“Ladies and gentlemen, what you are about to see is the product of our imaginations. And believe me, at this point they’re quite vivid.”
~ Paul McCartney
The Beatles made five feature films during the 1960s, when they were officially a band and unofficially bigger than Jesus. A Hard Day’s Night may be the most beloved, Help! may be the funniest. The documentary Let It Be is probably the most illuminating, the animated Yellow Submarine is probably the most colorful. But Magical Mystery Tour was the film they made themselves. They got some cameras, piled onto a bus, filmed whatever came into their heads, and the result is a strange phantasm of raw creative energy, barely coherent sometimes but brimming with the unique personalities and visions of the men we call John, Paul, George and Ringo. It’s finally on Blu-ray as of this week, and I watched all 53 minutes of it stone cold sober.
I'm willing to admit that last part may have been a slight mistake.
Critics were not kind to The Magical Mystery Tour when it first aired on TV in 1967. In fact, it might be fair to say that they hated it. Even the audience reaction was cold enough to prevent the film from airing on TV in America, despite The Beatles’ enormous popularity. It didn’t help that the broadly colorful film was only aired in black and white, but it really didn’t help that it’s only a traditional “movie” in the sense that it has some moving pictures. It’s a sketch film at heart, with a loose framework involving The Beatles and a series of quirky characters on a “Magical Mystery Tour” through England, getting into madcap adventures, having extended dream sequences and performing utterly non sequitur renditions of “I Am the Walrus,” “The Fool on the Hill” and “Blue Jay Way.”
Audiences were understandably perplexed, and looking back on the film today that reaction seems utterly unfair to this experiment, which feels like a French New Wave film by way of Monty Python with a killer soundtrack. Indeed, watching the confusing sketch where John Lennon literally shovels mounds of spaghetti onto a large woman’s plate evokes memories of Eric Idle’s many waiter sketches, years before “Monty Python” even premiered on British television. Magical Mystery Tour still has obvious shortcomings – the only characters to speak of, Ringo and his Aunt, are simply unpleasant to each other, the comedy misses more often than it hits and there’s nothing propelling the movie forward beyond sheer reckless energy – but the film’s refusal to conform to traditional storytelling conventions and its infectious good nature smoothes out most of these deficiencies.
I’ve tried to watch Magical Mystery Tour multiple times before this, with an emphasis on the word “tried.” It’s not that the film was bad, because it’s really not bad at all (although “good” might be a bit of an overstatement as well), but previous home video editions of the film, which was shot on 16mm, all seemed to have problematic transfers. Fortunately, this new Blu-ray edition is clear and abundantly colorful, and watching the hallucinogenic production in 1080i ultimately made me wish I had a coffee table full of drugs at my disposal. (Then again, I always wish that.) The disc also boasts deleted scenes, alternate cuts of several music numbers, an informative behind the scenes documentary short and, most importantly, a feature commentary by Paul McCartney, who handled most of the directing duties. The special collector's edition also comes with a 60-page booklet, and a two-disc remastered vinyl edition of the soundtrack.
The existence of a Paul McCartney commentary track in the first place, particularly for a film as maligned as this, may be enough of a novelty to encourage even Magical Mystery Tour’s detractors to pick up the disc. I hope they give the actual movie a second chance while they’re at it. It’s not their best film, in fact it’s probably their worst, but Magical Mystery Tour feels like a pure expression of The Beatles’ creative spirit in its rawest, most unfocused form, and for that it’s a joy. Even though it is kind creepy that "Your Mother Should Know" was now actually a hit before some peoples' mothers were born.
Magical Mystery Tour: