Synopsis: On the heels of the Beatles’ first two successful films, A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, came the Magical Mystery Tour. Produced and directed by the Beatles themselves, the tour in question is a psychedelic bus trip around the English countryside where all is not what it seems and magic is everywhere. So get on the bus with the Beatles and a colorful cast of interesting fellow travelers for an afternoon of comedy, music, competition, magic and ever romance.
eyelights: its surrealist, trippy quality.
eyesores: its lack of narrative. its lack of excitement. its poor technical quality. the mundanity of the songs.
“Good morning ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls! Welcome to Magical Mystery Tour!”
In 1967, after the death of long-time manager Brian Epstein, The Beatles found themselves in a financial bind; they needed to do something with their fortune to avoid being taxed to the gills by the British government. So they created Apple Corps. “Magical Mystery Tour’ would be the new company’s first project.
Although he refuses to take the blame for it now, this was largely Paul’s idea, who was apparently very fond of shooting home movies at the time. The idea was to take a bunch of friends on a bus on a mystery tour – a tourist activity then popular in Britain, which consisted of taking passengers to surprise locations.
There was no script, as they hoped that gathering their friends would be enough to inspire some form of screen magic. The Beatles even suggested that their guests take up roles and act in character. But it didn’t happen, and even John and George avoided participating, mostly sleeping and staying off camera.
Without a planned destination, and little direction, the bus merely drove around and none of that magic ever transpired. The Beatles ended up with 10 hours of utterly useless footage in what John called “The most expensive home movie ever made”. The were forced to film extraneous material to spruce it up.
The final result was less than an hour long and was broadcast on the BBC on December 26, 1967. It flopped monumentally. Ringo called up the BBC to complain that it was broadcast in black and white, thereby stripping the fantastical aspects of their magic. They broadcast it in colour on BBC2 a few days later.
It flopped again.
The Beatles hadn’t considered that there were only 200,000 colour televisions in the UK at the time, so very few people saw it as intended. It didn’t even get broadcast in the US at the time, although it got a theatrical release years later and made the rounds on the college circuit. ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ died a quick death.
To this day, this short film is a curiosity that no historical perspective can restore; it’s really just a collection of random footage that goes nowhere – just like the coach the passengers were on. An uninteresting scene follows the next follows the next in one continuous stream of… absolutely nothing.
Watch Ringo buy tix for the bus. See him argue with his “aunt” (in a scene likely meant to evoke the ones with Paul’s grandfather in ‘A Hard Day’s Night’). Watch people sitting on the bus. “Already the magic is beginning to work”, says John, possibly sarcastically. Cut to John nodding off on George’s shoulder.
The skits are no better. There’s a bit with Paul and Victor Spinetti (who had co-starred in their previous two films) acting as sergeants, with Spinetti shouting at people. There’s a marathon that begins with midgets wrestling, people racing in potato sacks, others playing a blindfold game, …etc., before partaking in ‘The Lame Race’.
And so forth and so on…
At least it’s mercifully short.
At best the picture may be worth it for the music, which featured then-new music by The Beatles, including the theme song, “The Fool on the Hill”, “Your Mother Should Know” and “I Am the Walrus”. The accompanying video footage is frequently surrealistic and non-sensical, but that’s part of its charm.
In fact, to me, that the biggest allure of ‘Magical Mystery Tour’, if there were to be anything. There’s a definite attempt to stimulate the audience’s senses, case-in-point when the passengers are told “If you look to your left, the view isn’t very inspiring, but if you look to your right…” and we get trippy scenery.
But the production and direction is so weak that even the closing number, which should have been the grand finale, has The Beatles coming down a large staircase to “Your Mother Should Know” in a ’40s Hollywood musical-type number that is marred by weak choreography and poor staging. Heck, even the live audio is uneven.
In the end, ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ gave the world a brand new EP, which was extremely well-received despite featuring a few bland pieces. It was later expanded into an album, including singles that were released in 1967, such as “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane”, salvaging what was essentially a serious blunder.
The only way ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ was “magical” or “mysterious” is if one confuses these qualifiers with “drab” and “confused”. It’s proof positive that even the greatest creative forces in the world can screw up. The Beatles had an astounding number of successes under their belts in just a few short years.
This is certainly not one of them.
Date of viewing: April 19, 2015