“When a man buys a ticket for a magical mystery tour… He knows what to expect. We guarantee him the trip of a lifetime.”
So begins the most highly controversial and hotly debated piece of filmmaking in the Beatles brief but illustrious repertoire.
The Paley Center for Media, in association with Apple Films, recently hosted a special screening of The Magical Mystery Tour, newly restored and now with a remixed soundtrack. Following the movie, a stellar panel—Elvis Costello, Stevie Van Zandt, Jonathan Clyde (Apple Films), director and screenwriter Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, the Bourne films) and moderator Bill Flanagan (MTV/VH1 Storytellers)—discussed their first memories of seeing the film and what it meant to them. Though there were a couple of disgruntled comments—how much better the film might have been had the Beatles put more time into it, the randomness and weak plot, and how it fell short of earlier Beatles’ movies—there was also a generous outpouring of love and respect for the project, its makers and the effects the film had on their generation. And, as some wise men once said, all you need is love.
Flanagan introduced the film by saying that it was most likely that anyone in the room who thought they had seen the movie before really hadn’t. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology and video sharing, many of us have seen the music videos derived from the film, but never the whole piece in its entirety.
Magical Mystery Tour premiered on BBC1 on Boxing Day in 1967. Despite being filmed in full color, it was only available that day in black and white (because that was all BBC1 had to work with at the time) and with wonky sound throughout the broadcast, the film — only thought of as a one-off piece of “light entertainment” more akin to a television show than a movie — was a complete flop.
The BBC bought it sight unseen, probably expecting something more along the lines of the goofball hijinks they let loose in Help! It would be the perfect light entertainment for happy families enjoying their Christmas holiday. By that time, the Beatles had appeared on all the comedy shows and had done sketches or played the song of the day, so when Paul McCartney offered a movie, it seemed like a no-brainer to the powers that be at the BBC. What the network got was something altogether more surprising, and not necessarily in the way the BBC would have liked. Many older viewers were offended by the outlandish behavior coming from what had previously appeared to be such a nice group of clean-cut boys. It pushed the boundaries of what the license-paying population could find acceptable, or even morally acceptable. Complaints came pouring into the Beeb. These were no longer the lovable Mop-Tops British families gathered around their televisions to see.
After receiving such a harsh negative response in its native land, American distributors never backed the project’s passage across the pond. It only finally made it to the U.S. when bootleg copies started appearing at midnight screenings at cult movie houses in the early- to mid-70s.
Given a budget and few to no corporate constraints, the Mop Tops were also given free rein to do what they wanted, how they wanted. What they made, oddly enough, was an incredible piece of technical filmmaking, despite its weaknesses—of which there are many. But their ideas and influence were drawn upon for years; artists as wildly diverse as the Monty Python troupe, Martin Scorcese, and John Waters can cite Magical Mystery Tour as an inspiration. What the general public thought at the time is another story.
There really isn’t much of a plot to speak of, just a series of vignettes that don’t even really tie together in any way except by the fact that the titular coach brings the band and fellow travelers from place to unexpected place. To even speak of a script is somewhat inaccurate because the boys took a guerrilla approach to filmmaking. Like Christopher Guest would do decades later with mockumentaries like Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman and the rest (though I dare say with significantly less preparation than a Chris Guest joint), they established a premise, gave some minimal direction to the cast and let the cameras roll. The dialogue was almost entirely improvised, and it looks at times as if they didn’t feel the need to try alternate takes. Characters look directly into the camera or at people off-screen, lines are flubbed fairly regularly, but that really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.
“As a filmmaker, Tony,” asked Flanagan, “did it strike you as competent? “It’s a piece of communal filmmaking,” Gilroy said, “with no script and they had no real tools or authority to make it. But they were so used to framing every song. In the movies, nothing bleeds into anything else. It’s really a whole toolbox for everything that’s going to happen in moviemaking over the next two years, including The Monkees’ TV show and movies like Easy Rider. And they’re doing it on their own without anybody helping then. It’s shabby and crazy and shambolic, but it’s really fantastic.”
Clyde continues, “Richard Lester very astutely said to them in ’67, ‘go and make your own movie. Forget about the conventions and make a movie, approaching it like you would a record. Just let it flow.’ And that’s what they did.”
There are moments of real tenderness and sweetness that contrast with moments that are largely uncomfortable and have a highly surreal nightmarish quality that many later directors (and one hugely popular British comedy troupe) surely mined for inspiration.
he fictionalized “Richard Starkey’s” poor, widowed Aunt Jessie (Jessie Robins), a rather large woman, and the mildly deranged Mr. Bloodvessel (famous-in-the-UK performance poet Ivor Cutler) frolicking on the beach was one of the former, though it was deemed by British censors to be wholly inappropriate viewing. Apparently fat women should not be seen engaged in acts of romantic love, even if it is just some smooching on the sand.
One of the creepier moments — and at first I wasn’t sure if there was something wrong with me for thinking this way, though my worries were later assuaged — was a quiet bit with John Lennon (a silent George Harrison sitting beside him) conversing with a little girl named Nicola. His “character” reminded me of Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, stroking Mike Teevee’s hair, the sweetness of the tableau just barely masking a vaguely lecherous undertone. Considering Britain’s longstanding history of notorious pedophiles — including, I might add, the recent scandal surrounding the BBC and whether or not it officials turned a blind eye from the misdeeds of alleged aggressor Jimmy Savile — the conversation has a distinctly devious feel about it. John tells her he has a present for her, asking repeatedly if she wants it, she gigglingly declines, he tells her she’s going to get it anyway, then proceeds to draw a deflated balloon from his pocket and asks her if she wants to blow on it. I can’t be the only one who thinks this is a bit much, though I am looking through the lens of time crusted over with several decades’ worth of accumulated cynicism filtered through the collective unconscious.
Most of the time I just sat slack-jawed in incredulity that something could be so terrible and so brilliant at the same time, but there are a lot of seeming contradictions permeating the film. It’s awash with very England-specific bits of nostalgia, but is oddly revolutionary as well. It calls on familiar archetypes, and then twists them into something altogether absurd. The toothy coach conductor, Jolly Jimmy Johnson, is an über-unctuous tour guide who wouldn’t have been seen as anything but true to type in the 60s. There were such people who did just that job with just that particular over-enthusiastic way about them, trying their hardest to make the boring sights of the English countryside seem like the last bastions of true grace on our dark, industrial world. Neither would it have seemed off for a young man to go on an excursion with a widowed auntie. It was just something that people did. These characters and situations would have been instantly recognizable to the viewers of the 1960s. (As for the title, there were in fact “mystery tours” that left Liverpool promising fun and adventure, but apparently they only ever just ended up in Blackpool. Ah well.)
Flanagan talked about how the individual Beatles also managed to preserve their personas throughout all of their movies, never departing from the images established in the very beginning with Hard Day’s Night. “I don’t know what direction Richard Lester gave them,” says Flanagan, “what he told them to do or not do, or told them how to shed their inhibitions. We don’t know that. But it is very hard to be yourself.” He continues, “They never violate their personalities on camera in any piece of film we have of them. George is the same George in this film as the others. There’s no contradiction of who he is in any of their films.”
However, they were starting to spin off in individual artistic directions: Paul was just getting into the avant-garde, John the surreal, Ringo spent his time hamming to the camera, and George maintained a quiet — albeit newly psychedelic — dignity throughout.
I can’t talk about the movie without mentioning the music. Ostensibly, the scenes between the songs are just the glue holding together, flimsy as they may be, some of the earliest and most beloved music videos of all time. The sound has been completely remastered by a team led by Giles Martin, son of the Beatles’ producer and sometimes-composer George Martin, and it sounds incredible. “Blue Jay Way” is a haunting fugue that, with almost makes George out to be the star of the whole production. “The Fool on the Hill” captures Paul’s whimsy and eye for composition. And, of course, Magical Mystery Tour also contains the only official visuals ever made for “I Am the Walrus,” a highly unusual composition serendipitously recorded at just the right in just the right place by just the right people, and argued by many to be The Beatles’ single greatest musical achievement.
Costello adds in “We wouldn’t be here if the songs didn’t have such emotional force. They have almost Edward Lear–like language, but it’s the heart… It’s genuinely affecting.”
The boys also paid their respects to one of the most influential (and all but unknown in the U.S.) of their predecessors, The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. They aren’t named directly, but Viv, Neil, Legs, Sam, Roger, Rodney and Vernon are there in all their glory accompanying a burlesque act (apparently not too risqué for the people of Britain) and belting out a tune now guaranteed to elicit “a-ha!” moments from the younger crowd for being the nomenclatural source of the indie rock band Death Cab for Cutie.
I was fed a steady diet of Beatles music as a child — the first album I remember ever begging to be put in the tape deck was Sgt. Pepper when I was in the first grade — so when the first bars of the title song bounced into the room in 5.1 Dolby digital sound, a chill shot straight through me. I may have been slack jawed, but the corners of my mouth held a constant smile. Yes, it’s an hour of madness and rambling. Yes, the cinematography probably would have been better with a professional at the helm and not an enthusiastic Ringo Starr. Yes, there are moments when you just have to ask yourself how they ever thought it would play well to anyone.
“It’s not supposed to make sense,’ says Flanagan. “It’s anarchy and nostalgia mixed together — so charming and so sinister. (“The perfect definition of the English,” quips Costello.) It’s tatty and forward thinking at the same time. And what they probably got from Richard Lester is that sense of ‘we’re young we’re having fun, everything is beautiful and it will never be like this again.’” But it is also a piece of history, a source of inspiration for many of our greatest artists and an hour-long distillation of the personalities of four sometimes-foolish young men whose remarkable musical gifts left an indelible mark on the world, changing it forever and for the better.
The restored and remastered Magical Mystery Tour is available on DVD and Blu-Ray now.
For more information, go to the Paley Center for Media’s website.