Monday, February 20, 2012

Stubs - Magical Mystery Tour

MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR (1967) Starring: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Directed by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr and Bernard Knowles. . Written by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Produced by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Gavrik Losey and Dennis O’Dell. Songs by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and George Harrison and featuring music by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Run Time: 55 minutes. Color. UK. Music, Comedy, Adventure, TV movie

1967 found the Beatles at perhaps their zenith. In June of that year, they released their watershed album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a perennial at the top of any list of rock albums. Coming as it did at the start of the Summer of Love, that album is forever linked to psychedelic imagery, drugs and experimentation. If there was any doubt that there was talent behind the fame all of that had been forgotten. The Beatles moved from merely pop sensations to music sensations. If you have never heard the album, then stop reading this now and do so. In addition to this chart topping album, the Beatles also appeared that summer on the One World broadcast, as Britain’s official entry. The song they performed, written specifically for the program by John, was the anthem to love, “All You Need Is Love.”

But 1967 was also a year of change. George Harrison’s fascination with Indian music, which reportedly started with the filming of Help! had escalated into a journey of all things Indian, including their belief system. And where one Beatle tread, the rest followed. On August 24th, while the Beatles were in Bangor, Wales at an audience with guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, their manager Brian Epstein died of a drug overdose. While Epstein’s management of the group did not always get them the most money, he certainly loved the band and made them world stars. While his role with the group was more tentative now that they had stopped touring, he was nonetheless the lynch pin that held all things Beatles together. There is no doubt if he was still alive at the time that Magical Mystery Tour would have never been made.

Blame this one on Paul McCartney if you must, but Magical Mystery Tour was the Beatles first venture post-Epstein and their first public failure. Shown on Boxing Day (December 26th), and in black and white on BBC-1, the Beatles Christmas film was not well-received, though the soundtrack would go to number one.

What Magical Mystery Tour must have looked like in black and white.
Ill-conceived and poorly executed, perhaps, but the film is not without its charms and musical moments, it did also serve the purpose of giving the no longer touring Beatles a showcase for their music. It is what would now be considered a long play video with the thinnest of stories connecting the six original songs written for the project. 

Paul is featured in "The Fool on the Hill" sequence.
One of my favorite bits is the segment devoted to I Am the Walrus, which is also one of my favorite Beatles songs. Dressed in multicolored garb, and later in animal costumes, the Beatles start playing and Paul points to Ringo just as the drums are supposed to come in. The footage that follows is as nonsensical as the lyrics, with all four Beatles ending up playing on top of a cement structure. By the way, in the footage for the song inspired by Lewis Carroll’s The Walrus and The Carpenter, the walrus was John.

The Beatles perform "I Am the Walrus" in Magical Mystery Tour.
Shot in two weeks in September, the film revolves around the idea of people getting on a tour bus for parts unknown, rather than a set location. The story revolves around Ringo with his Aunt Jessie (Jessie Robins), whom Ringo is taking out after the death of his Uncle. The others on board include the tour director, Jolly Jimmy Johnson (Derek Royle), the tour hostess, Miss Wendy Winters (Mandy Weet), conductor Buster Bloodvessel (Ivor Cutler) and the other Beatles.

The tour bus had a hostess, Miss Wendy Winters (Mandy Weet).
Events are controlled, so to speak, by four or five magicians (the Beatles and road manager Mal Evans) and interrupted by musical interludes, including the Beatles performing “I Am the Walrus” and George performing “Blue Jay Way”.

There really is no story to speak of, just improvised sketches, which include Aunt Jessie’s daydreams about Buster Bloodvessel, an impromptu race in which everyone on the tour chooses a different mode of transport, a walk through a British Army Recruitment office with a drill sergeant played by Victor Spinetti, and with the men of the tour watching a strip show, featuring music by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. The film concludes with a production number of “Your Mother Should Know”, with the Beatles in white tails "dancing" down some steps in an ode to Hollywood musicals.
The Beatles perform "Your Mother Should Know" in white tails.
Throughout the production, the Magical Mystery Tour bus became the subject of fascination by fans, and a long line of cars followed it everywhere, hampering the magic that the group hoped would evolve.

The Magical Mystery Tour bus in action.
From ten hours of footage, the Beatles edited it down to 52 minutes over the next 11 weeks. It should surprise no one that the end result is somewhat incomprehensible. In many ways, Magical Mystery Tour is a student film with a big budget, as the Beatles themselves were learning as they went. It is a hard lesson to learn on the fly as witnessed by the film. But given the fact they had no idea what they were doing, the film isn’t really all that bad. There is at least honesty to the travesty.

You have to admire the Beatles for trying to move on by themselves, after the death of Brian Epstein. No other group at the time was taking control over itself the way they tried. Magical Mystery Tour was only the beginning of the self-management experiment which would culminate with the establishment of Apple Corps in 1968. It wasn’t like the Beatles to make something maudlin. Magical Mystery Tour, though flawed, shows that the Beatles wanted to carry on as a group, making music and experimenting with their talents.

For other Beatles films, see our Beatles Film Review Hub:

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