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.
The 1080i transfer, framed at 1.33:1 (the film’s original aspect ratio), is uneven to say the least. As evidenced by the additional credits at the very end, a whole bunch of people worked to improve the look of Magical Mystery Tour. The results are mostly positive, taking into consideration that this film has never looked very good. Sharpness is occasionally moderately impressive, but often the wider shots are a bit soft. Grain is also inconsistent, not only from scene to scene but sometimes from shot to shot. Colors, in general, are a bit washed out. I’m guessing whatever problems the picture exhibits were inherent in the source print. While not revelatory, this is still the best the film has looked on home video.
On a highly positive note, the DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround mix is a real treat. The music sounds absolutely fantastic, spread out over all channels and emphasizing a nice, fat bass sound. The non-music scenes aren’t as striking, though the dialogue is generally natural and full-bodied. Yelled lines sometimes result in mild distortion, presumably a permanent part of the original recordings. While all aspects of the mix are satisfactory, the music is what really counts. Luckily the audio restoration team, headed up by producer Giles Martin (son of Sir George), has done an exemplary job in that department.
The special features are surprisingly comprehensive. Most immediately attention-getting is the audio commentary by Paul McCartney. This is a screen-specific commentary, not an audio interview dubbed over the film. Although McCartney resorts to a little too much narrating of the on-screen action, it’s a lot of fun listening to him reminisce about the production. Given McCartney’s typically guarded nature, the track isn’t super revealing but it’s a great bonus nonetheless. The 20-minute “Making of Magical Mystery Tour” is quite substantive, with new interview clips from McCartney and Starr. Archival clips from Harrison and Lennon are included. There’s also a good amount of alternate, deleted, and behind the scenes footage. Shots of The Beatles in the editing studio, overseeing the cutting of the film, are incorporated in the included Top of the Pops promo clip for “Hello Goodbye.”
“Meet the Supporting Cast” is an 11-minute featurette that provides information about many of the supporting cast members. It’s also notable for the welcome inclusion of some brief uncensored footage of the stripper (Jan Carson) from the “Death Cab for Cutie” scene. “Ringo the Actor” is an all-too-brief featurette in which Starr watches himself in the film and offers a few reflections (too bad Ringo didn’t do his own commentary track). The songs “Your Mother Should Know,” “Blue Jay Way,” and “The Fool on the Hill” are all presented in alternate form, comprised entirely of previously unseen outtake footage. In the case of “Fool” it’s arguably more interesting than the final edit. More deleted scenes turn up in the form of the Lennon-directed “Nat’s Dream” and an out-of-left-field appearance by the band Traffic (in what amounts to a primitive music video for their song “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush”).
Magical Mystery Tour will always have an audience simply because it’s a Beatles film. It remains, as McCartney puts it in his commentary, a “snapshot” of the times. The outstanding 5.1 mix and plethora of interesting extras make it all the better. For those who want to spend some money, Magical Mystery Tour is also available as a deluxe box set with a 60-page book, a reproduction of the original double-vinyl soundtrack EP, and the film on both Blu-ray and DVD.