In a catalogue of groundbreaking and highly acclaimed works in both music and the movies, Magical Mystery Tour is seen by many Beatles critics and historians as one of the band’s only artistic failures. When it first released as a television movie on Boxing Day 1967 critics were less than kind – the phrase self indulgent used quite often – and audience members made paralytic by Christmas meals and stranded with extended families were taken aback by an hour of walrus costumes, Wacky Races antics, strippers, truly dark absurdism and, in maybe the worse horror of all, having to experience a British coach day.
There is an important element to their viewing experience, however, that also means some of these critiques were of a film that they didn’t completely experience; its broadcast was completely in black and white. Fair enough, colour television had only been introduced as standard the previous month (for Wimbledon), but if there was anything that could have been used to show off the technology it was probably this. Even on a not so well presented copy of the movie, partly due to the fact that its reception meant it was taken less care of (the 2012 remastering in very impressive though), one can see the importance of the colour shifts, the palette detours, fluctuating filters over landscapes (said to be leftover footage from Dr Strangelove), would be a crucial part in experiencing The Beatle’s vision for the film.
By that I mean Paul McCartney’s vision, since by all accounts this was based on a idea and mainly directed by him (Richard Lester being very much missed). And by directed I mean heavily improvised over the span of two weeks, with locations and scenes filmed as seen fit by the sprawling nature of its framework. But now that we have this free flowing, fifty-minute odd movie in the format intended, does it fair that much better? Answer: No? Not really? It’s complicated. I mean, even a less acclaimed work in the Beatles canon ended up having been a clear influences on other. With the surreal comic antics and inclusion of British military guard running over British fields, one can easily see the influence this movie had on Monty Python’s Flying Circus, to the point that Palin wanted to show the movie before screening of The Holy Grail. But although not every sketch of the troupes pioneering show worked every time, let’s just say that the Python’s had a greater hit to miss ratio than the Beatles.
I tend not to call art self indulgent myself, since what is art by its very nature. But when one of your main stars is just standing on a hill by himself for a few minutes, showing his own face and him looking over vistas while his own song plays in the background, maybe I can understand where that critique comes from. Beatles’ films have never had what we would strong plot, but they tended to have a fair perspective on pacing. The dedication to fluctuating from mood to perspective to story at a whim, but without much coherent sense of how they are placed, kills any sense of momentum this film has. It also means that we end up focusing on people in this bus ride that we don’t really have any investment in. There’s two montages dedicated to Ringo’s Aunt (Jessie Robbins). one is a montage of her romantic encounter on the beach with the bus conductor Buster Bloodvessel (what a great name!) that’s less heartwarming and more fucking baffling. But the more baffling seen comes from what is essentially an extended fat joke, a sequence in a restaurant as John, doing an Eric Idle impression before Eric Idle was even a thing, shovels spaghetti in front of her face. You almost expect him to ask if she would like a wafer thin mint.
As Yellow Submarine would show a year later, this shift of style and character takes a deft hand that the band doesn’t really have in their directorial work. This is around half the length of its competition, and it feels the longest. The particularly odd thing about this film’s shortness is that, apart from some brief glimpses in the quick cutting introduction (complete with waves!), John Lennon inexplicably doesn’t appear again until near the half way mark of the film. Fortunately that is one of the strongest moments in the film, the music video for “I Am The Walrus”, where the cubist editing, jump cuts, funny costumes and smiling faces are full of a consummate joy. In fact, the sheer presence of Beatles music not only elevates some of the films less tolerable moments, and in the next two films the surreality of the film means that the musics in the narrative feel less obtrusive than in, say, Help!
I forgot to mention that Ringo and George are also in this movie. George sequence is him singing “Blue Jay Way” during a presentation of him sat down as multi-coloured filters continue flashing, which looks too much like it predates the Wookie Hologram scene from the Star Wars Holiday Special for my complete liking (though that didn’t have three Paul heads looking adorable). And Ringo win a bus race. I think. The race is not the best edited thing in the world, so I’ll just have to take the movies’ word on that.
Magical Mystery Tour’s greatest moments come at its ending, and they are not featured prominently in the first half. I know that how that sounds, but the “Death Cab for Cutie” sequence which features the strange performing Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, clips of men swinging to the mike, weird sound mixing of the crowds and an onstage stripper is the moment where the Paul’s film endeavour reach unadulterated genius levels (so much so I presume he thought this was the weakest part). Now, I’m pretty adverse to the trend of calling anything that applies surreality to the mundane life “Lynchian”, as David Lynch’s interests in Americana and sexuality make this feel much more specific. But apart from the Americana aspect, here replaced with Northern holiday and vaudeville culture, this sequence does predate the mood that Lynch would go on to crystallise, and it does that the same year he made his first short film. It’s also hard to deny the immediate pleasures of seeing the Beatles perform an old fashioned musical sequence, coming down the stairs in white suits as the crowd waves us farewell. It almost makes you think the whole film was of this quality.
I watched this movie twice, once when I was paying exclusive attention to the film, and once while I was doing other things in the background. The second method made the episodic structure much more tolerable, which probably explains why it was meant to be seen on television. But even in this movie’s less than stellar moments, I can’t completely dislike this. I mean, this movie has space wizards. I can’t hate a movie with space wizards and names that give Thomas Pynchon a run for his money. But it still made me think that the band should have lessened on the hallucinogens. Give them to another filmmaker instead…