Every year around this time there always seems to be something new released associated with The Beatles. Those of you too young to have been alive when the group was still together must wonder what the hell is so special about a group who have been disbanded for more than 40 years. To be honest, even for those of us who were around, it’s easy to forget what made them special and distinguished them from the rest of the pack of pop bands. I don’t listen to them very often anymore, in fact I don’t even think I own a single one of their records, so I don’t have many opportunities to be reminded of what the magic was all about.
However, when ever I do go back and dip into their catalogue, especially the stuff recorded from 1966 onwards, I’m struck once again by not only their inventiveness, but the musicianship and artistry that went into their work. By 1967 they had stopped touring and really didn’t have anything to prove to anyone anymore. They were ruling the international pop charts and looking for new worlds to conquer. Although they all briefly experimented with Transcendental Meditation, with the exception of George Harrison, their hearts were never really into it. They were too curious, too interested in doing things and experimenting with their art to simply sit around and naval gaze all day. It was out of that insatiable urge to explore that was born one of their most controversial projects, the one hour movie The Magical Mystery Tour.
Originally aired on British television as a Boxing Day special (December 27) in 1967 it shocked people who were used to the four cute/mad cap guys featured in their previous movies A Hard Day’s Night and Help. Instead what they got was an apparently haphazard collection of seemingly unconnected scenes concerning what happens to a group of people taking a bus tour together. After this one appearance on television, the movie pretty much disappeared from view. Occasionally grainy prints of the film would show up, but the quality was so poor as to be almost unwatchable. Now, all these years later, its finally being restored and North American television audiences are going to be treated to their first opportunity to see it in their homes.
Thanks to the good people at the PBS show Great Performances, Magical Mystery Tour will air Friday December 14 2012 10:00 p.m. ET. In addition, directly preceding the movie at 9:00 p.m., viewers will also have the chance to get a behind-the-scenes look at the show with the documentary Magical Mystery Tour Revisited.
If you miss the Great Performances airing, don’t worry, because this new remastered version will be available as a Blu-ray/DVD combo package with special features that seem to include most of the documentary as well.
I had previously tried to watch one of the aforementioned crappy versions of the film, so was very interested in seeing what it would be like with good quality sound and clean visuals. One of the problems for a North American audience is that we’re not familiar with the concept of the “Coach Trip” – climbing onto a bus with a group of strangers and touring around for the day looking at sites. However in England, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, this was a very common type of outing, especially among working and middle class families like those in which The Beatles members grew up. One of the observations made in the documentary is how much of the imagery used in the film would have been taken from the Beatles’ childhoods and how much of it would have been very familiar to other English people at the time.
Village fairs and church socials would have featured things like sack races, tugs of war and races, while novelty acts like midget wrestlers were common at side shows. The Beatles might not have been part of that world by the time they made the movie, but it was the world they grew up in, and obviously had some fond memories of. However, they also understood the rather limited world view it represented, and deliberately created a rather cartoonish version of it for their movie. However, there was nothing cruel about the depiction; it was more along the lines of gentle teasing that showed while they remembered these type of events they had long since out grown them.
If The Magical Mystery Tour was about anything, it was about the joy of doing something just for the sake of doing it. The Beatles decided they wanted to make a movie, and this was the result. They played with camera effects, different filters, and various lenses to create distortion and multiple exposures.
They took stock pieces from British Musical Hall and turned them on their heads. The grand finale to the movie features the band singing and dancing to “Your Mother Should Know” while dressed in white tail coats. (Notice while the other three have red roses in their button holes, Paul McCartney’s is black – which was probably used to fuel the “Paul is dead rumours” that began circulating soon after.) That none of them could really dance, made the sequence all the funnier. They manage to make it down the grand flight of stairs relatively in step, but once they hit level ground John Lennon and Ringo Starr especially seem to have a hard time walking and moving their arms at the same time.
As the interviews in The Magical Mystery Tour Revisited make clear, the movie wasn’t meant to be taken seriously. It was done for the fun of doing it and to experiment with doing new things. Even the songs included in the movie itself, “I’m The Walrus”, “Fool On The Hill”, “Blue Jay Way”, “Your Mother Should Know” and the title song “Magical Mystery Tour” were not standard Beatles fare. While Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had just been released and had shown them starting to experiment with studio effects, these songs were just that much more out there. Ranging from the archaic to the psychedelic, they all would have come as a surprise to those used to the nice safe pop songs of their early years.
While people in the film, and others, including Martin Scorsese and Peter Fonda weigh in during the documentary on the significance of the film, the most interesting bits in it are the commentary provided by McCartney and Starr.
From Starr we learn that the movie was McCartney’s idea. As the only unmarried member of the band at the time McCartney spent a lot of time checking out the avant-garde theatre and film scene in London. He also had picked up some rather basic film cameras and had begun playing with them and creating short films. So he came up with concept for the film and then assigned each of the others various scenes to write. However, he was also fascinated with the idea of improvisation and decided things should be kept free and easy and allowed cast and crew to create spontaneously in front of the camera.
Although the psychedelic era was also known for drug use, and there have been all sorts of rumours circulating about LSD and the Beatles, the subject of drugs and the film is almost completely avoided. The one brief reference to drugs is made by Starr when he’s talking about experimenting with the different lenses used for filming the sequence of Harrison performing “Blue Jay Way”. He says, in almost an aside, something along the lines of various “medicines” available at the time made the effects even more fun to watch.
If you tune in to watch The Magical Mystery Tour on your local PBS station later this week, don’t be expecting to see a highly polished film. However, if you let yourself go along for the ride, you’ll find yourself having a good time. You’ll also come away with a new appreciation for both The Beatles sense of the absurd and their willingness to experiment. They had to have known the movie was never going to be popular and was bound to shock a number of people, but that didn’t stop them. Can you picture any other band at the peak of their popularity taking this kind of risk?
To our eyes it will seem rather tame and the effects rather primitive, but for the time it must have been rather shocking to a mainstream audience. When it aired on Boxing Day in 1967, it followed a nice safe Petula Clark Christmas special. Imagine the family gathered around their television set the day after Christmas and being presented with The Magical Mystery Tour. Even today, I can think of any number of people who wouldn’t consider it appropriate fare for the holidays. If you’ve never seen it before, or are like me and only seen a crap copy of it, this impeccably restored version will be a treat. Meet The Beatles all over again and remember what it was that made them so special.