Saturday, December 26, 2020

My Boxing Day Tradition: The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour

It was 53 years ago today…that the Beatles presented to the world their first critical flop: the TV special Magical Mystery Tour

This is a repost from the 45th Anniversary of the program that first appeared on one of my other blogs, Pop Goes the Babble. Every year since then Ive watched Magical Mystery Tour on this date as my Boxing Day tradition, and today is no exception. So here’s what I wrote in 2012:

On what the British call “Boxing Day,” December 26, 1967, BBC1 broadcast the 53 minute color musical special at 8:35 PM in black and white, and reaction was mixed to say the least. It was shown a few days later in color, but it was still given bad reviews. The program has gathered a better reputation over the years, because of the quality of the music and its capturing of the fab four in their psychedelic prime, but it still remains an oddity in their canon.

Since I received the Magical Mystery Tour Deluxe Box Set for Christmas, and today is the 45th anniversary, I decided to give the spiffy new Blu ray a whirl. It’s been a long time since I’ve watched the full film, so I don’t remember a lot of it. I remember first seeing it on a VHS release in the ‘80s, and making fun of it with a Beatle-maniac friend of mine. As a kid I had loved A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, HELP!, and YELLOW SUBMARINE (and still do), but this was just weird.

One of the things I remember most from it was a grotesque scene in which John Lennon played a grinning waiter, who used a shovel to pile spaghetti onto a fat woman's plate. That's an image that certainly stands out in the color booklet that came with the original EP, and the U.S. album and is reprinted in this edition.

I later came to appreciate its psychedelic significance (i.e. it’s great if you’re stoned), but it was still weird. Let’s start with its flimsy premise - the Beatles join a odd assortment of people on a bus ride to an unknown destination. 

As Malcolm McDowell put it in his narration in the drab 1982 documentary THE COMPLEAT BEATLES: “Largely a project of Paul’s, the idea was to travel the English countryside in a bus filled with friends, actors and circus freaks, and to film whatever happened. Unfortunately, nothing did.” 

It opens promisingly with a bouncy montage set to the Paul-sung song “Magical Mystery Tour,” and introduces us to Ringo, still sporting his Sgt. Pepper mustache, as the main character (as he was in previous Beatles movies) buying tickets for the bus tour. John Lennon’s narration tells us that Ringo and his Aunt Jessie (Jessie Robbins), who he’s taking on the trip, are “always arguing about one thing or another.” 

They bicker throughout the film, never about anything specific, as it’s all improv. This was the biggest problem with Magical Mystery Tour - its famous lack of a script. There was some pie-chart-like break down of idea sections (reprinted in the slick book that comes with the box set), but no dialogue was written, so this makes the non-song parts formless and un-engaging. 

Ringo and Aunt Jessie board the bus and we meet more characters including tour director Jolly Jimmy (Derek Royle, who in a featurette on the disc tells us once played a corpse on Fawlty Towers), Hostess Wendy Winters (Miranda Forbes), Mr. Bloodvessel (Ivor Cutler), a little person photographer (George Claydon – later an Oompa-Loompa in 
WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY), a bunch of folks just credited as passengers on the bus, and the rest of the Beatles themselves, who are never properly identified or given much to do. 

The Beatles don’t even give themselves anything to do when dressed as wizards in groovy red robes and hats (their roadie Mal Evans appears as a fifth wizard), who are overseeing the bus tour from someplace up in the sky. Lennon tells us that they spend their days casting “wonderful spells,” but they don’t do anything that has any effect the entire film. Nor do they make us laugh. 

Another unfortunately unfunny element is Victor Spinetti as a indecipherable motormouth Army Sergeant. At least, since he was in 
A HARD DAY’S NIGHT and HELP!, Spinetti, who died last June, offers some sort of continuity to their first three film projects. 

A lame love montage sequence between Aunt Jessie and Mr. Bloodvessel comes along to test viewer’s patience and make us wonder how could the Beatles at the height of their power think their fans would be into this? 

The best parts are, of course, the songs. Like the musical bits in their other films, the song scenes have been called precursors to modern music videos, and they’ve even been extracted and played as music videos by MTV and VH1. 

“Fool on the Hill” mainly features Paul McCartney walking around the countryside looking introspective, “Blue Jay Way” has George Harrison sitting looking bored lip-syching while his fingers move on a piano keyboard drawn on the floor with chalk (there’s a better version of this with George smiling and seeming more engaged in the bonus features), but the show stopper is the “I Am The Walrus” sequence, featuring the Beatles miming the song amid the towering concrete structures at the West Malling Airbase while superimposed imagery and trippy visual trickery surrounds them. The “Your Mother Should Know” closer with the moptops in white tuxedos dancing in formation is pretty cool too. 

Surprisingly, despite these Beatles classics, the most interesting music number comes from the obscure comical rock band The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band doing the lounge lizard showcase of a song “Death Cab For Cutie.” Neil Innes, who would later embody the Lennon caricature in Eric Idle’s Beatles parody The Rutles: All You Need is Cash, can be seen plunking away on the piano. The song also features a censored strip-tease by Jan Carson for no real reason at all. 

In his “My World of Flops” entry on Magical Mystery Tour (its combined with a take-down of Paul's 1984 dud 
GIVE MY REGARDS TO BROAD STREET), the A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin wrote that Magical Mystery Tour “anticipates both MTV’s early days, when it seemed like anything was possible and the cost of entry was exhilaratingly low, and the gleeful absurdism of Monty Python.” 

Indeed, several of the segments seem like dry runs for later Python premises – Victor Spinetti’s absurd military man is echoed in Graham Chapman’s Colonel character, a marathon involving the passengers that turns into a car chase heavily resembles the “Twit of the Year” competition sketch, Lennon’s snotty waiter from the aforementioned restaurant scene is a recognizable Python archetype (see John Cleese in MONTY PYTHON’S THE MEANING OF LIFE dealing with the surreally obese Terry Jones), and even the footage of a large crowds’ reaction that’s interspersed throughout is reminiscent of the film of old ladies clapping that appeared to be in every episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
This new re-mastered version of Magical Mystery Tour boasts a bevy of special features including a 20 minute “Making of” documentary, featurettes concerning “Ringo the Actor” and the supporting cast, an interesting “Hello Goodbye” promo, and a few cut scenes including a song by Traffic (“Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush”). The best bonus feature is the commentary by Paul McCartney, but that’s more because it’s often unintentionally funny than it is insightful.

Sample quotes: “I was surprised, years later, to hear, I think it was Steven Spielberg say that they’ve shown this and taught him about it in film school as an example of a different approach to film making” and “In a way, it's sort of a disgusting scene” (guess which scene).

So there you have it, The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour TV special, still weird after all these years, finally gets a spot on my shelf. It’s a fun film to re-visit, even with its frustrating flaws. The folks at Capitol did a good job with this deluxe package. Now, please, release LET IT BE! Maybe next Christmas? *

* Looks like we're finally going to get LET IT BE (at least digitally) next summer along with Peter Jacksons GET BACK, which just got a neat sneak peak earlier this week. 

More later...

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