“Paul said ‘Look I’ve got this idea’ and we said ‘great!’ and all he had was this circle and a little dot on the top – that’s where we started,” Ringo Starr recalls in one of the special features included on Apple’s new DVD and Blu-ray of The Beatles’ 1967 BBC television film Magical Mystery Tour. That McCartney-drawn circle, later transformed into a pie chart, is included in the accompanying booklet. It epitomizes the loose, freewheeling nature of this largely improvised musical journey directed by Macca and his bandmates. The new video releases are among the most lavish accorded any Beatles film, eclipsing even the fine Yellow Submarine from earlier this year, with over an hour of bonus material and a film-length Director’s Commentary from Paul McCartney.
The loopy musical travelogue Magical Mystery Tour found the Fab Four joined by a motley crew of performers including Ivor Cutler, Victor Spinetti, Jessie Robins, Nat Jackley, Derek Royle, and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, not to mention a bus full of fans-turned-extras. The film’s nominal plot follows Ringo and his recently widowed Auntie Jessie (Jessie Robins) on a British tour bus headed for the English countryside. Ringo and Auntie Jesse are joined by tour director Jolly Jimmy Johnson (Derek Royle), hostess Miss Wendy Winters (Mandy Weet), conductor Buster Bloodvessel (Ivor Cutler), and of course, the other Beatles, who portray whimsical wizards alongside pal and road manager Mal Evans. (Remember Where’s Waldo? Watching Magical Mystery Tour, you could play Where’s Mal?) Spinetti, who also appeared in A Hard Day’s Night and Help! with the Fabs, portrays an unintelligible army drill sergeant in one amusing vignette, reprising an off-the-wall character from Joan Littlewood’s stage play Oh, What a Lovely War! (1963).
Of course, the film frequently seems as little more than excuse on which to hang music videos for Beatle songs, long before that term existed. John, Paul and George’s songs all get a turn in the spotlight, with extended sequences for “I Am the Walrus,” “The Fool on the Hill,” and “Blue Jay Way” among the fun. “Fool on the Hill” is quite literal, with Paul actually spinning round and round on a hill, while “I Am the Walrus” memorably has the boys in their most groovy finery, transforming into the Egg Man, the Walrus, etc. There was a method to their madness, as McCartney remembers in his genial commentary: who was the walrus? The Beatles didn’t want to give a definitive answer. “Blue Jay Way,” appropriately, stars George in a swirling, psychedelic haze.
During the ride, passengers on the bus appear and disappear, and scenes and locales shift at the drop of a hat. McCartney warmly recalls the chaotic spirit of fun that characterized the film’s making. He frequently laughs at the absurdity of it all, while fondly remembering the band’s desire to disregard most conventions of filmmaking. Much of Magical Mystery Tour was shot not at a film studio, but at an RAF airfield and hangar! He also reveals some secrets: who knew that the footage seen during group song “Flying” was actually outtake material from Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Dr. Strangelove, enhanced with color filters? McCartney naturally mentions the anarchic influence of Spike Milligan and the Goons, always a Beatle favorite. When Ringo asks “Where’s the bus?” in a zany laboratory sequence, you might find yourself echoing the question! Ringo has an easy presence onscreen, but the other Fabs acquit themselves well, too, particularly John Lennon as a waiter who wields a shovel in case of any food-related accidents that might occur…
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The supporting cast members seem to have as much screen time as the Beatles. A sequence in which Bloodvessel (Cutler) and Aunt Jessie (Robins) fall in love was, according to McCartney, incongruously the scene the BBC desired to be cut from the film. The non-serious approach finds all conventions of time and space being shattered, with set pieces ranging from a crazy car chase to Ringo leading the bus in a good-time sing-along of “Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goodbye,” “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” and other beloved standards. The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band appear bewildered but game as they perform “Death Cab for Cutie” in a strip club, while the Beatles stop the show with an immense production number (featuring a corps of 200 dancers) set to “Your Mother Should Know.” In his commentary, McCartney wryly points out that he’s wearing a black carnation while the other Beatles have red, and acknowledges that this was just one of the “clues” of the “Paul is dead” mania. In fact, the florist ran out of red carnations!
The film is presented in its original 1:33:1 aspect ratio, and picture quality is better than ever before. Sound is similarly optimal, with a crisp 5.1 surround mix prepared by Giles Martin (Sir George’s son and the co-producer behind the music of LOVE) the best way to experience the soundtrack here. The Blu-ray offers DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby Digital 5.1 options as well as PCM Stereo. Special features are plentiful, totaling over 50 minutes and nearly doubling the length of the 53-minute film itself. McCartney’s commentary is the most compelling aspect here, as the Beatle seems genuinely interested in the film and sharing his impressions. The other bonuses are also worthwhile, however. The centerpiece is a 20-minute documentary containing new interviews with Paul, Ringo and even two of the Beatles fan club secretaries who rode the tour bus. George and John make appearances discussing the movie via vintage video and audio interviews, respectively. Key personnel including cameramen and editors have also been enlisted to recall the film shoot, sharing memories of The Beatles actually directing the film on set. Sir Paul Fox of BBC 1 reflects from the perspective of the Beeb. (Magical Mystery Tour first aired in black-and-white on Boxing Day, 1967, sandwiched between programs starring Petula Clark and Norman Wisdom!)
Another 11-minute featurette looks in depth at each of the supporting cast members in a rare show of affection for these rarely-acknowledged players. Plenty of outtake footage has also been included, such as Ivor Cutler’s rendition of “I’m Going in a Field” (in a field, of course) and Nat Jackley’s “Nat’s Dream,” as directed by John Lennon. New “visual remixes,” if you will, incorporate outtake footage into the performances of “Your Mother Should Know,” “Blue Jay Way” and “The Fool on the Hill.” The Top of the Pops short film of “Hello, Goodbye” to mark that single’s ascendancy to No. 1 in 1967 is a nice addition, as is the outtake of Traffic acting out their “Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush” in a sequence commissioned for the film but ultimately unused. Traffic got in on the spirit of the film, spinning a giant globe around a field in their scene. (Why not spin a giant globe around a field?)
Mystery tours (on which a passenger boards a tour bus unsure of its ultimate destination) may not be in fashion today, but this Magical tour certainly is. Even if the film isn’t as artfully crafted as Richard Lester’s two Beatles feature films, its infectious spirit should win you over in this beautifully-restored, bonus-packed release. Let’s hope a similarly lavish Let It Be is next on the docket!