Movies: The Beatles – Magical Mystery Tour (1967)

1967 marked a crucial transitional period for the Beatles; they recorded the groundbreaking Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; performed “All You Need Is Love” on the Our World broadcast; studied Transcendental Meditation under the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi; and suffered the tragic death of manager Brian Epstein.

In the midst of all this chaos, the Beatles also had to fulfill their contract with EMI to release another feature film. Thus Paul McCartney presented the other Beatles with a rough sketch — a pie chart, to be exact — for a new movie. The concept: The Beatles would board a bus with a variety of friends, character actors, vaudevillians, and sideshow acts; in between “dream” sequences, the camera would simply film whatever happened. The result, Magical Mystery Tour, remains the subject of debate among Beatles fans: Was it an underrated exercise in avant garde art, or simply four guys playing around with cool cameras? Apple Corps invites a reevaluation of the film with the digitally restored film, available on DVD and Blu-ray and sold alone or with the deluxe package: the film, a 60-page book, and a reproduction of the original Magical Mystery Tour vinyl EP.

Previous Magical Mystery Tour reissues were marred by grainy, dark film quality; this time restorers have enhanced the color and eliminated as much graininess as possible, and the sound is rendered crystal clear. George Harrison’s “Blue Jay Way” sequence particularly benefits from this treatment, as its psychedelic, otherworldly quality now shines through. “I Am the Walrus” maintains its playfully surreal mood, while the “Fool on the Hill” segment appears both silly and serious with McCartney cavorting through the hills of Nice, France. The ending scene, “Your Mother Should Know,” plays like Busby Berkeley on acid, with the white suit-clad Beatles executing what could be loosely termed “choreography” while wearing broad grins, as if in on a private joke.

Most agree that the musical sequences hold up better than the rest of the film; in fact, they effectively foreshadow elaborate music videos that would be made decades later. The music itself represents some of the more adventurous music the Beatles had attempted up to that point, with “I Am the Walrus” as a highlight. McCartney contributed strong tracks as well, such as the aforementioned “Fool on the Hill,” the charming “Your Mother Should Know,” and the title song. U.S. and later editions of the soundtrack included singles not used in the film, but recorded around the same period: “Hello, Goodbye,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Penny Lane,” “Baby You’re A Rich Man,” and “All You Need Is Love.” For this re-release, only the original songs are included.

The music evolved into a critically acclaimed album in the Beatles catalog; the movie, however, has received mixed reviews. In his director’s commentary as well as a “making of” featurette, McCartney argues that Magical Mystery Tour was meant to be an experiment in surrealism, asserting that Steven Spielberg studied the movie in film school as an example of “making a film in a different way.” However, he admits in the commentary that the stripper segment and other scenes of scantily clad women were inserted essentially because the four men liked to look at ladies, hardly an example of serious filmmaking. In his interviews, Ringo Starr takes a noncommittal stance, mainly concentrating on the fun he had acting and experimenting with camera angles and editing. Behind-the-scenes footage shows him improvising with “Aunt Jessie,” with McCartney giving direction like this: “OK, Ringo, you and Aunt Jessie are going to just say some stuff. Go!”

Other bonus features include an interesting overview of the cast. Who knew that Jessie Robins could play decent drums? (“Go Jessie!” Starr yells while watching footage of Robins in action.) Fawlty Tower fans will enjoy hearing that Derek Royle, AKA “Jolly Jimmy,” once guested on a very famous episode. The original video to “Hello, Goodbye,” first aired on “Top of the Pops” in 1967, is also included here; cleverly, Apple compiled outtakes and rare footage to create new videos for “Your Mother Should Know,” “Blue Jay Way,” and “Fool on the Hill.” Two segments omitted from the film, “Nat’s Dream” (directed by John Lennon) and “I’m Going in a Field,” generate only mild interest. The former segment does demonstrate how vaudevillian and absurdist humor clearly influenced Lennon — think Monty Python crossed with Benny Hill, with just a touch of Charlie Chaplin.

As a sidenote, the Lennon-penned “Buster Bloodvessel” dream, with Aunt Jessie being fed copious amounts of spaghetti, may very well have been the inspiration for Monty Python’s infamous (and disgusting) “Mr. Creosote” scene in “The Meaning of Life.” The final bonus feature is an odd video for “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush” by Traffic. Apparently Traffic filmed the video around the same time as Magical Mystery Tour, and the Beatles considered including it in the final film. While that never happened, Traffic’s clip certainly reflects the surrealistic quality of the Beatles’ movie.

The rest of the Magical Mystery Tour saga has been told frequently; the film aired on the BBC on Boxing Day 1967, in black and white. Anyone expecting the lighthearted romps of A Hard Day’s Night and Help! must have been shocked while watching, plus the movie’s psychedelic quality was blunted by the lack of color. Critics savaged the film, fans scratched their heads, and the Beatles thus experienced their first critical and commercial flop. The soundtrack album, however, fared very differently: it topped the charts in the U.S. and Britain, and many of its tracks have been covered by countless artists.

The new edition of Magical Mystery Tour will probably not change minds; those who dislike the film will continue to do so, while those who deem it an underappreciated classic will feel vindicated by this treatment. However, it represents an important stage in the band’s history, as the group would soon transition from the psychedelic phase into their final, straightforward rock stage. For that reason, the remastered Magical Mystery Tour is an essential addition to any serious Beatles collector’s library; at the very least, it will inspire ongoing, spirited debates of the film’s worth.

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole is a lifelong music enthusiast who maintains a stand-alone music blog called Listen to the Band. In addition, she is the internet columnist and a contributing editor for Beatlefan magazine. She also holds an Ed.D. in Instructional Technology. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.