In 1967, The Beatles were at a crossroads. They had ceased touring in August 1966, and they each pursued individual interests and projects before re-convening to begin work on “Strawberry Fields Forever,” which, when released (paired with “Penny Lane”) in February of 1967, was kept out of the top spot on the UK single charts by Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Release Me.” It was the first Beatles single since “Love Me Do” to fail to do so, and while the Beatles spent the next five months recording, overdubbing, (more) overdubbing, and mixing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the music press declared that the band had dried up.
Then Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released and everyone pointed and laughed at the music press.
Then came “All You Need Is Love” being broadcast worldwide to millions and a trip to Bangor, Wales, to attend a lecture by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and the shocking news that their manager and friend, Brian Epstein, was dead at 32. Ringo remarks in the Anthology that at this point, they were like chicken without their heads, “What are we gonna do? What are we gonna do?”
Why, make a film with no written script, a threadbare plot, psychedelic influences galore, and a handful of new songs, of course! Oh, and we’ll film, direct, and edit it ourselves (basically), too. Only in 1967. Only with these four individuals.
Magical Mystery Tour was finally released on Blu-ray and DVD on October 9, and having upgraded my beloved VHS copy, I was able to watch it for the first time since…well, I can’t remember. It is just as nonsensical, endearing, and, yes, magical as it ever was.
Meet the director!
The Beatles are credited as the film’s directors, but Paul was essentially the director, the premise of the film (uh, what premise?) being his initial idea and him being the bossiest and all, and so the film is now graced with his commentary. This translates to Paul saying, “Yeah, this was all ad-libbed…Yeah, there was no plot…Yeah, we just opened up this Actors’ Directory and picked people based off that…Yeah, this scene came from a dream…Yeah, of course we dressed up as wizards…Yeah, I don’t remember who was the walrus…” Yeah, I wonder why you don’t remember who the walrus was.
The film’s plot goes something like this: Richard B. Starkey (played by Ringo) buys two tickets to a “Magical Mystery Tour” for himself and his bickering Aunt Jessie. While on this tour, there are many strange and magical sights, mysterious dreams, and a car chase or two. This is all linked together by the song sequences, undoubtedly the best parts of the film.
One moment, Paul is chatting to a girl about how he is 30 but looks younger because of the sweater he is wearing. The next…
Two words: Not. High.
“The Fool On the Hill”! Paul states in the commentary says that the previous Beatles films (A Hard Day’s Night and Help!) had been scripted and based off what people perceived them to be. Magical Mystery Tour allowed them to be free to just be themselves. Which is very true. And which translates to Paul running around the countryside in France by himself.
P.S. Paul McCartney: Pilgrim or Poet? I always wondered this as a child.
Another moment, Ringo’s Aunt Jessie and the creepy Mr. Bloodvessel are dancing and smooching on the beach (deemed “romantic” by the film’s director), and then, suddenly…
Turban time! Meet my favorite band, world. This is completely normal. Paul once said that the only defense this film ever needed was that it includes the only performance of “I Am the Walrus.” Ever. Touche!
And, as if this film wasn’t weird enough, these random sequences are occasionally interrupted by four (or maybe five…) magicians in the sky…
Talk about your magical mysteries, I was half an hour looking for that sugar!
These wizards presumably are controlling the destination of the bus. One, who bears a striking resemblance to Ringo, repeatedly asks, “Where’s the bus?” This gives the film depth and compels the audience to ask themselves questions, such as, “Am I really in control of my own life? Or am I being controlled by wizards in the sky?”
And then the film goes back to answering the question, “What’s better than one George Harrison?”
Like, a million George Harrisons. Duh!
And then this huge, colorful bus just…runs over this tent that they were all sitting in only minutes earlier.
No big deal.
As the film draws to a close, there’s a drunken singalong (“IIIIIIIII’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts!” roars Ringo), Paul takes a bike ride with the midget photographer in tow on the beach, and the gentleman are instructed to follow Mr. Johnson. This is where I don’t understand how or why I was allowed to watch this film as a child.
Uh, they’re at a strip bar. Nothing excessively inappropriate is shown, but…Why? Was this suitable viewing for an eight-year-old? I probably had no idea as a child. (And neither did my parents.) Sample train of thought for eight-year-old me: “The Beatles, The Beatles, The Beatles!”
BBC1 broadcast Magical Mystery Tour on Boxing Day (in black and white disappointingly). Paul Fox, who worked for BBC at the time, admits in the Making of Magical Mystery Tour that the film was not screened before its broadcast. Amazing! There could have been foul language and nudity galore, and the BBC wouldn’t have known it. There of course wasn’t. How sad how the times have changed.
Paul also admits in the commentary that the only reason this scene was included was…well, they wanted to see a stripper. Of course.
(Bonzo Dog Do-Dah Band is cool, though.)
I in all likeliness fast-forwarded that scene, just to get one of my favorites that much quicker–the final musical number. One final number where Paul McCartney reveals that he actually is a 70-year-old man.
“Your Mother Should Know,” like “When I’m Sixty-Four” and “Honey Pie”, is a song written in the style of music that the Beatles’ parents would have grown up listening to–“a hit before your mother was born.” It’s old-fashioned. Its lyrics are meaningless. It’s downright weird. Kind of like this entire film (and its soundtrack EP). Yet the Beatles made it work–and wearing white tuxedos and carnations, to boot. This sequence proves just how big of a triple threat the Beatles were–boy, could they ever sing, act, and dance!
This isn’t my favorite Beatles film. But there is something about its rolley-polley-ness that is endearing and entirely representative of its time and its creators–no other group of people could have created this kind of film and pulled it off as well as they did in any other moment in time. And that’s quite magical.
P.S. I think Ringo and I have the same computer. Eight-year-old me is thinking that’s the coolest thing ever right now.