The first major shellacking The Beatles ever took from both critics and the public, Magical Mystery Tour has survived over the decades primarily because it was, in fact, made by The Beatles. When the 53-minute television special originally aired (in black-and-white) on the BBC on Boxing Day, December 26, 1967, it was generally dismissed as an indulgent, incoherent mess. That it is, but it’s also not without fun moments.
Magical Mystery Tour works best as a showcase for the six then-new songs The Beatles recorded for its soundtrack. They’re presented throughout the film basically in the form of music videos. Most of them aren’t very visually interesting, but “I Am the Walrus” is the creatively staged exception and the highlight of the entire film. The segment for “The Fool on the Hill” is a bit too literal, with Paul McCartney standing (and sometimes spinning around) on a hill. “Blue Jay Way” is little more than George Harrison sitting on the ground pretending to play a keyboard drawn in chalk. The big production number, “Your Mother Should Know,” is actually pretty funny and another standout.
As for the non-musical segments, they range from the bizarre to the banal. Whatever story the film has can be summed up pretty simply. A bunch of people, including the four Beatles, buy tickets for a bus tour across the English countryside. Thanks to five mischievous magicians (played by the four Beatles and their road manager Mal Evans) apparently casting spells on the tour, surreal events occur to the passengers. For instance, Ringo Starr’s nagging Aunt Jessie (Jessie Robins) suddenly falls in love with the peculiar Mr. Bloodvessel (Ivor Cutler) for no reason at all. At another point, Aunt Jessie is served piles of disgusting spaghetti by John Lennon. Late in the film, Neil Innes’ Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band performs “Death Cab for Cutie” alongside a female stripper (censored, for the sake of television broadcast standards). The film is a series of random incidents, some more interesting than others.
Even for many Beatles fans, Magical Mystery Tour may be a patience trier. Had The Beatles, who self-directed the film, simply hired a screenwriter to improve the structure of the project, it might have turned out a little more compelling. Throughout the special features, we are told that there was no plan. The “script” was a sheet of paper with a circle drawn on it. The circle was divided into sections, each of which had a scene description written in it. In other words, by their own admission The Beatles had no idea what they were doing. Thankfully the producers of the Blu-ray had some good ideas about how to add value to the release, making it a must-have for Beatles fans.