Magical Mystery Tour (1967, The Beatles)

This year the indie rock band Big Thief made certain heads explode with the radical act of issuing two studio albums in a single calendar year; in the same circles, the Baltimore duo Beach House caused a similar disturbance not that long ago. But for their part, the band that essentially defined the parameters and artistic expectations of a rock band never stepped off the hamster wheel. In the least prolific full year of their existence as a recording unit, 1966, they managed to put together the seminal Revolver plus a single with two additional songs, mount a world tour and set themselves to the task of a total redefining of image. The following year, it was only six months after they soundtracked the Summer of Love and recontextualized the entire notion of the rock LP with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that they unleashed the ambitious, unpredictable multimedia project Magical Mystery Tour — a TV special and EP that would ultimately be transferred to the United States as a full-length album and, some years later, a popular theatrical feature on the midnight movie circuit. That it proved to be the Beatles’ first significant artistic flop (the film, at least, not so much the music) is almost incidental when you consider the sheer quantity of work into which they poured themselves from 1962 to ’70, and when you remember how rare it was that something they committed themselves to failed to “come off.”

Of course, the story is also somewhat more complicated than that linear version of events. We’ll have to wait another decade or so to get the full context that only foremost Beatles scholar Mark Lewisohn can likely provide, but from what we do know, it seems that Magical Mystery Tour was viewed as a sort of make-or-break project for the band, the moment in which they would harness their status as the most celebrated pop musicians in the world to fully conceive and execute a unique concoction of pictures, music and story all on their own without the unwavering showbiz smarts of manager Brian Epstein guiding them. (Epstein had died very young in the late summer of ’67, though there have been some rumors down through the years that his control over the band’s career had dwindled almost to nothing.) It was a mass exposure to the band’s unfiltered instincts; it carries with it a hint of desperation, if only to prove that the band still had more to discover.

Already in the period just after Sgt. Pepper, the Beatles’ recording sessions had suddenly taken on an unfocused, ramshackle quality — by the time that milestone album was actually released, they were booking Abbey Road and spending time noodling on half-hearted material like “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number),” “All Together Now” and a host of unlabeled jams. The cliché about “no worlds left to conquer” inevitably springs to mind, as though there was a collective hangover from the wildly ambitious scale and success of Pepper. Brian’s death only reinforced the point that the Beatles were adrift; the Magical Mystery Tour project was initiated before he died, but really took shape in the months afterward with Paul McCartney spearheading, the concept and execution boiling over with evidence of a concerted attempt at harnessing the same degree of passion and excitement that had carried them through their last album. Hindsight makes it easy to see that they arguably just needed more time to recharge, but again, they were mostly following the career pattern Epstein had set for them: you don’t rest, you don’t celebrate, you immediately look around for the next idea.

Magical Mystery Tour, the film (and because it did eventually play in theaters in various parts of the world, we are calling it a film here, making it the Beatles’ third after A Hard Day’s Night and Help!), follows a vague narrative of the Beatles (who don’t seem to be playing themselves, exactly, but also aren’t really “acting” — they seem to just exist here among a horde of tourists) and others converging on a bus for a daylong excursion that promises breathtaking magic and lifechanging experiences. McCartney based the concept on tours he remembered taking with his family as a child; they tended to be very loftily promoted but finally mundane, like a picnic lunch a few miles outside the city limits, so the central joke of the film is that all the pretentious language and wild exaggeration about what a transgressive experience the Magical Mystery Tour is going to be turns out to be a lot of noise about nothing much — essentially, everyone is taken to a field for a foot race and later to a few different theaters, a tent, a strip show and a dance hall. And at one point, the landscape changes slightly.

One reason audiences, particularly in America, never seem to have picked up on the tour intentionally being a bust is that the humor is just that deadpan. (Malcolm McDowell’s narration in the fine documentary The Compleat Beatles concisely explicates the conventional wisdom: “The idea was to travel the English countryside in a bus filled with friends, actors and circus freaks and to film whatever happened. Unfortunately, nothing did.”) But the more pertinent reason is that the film constantly distracts us with psychedelic overtures; even though the Beatles seem largely to be mocking rather than upholding the pop-surrealist conventions of the day (like the Monkees’ film Head, in its best moments Tour is closer to actual avant garde filmmaking than to the TV-grade weirdness fashionable as of 1967; in contrast to Head, those moments are very rare), it’s much too easy to take the film as an earnest attempt at incoherent Free Love gibberish. If the picture is intended as a parody of the flower power years — which is certainly how the music, drenched in acerbic humor and vague menace, plays out today, with none of the wide-eyed juvenilia of “All You Need Is Love” present — then it seems to run at cross purposes with the story’s extremely British sensibility as a piece of comic understatement.

It’s toward the latter mode that the film initially leans; its opening scenes are quite enjoyably humorous and strange and set up a number of inspired comic notions, which are unfortunately discarded within about ten minutes. There’s an enthusiastic portrayal of Ringo buying up the ticket to the Tour itself from a flamboyantly disguised John Lennon, who also contributes uncharacteristically fired-up voiceover narration, and then an introduction to Ringo and his “aunt” Jessie (a callback to the earlier Beatles films: the introduction of a fictitious Beatle Relative), played with rather heroic aplomb by mostly unknown actress Jessie Robins. As in A Hard Day’s Night, Ringo demonstrates some serious acting chops here — his performances of impatient banter with his aunt are both amusing and eerily believable, so much so that it’s extremely disappointing the film doesn’t really go anywhere with this narrative setup, though Ringo’s affably charming throughout the picture, including in a sequence when he drives the bus through a foot race. Jessie is a more distinctive character by far, and it’s perhaps a window into the Beatles’ collective psyche that they give her a more complex inner life than they conceive for themselves (perhaps also relevant: that the four of them serve essentially as anonymous citizens in this tale) — she fantasizes about a romantic life with the hilariously sinister Mr. Bloodvessel soundtracked by Muzak renditions of old Beatles classics, and figures in the film’s most genuinely inspired scene, an actively bizarre Lynchian nightmare, the set in particular a rather remarkably weird concoction, that has John Lennon the maitre d’ shoveling spaghetti onto her table while she cries at length about her dead husband.

The other Beatles get even less story material than Ringo; Paul flirts with the bus line’s hostess (Miranda Forbes), briefly appears in military garb and has very few lines, George’s most significant onscreen moment is his song “Blue Jay Way,” and the best element of John’s work on camera here is when he goofs off with the little girl Nichola and you get to see what appears to be a bit of natural, tender behavior on his part. (McCartney, recording the film’s commentary track 45 years later, is audibly moved by this moment.) The four bandmates also show up in a couple of deeply misguided, antiseptic slapstick scenes as a quartet of magicians who seem to be operating the bus’s destiny, though again, the joke that they’re not actually accomplishing anything gets muddled by the poor staging. Magical Mystery Tour might be made more frustrating by the number of good ideas it fails to properly follow up on; you’d almost prefer it to be actually incompetent through and through.

It doesn’t help that the Beatles’ first two films were the work of a renegade artist of the cinema, Richard Lester, who placed his distinct and distinguished stamp on two features that were nevertheless very different from each other. Magical Mystery Tour, directed by the band themselves (with an assist, mostly technical, from Bernard Knowles), looks and feels like the work of amateurs, and its dime store version of Lester’s quick-witted abstraction and innovation (replete with the presence of good luck charm Victor Spinetti as a nonsense-spouting drill sergeant) doesn’t impress. You already know you’re in trouble after five or six minutes when the malaise of uneventful travel sets in and the film fails to conjure up any actual reason to set up its clip of Paul in Nice, France dancing along to “The Fool on the Hill”; subsequent scenes like the race and other pointless diversions are almost invariably overlong. In A Hard Day’s Night the song sequences were organic to the story, in Help! they felt like a supplemental treat, but here you’re desperate for them to appear just to break the monotony; even the Bonzo Dog Band parading around with stripper Jan Carson on “Death Cab for Cutie” is a welcome diversion. “I Am the Walrus” is the best of the lot, an ingenious and resourceful piece of visual excitement, though “Your Mother Should Know” is an engaging bit of old Hollywood hokum, while “The Fool on the Hill” and “Blue Jay Way” get some points for atmosphere and the instrumental “Flying” at least has the cinematic bona fides of utilizing discarded footage from Kubrick’s 2001.

That this aired on the BBC on Boxing Day (in black & white, which could only have made things worse in terms of the critical and popular reception) almost feels like an act of defiant trolling, which might make this fun and subversive if it weren’t all so labored. It does enjoy a reputation among some connoisseurs of kitsch, trash and sleaze, but El Topo it ain’t; it doesn’t get the excuse of being a piece of outsider art, being made by a prestigious world famous group with infinite resources at their disposal. Of course it’s a treat for fans and all Beatle people should see it and will at least enjoy some of it — it’s fun to play “Where’s Waldo” with Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans — but it feels very home movie-caliber and it’s really one of the rare moments the band’s sense of quality control failed them, which tends to be the case any time a musician attempts to “direct” a movie (see: Neil Young). It’s all a bit humiliating in light of the following year’s animated classic Yellow Submarine, an immersive and beautiful interpretation of the Beatles’ work that makes far more of it in cinematic terms than they could themselves, and which they quite short-sightedly considered a throwaway project until they actually saw it. But Tour is crucial for the post-Brian, pre-Apple moment in time it captures; if Submarine brought us the larger-than-life mythology of the Beatles, this film brings us the mere mortals, who were capable of shooting and missing and even completely fucking up artistically… at least, once in a very great while.

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