'Magical Mystery Tour' Is Not as Bad as Everyone Says

by Sean Murphy

6 November 2012

Magical Mystery Tour is an occasionally awesome mess full of odds and sods and in some regards an appropriate artistic hangover from the Summer of Love.
cover art

Magical Myster Tour

Director: The Beatles
Cast: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr

US DVD: 9 Oct 2012

Having never had the opportunity to view Magical Mystery Tour all the way through, I looked forward to this DVD with a mixture of anticipation and a sense of settling unfinished business. Of course, I’d seen various clips (some good, some not) but mostly I’d heard the oft-repeated assessment from those who had watched the film in its entirety. It was, of course, considered a disaster and signaled the first unadulterated flop of the Fab Four’s career. An ill-advised caper gone not so magically off the rails, the only mystery being how and why it got made in the first place. The fact that it has never been properly released, all these years later, suggested that the band was not especially eager for it to see the light of day.

Perceptions can –and should—change, and certainly the way people received this venture almost half a century ago might not be applicable to today’s tastes. Would considerable time and distance eliminate (or add) baggage, knowing this was, after all, The Beatles? Or, would knowing it was almost universally panned, then, soften one’s expectations? Could we, in short, be surprised by how bad it wasn’t, after all?

The most direct answer to all of these questions is that Magical Mystery Tour is not as bad as everyone says. It’s worse.

Well, judged by virtually any criteria, the movie fails in virtually every regard. It’s sloppy, unfocused, and manages to be one thing The Beatles never were before or after: boring. Considering the band was fresh off the artistic and cultural touchstone that Sgt. Pepper was –and remains—it’s almost impossible to imagine how poorly they acquit themselves here. Or is it? Looking back on how productive the lads were all through the ‘60s, churning out a string of albums that continued to set the bar (for themselves; for everyone else) higher, some sort of letdown was inevitable.

Magical Mystery Tour remains worthwhile as a period piece, and a cautionary tale. It isn’t calculated enough to be a proper vanity project, but it’s not nearly daring or adventurous enough to be a true piece of experimentation, either. It’s an occasionally awesome mess full of odds and sods and in some regards an appropriate artistic hangover from the Summer of Love.

The concept, a trip following the Fabs around the countryside, could (or, should) have either been a forthright documentary, or else a full-blown lark. What results is a bit of both, which is fine, but too much of the material is plodding or uninspired.

Needless to say, the sequences featuring the band performing are never less than satisfying. Some of the segments, like the performance art for “I Am The Walrus”, are remarkable. Indeed, this installment practically justifies the entire ordeal, serving as the first truly successful combination of avant-garde and old school music video. The renderings of “Blue Jay Way” and “Your Mother Should Know” endure as straightforward opportunities to see the lads doing their thing with a minimum of pretense—at least by the standards of 1967. The footage of them, in Sgt. Pepper regalia, miming “Hello Goodbye” for “Top of the Pops” is equal parts embarrassing and exhilarating.

In terms of “plot”, the sequences following the “action” range from tedious to painful. The forced silliness has not aged well, and while some of the low budget set pieces show initial promise, they too often feel like Monty Python skits, without the humor. Seeing the lads (particularly Paul and Ringo) appearing unguarded amongst their fans is a reminder of why the band was—and is—so likeable.

Listening to McCartney, who was at this time asserting himself as the dominant force within the collective, fondly recall his vision of filming a psychedelic charabanc ride, one can appreciate what might have been. If there had been more time, or energy, or discipline, Mac may have been on to something. Interestingly and more than a little ironically, the end result gives short shrift to the psychedelia, and it mars the proceedings. More moments, such as Lennon as a waiter shoveling spaghetti onto a woman’s plate (appropriately lifted directly from a dream) would have been welcome.

Then again, the music itself (“Flying”, “Blue Jay Way”, “The Fool on the Hill”) accomplishes what the best music—Beatles’ and otherwise-often manages to be: miniature movies for the mind. Nothing the band could film is capable of surpassing the images the songs conjure up on their own.

Magical Mystery Tour, then, is the soundtrack to many things: excess ambition, insufficient attention, whimsical self-deprecation, experimental folly, and semi-choreographed skylarking from the biggest band in the universe. It is, ultimately, a reminder that these geniuses were human. We would see this play out literally as the cameras recorded the tension during the Let It Be sessions. This project showcases the band’s ambition while exposing their aesthetic limitations.

Bottom line: the dramatically improved sound of this Blu-ray edition validates its acquisition, and a careful listen to songs you’ve heard a thousand times before is sufficient evidence that when The Beatles focused on making music, no one did it better.

The bonus/special features certainly make an already appealing purchase even more so. Surely, any extra footage featuring reminiscence from Paul and Ringo is most welcome. There is a 20 minute “Making Of” feature that has additional commentary and perspective from both Ringo and Paul, and there is also a brief “Meet the Supporting Cast” addendum. Neither of these will warrant repeat viewings, but they add value and will be appreciated by aficionados.

Perhaps the ultimate selling point (for those not already sold) is the Director’s Commentary by Paul McCartney. As always, Macca is honest, humble and amiable. For us die-hard Beatlemaniacs, any opportunity to hear one of the original members looking through the onion, glassily, is golden.

Magical Myster Tour


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