Revisiting one of the Beatles’ worst mistakes

'Magical Mystery Tour' was and remains a muddled mess

January 2, 2013

Roll up, roll up for the magical mystery tour, step right this way… just be forewarned. If you’ve never seen the Beatles’ notorious road movie—first screened by the BBC over the Christmas holidays in 1967, never televised in the U.S. but now available in a restored version on a spiffy new deluxe DVD—you’re in for a bumpy ride that might make you lose your lunch, or at least leave you with a sick headache.

Nearly half a century on, the fascinating thing about Magical Mystery Tour the film is the rare glimpse it offers into one of the best rock bands of all time at its unadulterated worst. And make no mistake: a spectacular, disastrous, largely incomprehensible and nearly unwatchable mess it was and remains.

The PBS series Great Performances finally aired the 52-minute film on American television for the first time a few weeks ago, preceded by a new hour-long documentary about its making. The documentary is featured on the new DVD, though it inexplicably is shortened to 19 minutes. No matter; it does little to illuminate how the Fab Four went so horribly wrong with the first film they produced themselves. (Oh, where was Richard Lester when they needed him?)

Before we get to the movie, let us briefly look at the album, which is how most American fans know the project. In the second half of one of the busiest years in their career, following the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that June at the start of the fabled Summer of Love, the Beatles recorded six new songs for their nascent film project. These were released in the U.K. as an EP, but were packaged in the U.S. with recent singles as a more satisfying LP, and that set is now considered the “official” release in the remastered catalog.

The single sides include two John Lennon classics, the otherworldy “Strawberry Fields Forever” and the searing and vastly underappreciated “Baby, You’re a Rich Man,” as well as the hippie-dippy sing-along “All You Need Is Love.” For his part, Paul McCartney gives us one pop gem, “Hello, Goodbye,” and one of his less annoying romps through rose-colored nostalgia, “Penny Lane.”

The tunes recorded for the film are less consistent and less satisfying. Lennon’s “I Am the Walrus” is one of his lesser psychedelic fantasies; Macca’s “The Fool on the Hill” is one of his loveliest ballads, though “Your Mother Should Know” is another cloying Tin Pan Alley-type ditty a la “She’s Leaving Home” and “When I’m Sixty-Four”; the title track is what it is (and what was needed to frame the film) and “Blue Jay Way” finds George Harrison lost in a psychedelic fog sans rhythm or melody. The unheralded gem here is “Flying,” one of the Beatles’ rare instrumentals and even rarer whole-group compositions.

As an album, Magical Mystery Tour ranks well below the band at its absolute best, Revolver and Rubber Soul, though it’s certainly more rewarding than Let It Be, Yellow Submarine or, arguably, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—which this critic maintains is not only the most overrated album in the band’s catalog, but in all of rock history. (See the anthology Kill Your Idols.)

The focus of this current promotional push, however, is the movie—that chaotic hodgepodge of muddled scenes of the boys in weird animal costumes gallivanting in the English countryside, sashaying down a grand staircase dressed in white tails and top hats, ogling the girls at a strip club while the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band performs a tune called “Death Cab for Cutie” onstage and meandering hither and yon in a tour bus full of “typical” English sightseers, the caricatures of which are unkind to say the least. All of which leads to the question that looms so large lo these many years later: How the heck did this turd get dropped?

The documentary gives us some context: oft-repeated historical facts such as the recent suicide of manager Brian Epstein leaving the boys sans quality control, the need for them to explore different media since they’d nixed touring and live performance as an option and the spirit of avant-garde experimentation which they both inspired and reflected from the then-fertile British underground. But it unforgivably avoids the single biggest factor: The musicians were tripping out of their gourds, or at the least they were pretending to.

The words “psychedelic drugs” are never mentioned in the documentary, either in connection with some of the Beatles’ then-rampant consumption (Lennon and Harrison being by far the biggest heads) or with the rather desperate desire to seem hip, cutting-edge and au courant by referencing them. And here McCartney was the big culprit.

Whatever journeys toward the white light the cute one might personally have made, Macca’s primary takeaway from the psychedelic experimentation of the time was that he’d better get the group on board the bus, since that was what was selling. The documentary features him stressing a point he’s been making for decades now: that he was the true experimental genius of the band during its most inventive and psychedelic period, since he was the swinging bachelor gorging on London’s avant-garde buffet (he cites free-jazz master Albert Ayler and Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou as big inspirations at the time) while the other fellas were living as happily married dads in the suburbs.

Sir Paul gleefully takes credit (or unknowingly accepts blame) for most of Magical Mystery Tour the movie, explaining how, in the spirit of unbridled creativity, the project went forward sans script and with guidance only from a basic concept (a hip new take on the traditional and veddy British “mystery tour”) and a vague pie chart broken into evocative sequences such as “dreams,” “marathon,” “recruiting” and “stripper and band” that would be improvised/acted out in front of the cameras. All of which would be brilliant, of course, because they were the Beatles.

Yeah, well, not quite. Always displaying the most clear-eyed perspective on the group’s legacy, despite his mystical reputation, Harrison best eulogizes the film in a clip included in the documentary from a few years before his death. “It wasn’t a brilliant scripted thing that was executed well,” the guitarist says. “It was like a little home movie” with “a couple of good songs [and] a few funny scenes.”

Even that summation is overly kind. No one wants to watch the countless other lousy film-student rip-offs of Un Chien Andalou, after all, much less the hundreds of hours of out-of-focus chaos captured by the cameras of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters as they crossed the U.S. on an aimless quest about a bus named Furthur—the second most obvious inspiration behind Magical Mystery Tour after lysergic acid diethylamide, though the documentary doesn’t mention that either.

What we get is the usual useless Beatles-worship and hyperbole. Director Terry Gilliam cites the movie as a favorite, which sort of makes sense; moments like Lennon sarcastically dumping shovels full of spaghetti on a proper English socialite are pure proto-Python. But Martin Scorsese claiming that the movie “influenced a lot of the work I’ve done” is just absurd—unless you see connections between Goodfellas or Raging Bull and Ringo chatting with his “Auntie” on the tour bus that I’m somehow missing.

Though the movie was roundly panned when it first aired, and not only by members of the clueless “older generation,” criticizing anything the Beatles ever did plays more like blasphemy these days than Cardinal George about-facing and endorsing gay marriage (which he should, if he has any soul and Christian spirit whatsoever). And that’s a shame, because beyond the obvious message that people on drugs should not make movies—rare is the hallucination that stands as art or entertainment for anyone other than the hallucinator—there is insight to be gleaned from a failure resulting from a brilliant band neglecting that its strongest moments came from collaboration, skillful honing and editing, diligent if seemingly effortless composition and leading rather than following, all of which were disregarded as the Beatles made Magical Mystery Tour and proffered an invitation best declined.

The Beatles: Magical Mystery Tour DVD (Capitol)

Rating on the four-star scale: 1.5 stars.