It must have been the most surreal TV experience an entire nation ever had.
On the day after Christmas, 1967, virtually everyone in the United Kingdom sat down to enjoy a Boxing Day musical special starring The Beatles. No doubt, many were expecting a jolly concert performance, like the ones the Lads had been doing for nearly five years on the BBC. Others, knowing this was to be an hour-long film, were hoping for a wacky comedy, like the boys’ two theatrical hits, A Hard Day’s Night and Help!
What they got was Magical Mystery Tour, a shaky 16-millimeter glorified home movie directed, more or less, by Paul McCartney. It seemed, at best, to be a stream-of-consciousness vanity project/fever dream.
Or was it?
The show caused such an uproar in Blighty that a planned U.S. airing never happened. It became available for viewing in fits and starts over the years — and now, at last, Magical Mystery Tour is getting the full Blu-ray, DVD, ITunes Store treatment. The new release is supposedly “restored,” but since the film was a bit rough around the edges to begin with, that means primarily that the original mono music soundtrack has been replaced with remixed studio recordings.
The movie’s plot, such as it is, involves Ringo Starr taking his Aunt Jessie on a mystery bus tour — a then-popular diversion in which customers piled into a tour bus in the morning and spent the day going to a series of surprise destinations. Traveling separately, the four Beatles climb aboard the bus and accompany a cast of oddball characters to a number of bizarre stops, including an Army recruitment center (where they are yelled at by the Beatles’ favorite movie costar, Victor Spinetti), and an empty field, where they all crawl into a small pup tent that is, on the inside, large enough to comfortably hold all of them.
Three songs from the soundtrack were amazing, vintage Beatles: “The Fool on the Hill,” “Your Mother Should Know,” and the title number. One was an instrumental (“Flying”) and two were the psychedelic “Blue Jay Way” and “I Am the Walrus,” the latter of which blew more than a few minds with its images of The Beatles dressed as wild animals playing instruments on an airport runway.
Confusion reigns for most of the hour, until the touring men and women split off for an evening’s entertainment. That’s when George Harrison and John Lennon find themselves in a nightclub listening to one of the Beatles’ favorite British music groups, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, sing their hit song, “Death Cab for Cutie.” And oh, yes, a stripper performs.
Wait a minute … a stripper? Yes, and only a strategically placed “Censored” sign hides the dancer’s notable assets. George and John, by the way, enjoy her performance immensely.
It was at about that point that panicky mothers throughout the UK presumably started shooing their little kids to bed, which is too bad because the children would have missed Magical Mystery Tour’s grande finale, an all-out production number of “Your Mother Should Know,” featuring the Beatles in white tails and carnations (all red, except for Paul’s black one which, of course, clued us all in to the fact that he was dead). The dreamlike musical episodes anticipated the stuff that would, a couple of decades hence, become the bread and butter of MTV. (Indeed, Harrison once said, “The Beatles invented MTV.”)
The critics panned Magical Mystery Tour. Confused viewers lit up the BBC switchboards like day-after-Christmas trees. The record sold in the millions, but there were still those who suspected that the Beatles had jumped the shark, a good decade before anyone knew what that meant.
But I’d suggest you take a look at Magical Mystery Tour and judge for yourself. The movie is not without its charms. Ringo is, as always, amusing as the put-upon nephew. (Although, as director of photography for MMT, Ringo seems a bit too fond of the camera’s zoom mechanism.) The minor characters are played by a gallery of seasoned British TV and music hall veterans, and it’s sweet that the Beatles, whose music owed much to the music hall tradition, share the spotlight with them. And then there’s that finale, with the Lads endearingly, hopelessly out of step as they kick their way down a great floating staircase.
A splendid time may not quite have been guaranteed for all, but the Beatles were, as always, determined to do something their way, and they did it. That always counts for something — and in the Beatles’ case, that nearly always counted for something special.
Photos and Clip Courtesy Apple Corps