If you think of “holiday” as an enhanced departure from routine, the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour (Apple Blu-Ray DVD) qualifies as the ultimate holiday movie, in spite of what happened when it was first shown on the BBC, Boxing Day, December 26, 1967. Besides being savaged by critics as “tasteless nonsense” and “blatant rubbish,” the 50-odd minutes of surreal psychedelic vaudeville appalled and alienated the British public. “Beatles mystery tour baffles viewers” was the headline in the Mirror. The show scored the lowest-ever rating (23 out of 100) on a viewer’s survey known as the BBC’s Reaction Index. Thousands actually called in to protest. Of course it didn’t help that a film made in color had been shown in black and white. (There was at least one positive notice, from the Guardian, which called it “an inspired freewheeling achievement.”)
“We got hammered mightily,” Sir Paul McCartney admits near the end of his commentary accompanying the new Blu-Ray edition, where his closing remark is a cynical “thank you” to the critics for their “kind reviews.” Forty-five years after the fact, the original rejection apparently still rankles, casting a shadow on a work McCartney values not only as a free-form adventure shared with his mates but as “a snapshot of the times,” and “an interesting document of where we were at.” Without it, no one “would have seen this side of the Beatles. Someone would have put us in a bag and made sense of it. A lot of what we were doing then didn’t make sense.”
Good as Gold
The unmagical BBC fiasco prompted NBC to cancel an agreement to broadcast the film, which was not widely shown here until 1974, four years after the Beatles had broken up. While this suggests one reason why Magical Mystery Tour never really registered as a debacle stateside, a more likely explanation is that before American listeners could be exposed to any negative feedback from England, they were blissing out to the truly magical album Capitol had released a month earlier. In England, people had to make do with an EP containing only songs from the film. The American version had those five tracks, plus the singles, “Hello Goodbye,” “All You Need Is Love,” “Baby You’re a Rich Man,” and two unmitigated masterpieces, “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” As far as people on this side of the Atlantic were concerned, everything the Beatles touched was still turning to gold.
Consider the heady state of Beatles affairs at the time of their escape in a psychedelicized Bedford tour bus on a wholly irresponsible spur-of-the-moment lark with a cast of friends, fan club leaders, technicians, character actors, comedians, dwarfs, and cameramen. In the aftermath of the storied summer of 1967, they can do no wrong, Sgt. Pepper having exploded on the scene in May, with songs like “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” a hallucinatory anthem, and the closing track, “A Day in the Life,” which blew a hole as big as Blackburn Lancashire through the conventions of rock and roll.
On June 25, 400 million people in 26 countries would see the live feed of the Beatles’ debut performance of “All You Need Is Love” broadcast worldwide as the U.K.’s contribution to Our World, the first live global television link. A fortnight after the August 27th death of the group’s guiding light, Brian Epstein, the lads from Liverpool take off for the West country on their holiday adventure with no plan, no script. In the DVD commentary, McCartney says he simply suggested they each “come up with some ideas and go somewhere and film them.” They would make up the movie as they went along. Like putting a childhood fantasy into play. In one sense, as hard as Epstein’s death was on them, it symbolically set them free: “We wanted to have control over what we were doing. We were fed up with everything taking so long.”
As Paul admits in the commentary, the result led to a nightmare in the editing room. He thought they could shape a film from all that footage in one week; it took eleven.
Sometimes I think a library angel is looking out for me, putting the right thing in the right place at the right moment. As soon as this week’s Town Talk question was decided on (that old standby, “What’s your favorite holiday movie?”), I went to the “community’s living room” figuring I might check out White Christmas or anything that struck the right note for a holiday theme. Then there it was displayed atop the Blu-Ray shelves, looming bold and bright with its fanfare rainbow and yellow stars, and Paul, John, George, and Ringo disguised in “I Am the Walrus” regalia.
After two viewings of Magical Mystery Tour and its special features, I put Irving Berlin’s White Christmas in the DVD player. When Paul says in his commentary that “what happened with the Beatles had to do with our memories,” he’s not just talking about growing up with the BBC, or acts like Morecombe & Wise, the Goon Show, and the ambience of the music hall, but of the enlightened affection he and John Lennon shared for classic American songs and songwriters like Irving Berlin. This becomes clear when Paul is discussing the making of the concluding number, “Your Mother Should Know,” an evocation of grandiose Hollywood musicals in which the Beatles, attired in white tuxedos, descend a grand stairway while dancing couples spin and twirl below, the girls’ skirts whirling and flaring. It’s an exhilarating sequence, the atmosphere is both formal and free like the spirited, buoyant music that makes this arguably Paul’s most effective homage to “the songs that were a hit before your mother was born.”
The surreal chaos of Magical Mystery Tour, even at its sloppiest, has a Cinéma vérité panache. In White Christmas, the highest grossing film of 1954, the gloss of the production is so polished and insistent it offends the eye. It’s all surface and the opening scene on the front lines in 1944 looks as staged and static as a display in a department store show window with mannikins dressed as soldiers. It’s a relief when the film leaves the war zone for the familiar show biz milieu of a musical comedy team (Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye) with love interest in the form of two sisters (Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen), who were singing “Sisters” at the point when I turned it off to go back to Magical Mystery Tour for another look at the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band performing “Death Cab for Cutie.”
I keep hearing “Ooh you’re a holiday, such a holiday,” from the song of the same name, one of the most irresistible melodies ever recorded by the Bee Gees. What appeals to me is the idea of a human holiday, and given the pleasure they’ve brought to millions of people around the world for the past 50 years, it’s safe to say that the Beatles are a holiday. Which means this resplendently revised film of a trip they once took (a holiday’s holiday) is worth going along on for any number of reasons, including the wonders performed on a hitherto shabby print by high-definition Blu-Ray production. Another reason: the special features, notably the one on the making of the film with appearances by 70-year-old Sir Paul looking magisterial and saggy about the jowls and Ringo who seems in fine fettle watching his 27-year-old self bickering with his fat Aunt Jessie (Jessie Robins). In the fast and loose fluidity of the film, 2012 and 1967 interact in an element open to the old and young Paul (his wide-eyed Dorian Gray charisma on display in the “Fool on the Hill” sequence) and the old and young Ringo. Plus George and John, alive again, commenting on the film years after its fraught release and present in the moment it’s being made, passengers with the rest of the oddballs from the 20th century British vaudeville of fat and lean, freak and clown, and little kids like the girl sitting next to John on the bus, the two of them playing with a red balloon in one of the film’s most charming moments (showing, as Paul says, “a side of John you never really saw”). George may seem at times to be enduring the ride, dour in shades and a wide-shouldered gangster suit jacket two sizes too big for him, but he lightens up, having fun, singing along when everyone on the bus is bellowing “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” (one of the special feature highlights is Ringo’s tomcat-on-the-fence version of “Yesterday”).
No doubt we could do without Victor Spinetti’s stacatto top sergeant gibberish and the love scene on the beach with Aunt Jessie and Buster Bloodvessel (Ivor Cutler). But after all, it’s only 53 minutes long, and there’s easily enough charm and color and movement to make up for the longeurs. Blu-Ray does amazing things with the Beatles’ richly hued magician’s regalia, worn while they’re cooking up spells and exchanging Hard Day’s Night-style one-liners. Only now there’s no Richard Lester telling them what to do, and no one’s feeding them lines. Remember, they’re on a lark, “at liberty to play,” as Paul says.
The main reason to see Magical Mystery Tour, no surprise, is the music, most of all the “I Am the Walrus” sequence, captured in one of the greatest music videos ever (and accomplished before MTV was a gleam in anyone’s eye). Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye are wonderful performers, Irving Berlin a great songwriter. But the Beatles do it all. They write the songs they sing. They make the moves and carry the movies. As Paul says near the end of his commentary, “We did the trip and we came back singing songs. Who were the wizards? The wizards were us.”