pretty much has a vanity sequence in “Fool on the Hill” in which the beautiful track is visually showcased via beauty shots in Nice, France and McCartney bouncing along in every conceivable camera angle one can think of. High shots, low shots, more superimposed shots, close ups of his non-movable face, it’s McCartney at his best with one of the best Beatles songs he has ever written playing during this and at his arguable worst with his cinematic execution of it.
The sole highlight is the final song and sequence, “Your Mother Should Know” a sort of contemporary vaudevillian number, in which the Beatles don white tuxedos and sashay to the beat of the song like an old Hollywood musical number, with tons of extras, balloons, glitter interspersed throughout and a large white staircase in which they descend. Right about when this number ends, so does the picture, which even plays with the convention of cinematic credits, as they scroll from RIGHT TO LEFT as opposed to BOTTOM TO TOP as most credits do.
Bonus features include audio commentary by McCartney himself, a making of the project with McCartney as well and Ringo, in which they talk way too seriously about the film today, as if it remains this legendary piece of cinema that was simply misunderstood during its original release. Unreleased sequences are interspersed throughout this little documentary also. The imagery itself has been remastered to the best of it’s abilities, the film was blown up from 16MM to 35MM and the Blu-ray definitely is able to enhance and remove some of the celluloid artifacts that existed on other prints, nary a hair or flicker of imagery or scratches exist on the Blu-ray print. The soundtrack of course as well is remastered to the hilt as well, which is best played on big home theater systems while watching the film.
Magical Mystery Tour remains and will always be a curious project for The Beatles, a handsome sloppy film, but ultimately a frustrating, eye rolling head shaking mess. Beatles completists and apologists will see this all differently and eat this product up for sure, as for many of them, the Fab Four could never do no wrong, no matter what came out of their collective and individual brains. So one is urged to strip away all that you know about this film, all you have heard, and view this Blu-ray release for yourself on it’s own merits and make your own judgments. But ultimately, for me, if the Magical Mystery Tour is waiting to take me away, I think I’d rather take a ride on the Yellow Submarine, the animated Beatles feature that came out about a year after the release of this film and is much more satisfying in showcasing The Beatles in their acid soaked, paint color day glow chart “All You Need Is Love” styles, something which just falls short and then some, on Magical Mystery Tour.