It’s May of 1967: Less than a year out from their final concert, The Beatles have just released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band— their eighth studio album, and an amalgamation of the members’ individual influences with five years-worth of experiences that would last anyone a lifetime. From Sinatra- inspired old-fashioned music hall crooners and Victorian circus instrumentals, to Ravi Shankar’s tutelage and religious awakenings, and drugs, the fab four were at their peak with experimentation and a regained artistic freedom. “Fed-up” with being The Beatles, the “freakshow” that touring had become, the band had been freed from their boyish image by adopting personas which they could escape in. However, in just a couple of months, The Beatles would be hit with shocking news that will force them to reevaluate everything they think they know about themselves.
Cut to August 1967: McCartney, Lennon, Harrison, and Starr are in Bangor, North Wales, attending a lecture on transcendental meditation led by none other than the Maharishi Yogi himself. They’d been preparing for their personal meeting with the guru when the news hit that would thrust the group’s future into limbo: Brain Epstein– their manager and dear friend who was to join them the very next day– had died from a drug overdose.
The Fifth Beatle
The honorary “Fifth Beatle” according to McCartney, Epstein, just 27 years old when he became the group’s manager, brought The Beatles to the public eye and transformed their image from leather-clad teddy boys to clean-cut teen heartthrobs; he fostered the Beatles Fan Clubs, and handled everything from record labels to their film deals. Just six years their senior, Epstein was one of the group, and a constant steady hand (also possibly more to John Lennon). However, as his influence began to fade with no there were no global tours or public performances to schedule and arrange, Epstein’s increased use of sleeping pills and alcohol that he’d tried to kick during the Sgt. Pepper’s months had ultimately caused a build-up and overdose.
Without him, The Beatles were suddenly directionless, completely on their own for the first time in their career, which was previously guided by Epstein with the utmost care and forethought. They were surely screwed, doomed to fall apart in the wake of Epstein’s untimely death…until it seemed a future in film could be the answer to their worries.
“Paul’s Baby, All the Way Through”
Just five days after Brian Epstein’s death, Paul McCartney called a meeting at his London home on September 1st, 1967 to discuss the group’s future. Before the other members’ arrival, McCartney shared his plans for a new project with publicist Tony Barrow, sharing that another feature-length film would not only keep the group working and together, but could usher in a new phase of The Beatles’ careers.
Months prior, McCartney had the idea for the song “Magical Mystery Tour” just days after Sgt. Pepper’s completion. Still very much in Lennon-McCartney’s self-described “fairground period”, the premise was inspired by the then-popular mystery tours, which would take passengers on tours by bus, with each location unknown until arrival. The song was recorded in April, but fell to the wayside, until McCartney literally drew up the plans he presented on September 1st.
McCartney proposed a film following the premise of a magical mystery bus tour, merged with the spectacle of sideshows and the psychedelic, with each Beatle allowed a 10-15 minute segment of the film to do whatever they wanted. The now-legendary drawing of the circular outline with blank spaces to be filled in, McCartney had a very rough outline of points that could be included in the film. Though some thought the timing of the idea was insensitive so close to Epstein’s death, McCartney feared the talks of a trip to India at this time would lead to the group never returning as a working group again.
Additionally, touring had been the most lucrative source of income for the band members themselves, and unfortunately a great deal of Epstein’s managerial decisions left a “gaping hole” in the group’s financial future. But should The Beatles be able to create a successful feature-length film, a theatrical release could act as a screen “tour” for which anyone in the world could buy a ticket, all while keeping interest in the Beatles alive.
Doomed from the Start?
The film Magical Mystery Tour was the first thing The Beatles ever did that was completely panned by critics, and even fans. Its reception was so bad that American television stations didn’t bother buying the rights to air the film in the U.S., and it wasn’t shown theatrically until 1974.
Set on being their own managers and opposed to hiring too many outside people, they took on directing the film themselves, and production began with loose ideas and key points or sketches from the filled-in pie model and a rented bus, and began filming just 10 days after the initial meeting. With not many places to film on such short notice, the production made use of old airplane hangars, fields, and old taxi parks, and calls for extras or specific types of persons for scenes were on the fly. So much so that quite often the extras/passengers of the bus and crew didn’t know what was being used for the film at what wasn’t; whether dinner was simply dinner, or a scene.
The experience of directing, financing, casting, etc. a film was far different from their previous experience in Help! Where they simply showed up when they needed to– but that’s just how they liked it, truth be told. And although the film on its own is rather incomprehensible upon first (and possibly second, third) watch, it has its redeeming qualities and succeeded in a few of its goals.
“A Graft of Englishness and Psychedelia”
The highlight, of course, is the musical soundtrack, which became a number one hit despite the accompanying film. The “music videos” are undeniably iconic, with the group’s sole taped performance of “I Am the Walrus” and the stunningly mesmerizing “Blue Jay Way” standing out in particular. The strongest moments of the film lend to the second accomplishment, which was to create the film equivalent of a drug trip– though in this case, it certainly has the potential to be a bad trip rather than a far-out, “lovely time” for those not immersed in the counterculture. The allure of a magical coach tour, in McCartney’s words, was that: “We can take ’em anywhere we want, man!”
And that, they certainly did do. What semblance there is of a plot begins with Ringo buying bus tickets from “train station” and boarding the bus with his Auntie Jess, and ends in a strip club and then big, class show number. And despite the storybook-like narration from John Lennon dispersed throughout the film, the idea that the random vignettes and sequences are being caused by wizards that live in the clouds hardly comes through. It leans more into John Waters territory than whimsy, with characters named Buster Bloodvessel and a bus-full of old folks, little people, and fat women accompanying the outrageousness and surreal humor.
But, it also succeeds in being a “home movie”, as the entire experience was very much a hometown visit on and off camera, with the anecdotes and encounters surrounding the weeks of Magical Mystery Tour’s production worthy of a documentary in itself. The Beatles were bringing the culture of psychedelia back home to their English roots.The film really did involve a voyage throughout the western english countryside, whose local small shops and public spaces that became life-changing experiences to many, including:
- A local tobacco shop, transformed into the train station at the beginning of the film
- A clothes shop where The Beatles bought some of their nice shirts during their stay, one of which is worn by Ringo in the “I Am the Walrus” sequence
- Corner fish and chip joints that were the setting for one of the confusing lunch breaks
- John Lennon borrowing a nearby man’s hat for the ticket scene, and returning it to him
- Paul McCartney’s piano playing at the local pub, full pint on top of the instrument
- Beatles Fan Club Secretary Freida (name) being sat behind Ringo on the bus
- Countless chats, autographs, and photos with fans
- The bus got stuck on a bridge, causing a traffic backup for hours until they got unstuck
Whereas past instances of word getting around during film production resulted in a bit of trouble from stragglers, on all accounts it seems as though Magical Mystery Tour was a time of playfulness and rejuvenation for the group, even showing sides to them that hadn’t been very visible before. A particularly darling story is that of two eight-year-old boys of a seaside town, who teased the group on set and were playfully chased around.
Really, it’s a shame that in this case, the album isn’t as intertwined with the film as were the previous cases, as this reminiscing on Liverpudlian life is the force behind some of the albums most beloved hits. “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” are both on the Magical Mystery Tour album, but do not appear in the film– a true shame, as the potential for those sequences in a destination film around England seems a given. If only they were recorded before the film had concluded its whirlwind of shooting.
Is It Really That Bad?
I’d recommend it as a “watch it at least once” type of deal. It’s a collection of incredible music videos strung together by a bewildering framing device that may be more annoying to some than the music is worth, but it is less than an hour. The biggest let-down is the beautiful “Your Mother Should Know” number as the finale, which would be a wonderful end to a film if the rest of the storyline hadn’t completely dropped off the face of the earth beforehand.
If you’re a fan of the music, bizarre films in general, and/or so bad it’s good flicks, then it’s even more of a yes. It can’t be understated how great a lot of the movie looks, with vivid colors and bright, patterned effects. It’s just as much worth watching for the aesthetic as for the music, in my opinion.
There are some surrounding facts that I find make the film even more amusing, including:
- “The Fool on the Hill” music video, which is essentially Paul McCartney zoning out on the bus ride
- The drill sergeant (played by recurring Beatles film actor Victor Spinelli), who shouts in complete gibberish because the language real drill sergeants used wouldn’t have been allowed
- The hilariously introduced “Flying” sequence to the instrumental track features aerial footage from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove that was reused by the editor when no proper footage had fit. Kubrick called and complained.
- The song that plays while Auntie Jess and Buster Bloodvessel walk along the beach is a gorgeous orchestral rendition of “All My Loving”, which is sadly absent from the soundtrack
- The song performed by The Bongo Dog Doo-Dah Band in the strip club scene, picked by McCartney from the group’s album, is titled “Death Cab for Cutie”, and is where the name of the American alt-rock band was derived from
It’s certainly not a good film, but it didn’t necessarily want to be. Unfortunately, it wasn’t successful either, although the reception wouldn’t have been half as bad if not for one unfortunate factor.
It was shown in black and white.
Magical Mystery Tour. In black and white. On a 20-inch TV.
Yes, when you learn that the movie premiered in black and white on BBC1, the infamy surrounding the film makes a bit more sense. In a sad turn of events, the feature-length film project (which would have fulfilled the contract with United Artists they were still held under) was relegated to television. This not only meant that the 10 hours of footage from filming was whittled down to a measly 52 minutes, but the “trip” folks were meant to go on seemingly lost all of its allure overnight.
BBC1 at the time was only in black and white, and while BBC2 did have color, most households did not yet have color television. I cannot even imagine what a muddy, imperceptible mess these nonsensical remains of the project would have been on a petite screen– and from The Beatles, who were seemingly at their peak. Was it hubris? Desperation? Experimentation looked unkindly upon? I’d say a bit of it all, mixed with bad luck and a ruthless public. It was supposedly the first time an artist felt like they needed to apologize for a piece, although the group would look back fondly at the experience for what it was, and what they were happy with at the time.
Thankfully, there’s been a remastered and re-release in theaters back in 2012 and 2017, and although it may not ever look quite as vivid as it did in its premiere theatrical screening, it absolutely has its cult following as a slice of music history and buckwild viewing experience. Disappointment, disgust, fear, hype, joy—you could feel any one or even all of those emotions while viewing it. In case it wasn’t clear enough, Magical Mystery Tour truly is an experience through and through, that you won’t likely forget—and hey, you might even be enchanted enough to go for another ride. One thing is absolutely certain, however: The Beatles would step aside from their dream of film production, and their limited involvement on the future film to finally fulfill their contract deal would be a blessing in disguise.