The first thing to understand about Magical Mystery Tour is that it's entirely larky. All but plotless, the Beatles' third film was hatched during 1967's Summer of Love, just after the release of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and, thus, with the band arguably at the peak of their creative fertility. Most critics at the time, surmising the band was also at the peak of their collective egotism, wrote off the film—first televised in black-and-white on BBC1—as an indulgence. That's a valid response, but it fails to acknowledge the film's influential psychedelic style.
While the motor-coach day-tour plot suggests inspiration from Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, the film clearly influenced much entertainment to follow: for example, it's impossible not to think of Monty Python's Flying Circus while watching the comedy segments of Magical Mystery Tour, like those set in an Army recruiting office (with Victor Spinetti braying hilarious military doubletalk), an open field with a stuffed cow, and a surreal restaurant where John Lennon plays a waiter named Pirandello who, wearing a demented smile, literally shovels pasta in front of Ringo's hefty Aunt Jessie (the last anticipates Monty Python's The Meaning of Life; tellingly, Python discussed with the Beatles the possibility of screening Magical Mystery Tour as a "curtain raiser" for Monty Python and the Holy Grail). The likes of John Waters had to have been empowered by the Beatles insistent use of odd-looking supporting players, here including music-hall vet Nat Jackley (done up in Hitler moustache as "Rubber Man"), mock-dour comic singer Ivor Cutler, hefty actress Jessie Robins as Aunt Jessie, and "little" actors George Claydon and an uncredited Angelo Muscat (The Prisoner). Paul McCartney—the primary force behind the film—drolly refers to "engaging some likely looking actors."
More broadly, Magical Mystery Tour refined the rock-band vanity project on film that director Richard Lester effectively pioneered with the band in the big-screen features A Hard Day's Night and Help! "Music video" wasn't an entirely foreign concept before the Beatles, but their promotional films set a stylistic standard for the form that other acts and, eventually, MTV would imitate and cultivate. Magical Mystery Tour fits more comfortably in the mode of music video than Lester's films. For starters, there are the shorter fifty-three-minute running time and the televisual venue. Limber editing by Roy Benson (from roughly ten hours of footage) enhances the impression of modern music video: in essence, Magical Mystery Tour comprises six Beatles music videos (the terrific title tune, "The Fool on the Hill," "Flying," "Blue Jay Way," "I Am the Walrus," and "Your Mother Should Know"), with a bonus song (the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band performing "Death Cab for Cutie") and institital comedy segments.
For that rare breed of Beatle haters, Magical Mystery Tour offers plenty of ammunition, and it's no place to start for neophytes, but for Beatlefans, what's not to like? Probably the best remembered song segment is "I Am the Walrus," with the band outfitted in animal masks and performing in front of airfield barriers, though the more epic finale for "Your Mother Should Know" gathers scores of tuxedo-and-ball-gown-clad dancers (and a giant staircase) for a parody of an old-timey ball. The film could use a lot more Goon-y moments like the one in which Ringo loses his cool with Aunt Jessie, who responds, "Don't get historical!" More commonly, the interstitials are mundane, if good-natured: inane chatter, accordion-led motor-coach singalongs, and an impromptu race (though the latter sequence does include some dangerous-looking driving on the part of Ringo). Like a real mystery tour, the Beatles' third film enables aimless fun, pleasant timewasting in the company of good folks and with the added value of quality musical entertainment.
EMI & Apple have put together a typically excellent package for this latest Beatles release. Fans are likely to be divided on the picture quality. A 16mm source underwent photochemical restoration, a blowup to 35mm, and 4K telecine work to arrive at its new HD master, and while that results in the cleanest image ever seen for this picture, it has arguably lost some of its original visual character in the process. In some ways, the dodgy source material—which I've only ever seen before in ragged projections and videos—has been maximized to offer the purest color (in the somewhat dingy British palette of the era, wisely not tweaked) and sharpest image, but the necessity of Digital Noise Reduction to achieve these results gives the picture a noticeably waxen look, distracting enough to call "overkill." So...a mixed bag, but it's hard not to admit that this stands head and shoulders above previous home-video releases. That conclusion proves doubly true when it comes to the audio: both the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix and LPCM stereo track deliver robust treatment to the music, and the other elements, while limited in dynamic range, are clear as can be.
The disc's bonus features will appeal to rabid Beatlefans in that they include rare footage and, more importantly, never before seen footage from the Apple archives. First, there's a "Director's Commentary" with Paul McCartney, in which the Beatle amusingly, pokily holds court (and "thanks" the critics) while watching the film. The video-based extras don't match the running times listed in the liner-notes booklet, but they're not off by much (accurate times follow). The 2012 documentary "The Making of Magical Mystery Tour" (19:03, HD) does a nice job of giving a sense of the production and its reason for being; Sir Paul and Ringo participate, as do Neil Innes and assorted suriving cast and crew. "Ringo the Actor" (2:24, HD) is an extension of Ringo's interview, focused on his acting. "Meet the Supporting Cast" (10:55, HD) is a nifty overview of the supporting players, including some rare clips of them performing on other TV shows.
Billed as "three new edits of these performances," "Your Mother Should Know (2:41, HD), "Blue Jay Way" (3:58, HD), and "The Fool on the Hill" (3:05, HD) are musical montages of outtakes from the film sequences for each song. "Hello Goodbye Promo" (3:37, HD) is a black-and-white 1967 segment from the BBC's Top of the Pops, a nascent music video whipped up byt the BBC that includes footage shot of the band in the Magical Mystery Tour editing suite. "Nat's Dream" (1080i; 2:01), set to "Shirley's Wild Accordion," is an famous deleted sequence directed by John Lennon (perhaps in tandem with George Harrison). Rounding out the disc are two more deleted musical sequences: "I'm Going in a Field - Ivor Cutler" (2:42, HD) and "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush - Traffic" (2:41, HD). The included booklet features rare artwork (the original working sketch for the production and set photos), an August 2012 introduction by Paul McCartney, credits, and listing of bonus features.
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