The Beatles do it themselves in their 1967 made-for-TV film, Magical Mystery Tour, which celebrates its 55th anniversary later this year.
The BBC committed the terrible sin of first airing this film in black-and-white in December 1967. They would rectify this by airing a color version shortly thereafter. But by then, it was too late because they damage had been done. Here’s the thing about Magical Mystery Tour: it isn’t a film in the same sense as either A Hard Day’s Night or Help! No, this film is better looked at as a series of sketch vignettes or even a home movie. The Beatles are among the greatest musicians of all time but when it comes to filmmaking, it wasn’t their best effort. Maybe the film would have been better with Richard Lester coming back? According to both Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr in the bonus features, this film is almost all improvisation.
Magical Mystery Tour is a series of sketches shot over two weeks in September 1967. Altogether, the film draws from ten hours of mostly improvised footage. If something works, it works and stays in the film. Take John Lennon shoveling the spaghetti onto the table in front of Aunt Jessie (Jessie Robins), for example. It is hysterical. But anyway, things mysteriously happen while a group of people are on a British mystery tour. There are four or five magicians that make things happen at the whim. One moment, we’ll be looking at them. The next moment, it’ll be the only video performance of “I Am The Walrus.” A number of people are in the cast and Victor Spinetti returns for his third Beatles film. Spinetti plays an army sergeant that you cannot understand.
When you think about the moment in time, The Beatles are no longer performing live. This leaves film or television as the only available options other than recording albums. For a few weeks in 1967, they went off to the countryside to make the film at RAF West Mailing in Kent. The result is short of a masterpiece but this film captures a time capsule in all of its 53 minutes. It follows the summer of love and the transition from pop to rock.
Fans of Dr. Strangelove might recognize some of the footage used during the “Flying” segment. It’s reused in the film because film editor Roy Benson had access to the footage. Of course, Stanley Kubrick complained about it. But anyway, it’s fascinating to see the B52 footage used in a trippy way. After all, it is a film from 1967.
The 2012 Blu-ray cleans up the film from previous versions and features a remastered sound mix. It also includes a number of deleted scenes/songs. One is an alternate version of “The Fool On The Hill.” I can understand why this particular version did not make it into the final cut. It just didn’t match the same tone as the rest of the film. There are also alternate versions of both “Your Mother Should Know” and “Blue Jay Way.” As much fun as it is to watch them, they are different from what we see in the film. In fact, “Your Mother Should Know” features footage from a number of takes.
Magical Mystery Tour might not be a masterpiece or have a real script but it’s still a film that’s worth watching–plus, the music rocks. It might not be the first Beatles film that I recommend but I’d still recommend people view it.
DIRECTORS/SCREENWRITERS: The Beatles
CAST: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr
Magical Mystery Tour first aired on December 26, 1967.
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