By Chaz Lipp
It would be exceedingly difficult for anyone to make the case that The Beatles were trying to say anything of interest with Magical Mystery Tour. The 1967 television special is 53 minutes of pure randomness – a head trip that you kind of just have to surrender to in order to enjoy. In a way, much more highly skilled filmmakers would realize their concept for visualizing pure psychedelia the following year with the feature-length Yellow Submarine animated film. That film, which also debuted on Blu-ray (with a gorgeous 4K restoration) this year, did a far better job of marrying The Beatles music to surreal imagery. The downside was the Beatles’ relative indifference to the project at the time. Aside from a live-action cameo at the end, they had very little to do with the film.
But Magical Mystery Tour, for better or worse, was their baby from start to finish. It’s the result of four supremely talented musicians who, at the absolute height of their influence, decided to try their hand at a medium they knew almost nothing about. Sure, they had starred in two successful feature films, the groundbreaking A Hard Day’s Night and the sillier (but still fun) Help!, but those had been helmed by the great Richard Lester. Helping matters even further was the presence of actual screenplays. Often overlooked is the fact that Alun Owen was nominated for an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay for A Hard Day’s Night.
Self-“written” and self-directed by The Beatles themselves, Magical Mystery Tour didn’t have the luxury of a skilled filmmaking team to guide it. The new Blu-ray offers, via a terrific array of supplemental features, a fascinating look at the reasons the film didn’t work. For Beatle fans, it’s awesome seeing a recent interview with Ringo Starr explaining how the “script” for Tour was basically nothing more than a pie graph drawn on a piece of paper. The best feature here is Paul McCartney’s audio commentary. He talks about a variety of issues, both positive and negative, including the post-production disaster that resulted from neglecting to use a clapperboard during the shoot. This made syncing the location sound an arduous task that stretched the editing process from weeks to months.
The film itself depicts a bus tour in England that a group of magicians casts a few magical spells upon. The Beatles play dual roles as passengers on the tour as well as the magicians. The cameras rolled as a variety of preconceived and improvised events occured. A nice candid moment involves John Lennon and George Harrison interacting with a young child on the bus. Singalongs break out on the bus, a car race (with Ringo driving the bus) occurs at one point, and stops are made along the way. A couple of dream sequences crop up as well. But the best bits are the songs. The Beatles recorded six of them for the film and they’re strategically inserted throughout. The “I Am the Walrus” sequence towers above them as it’s the most elaborately staged. But “Your Mother Should Know” offers a fun mini-production number (McCartney has a few self-deprecating comments about the choreography in his commentary).
Magical Mystery Tour had a lot of resotration work invested by a team of technicians to get it looking as good as it does on Blu-ray. This is a significant improvement on previous home video editions, but the real treasure is the 5.1 DTS-HD MA mix. If you love The Beatles, you will love sitting back and soaking in the songs. The music, as presented in surround sound, is really worth picking the disc up for alone.
I’ve already mentioned the McCartney commentary, but there’s also some informative new featurettes: “The Making of Magical Mystery Tour” (19 minutes), “Meet the Supporting Cast” (11 minutes), and a fun mini-featurette, “Ringo the Actor” (2 minutes). These go well beyond the standard self-promotional nature that often mars such special features. We get lots of alternate and deleted footage. Learning about the bit players that make up the supporting cast is quite interesting.
For more deleted footage, “The Fool on the Hill,” “Blue Jay Way,” and “Your Mother Should Know” are all given new edits that utilize stuff we’ve never seen before. Fans of Steve Winwood’s Traffic will be thrilled to find a deleted scene that they appeared in. There’s even a quartet of deleted scenes included as “Easter eggs” on the main menu page (they aren’t hard to find, just move your cursor around the screen until you highlight the non-labeled icons).
Be advised, there’s a premium-priced deluxe box set version available that includes fancier packaging, a 60-page book, and a repressing of the original double-vinyl soundtrack EP (as it was originally released in the UK in ’67). But all the special features are the same, so the standard edition Blu-ray of Magical Mystery Tour is the best bet for the fan budget-conscious fan.