The Beatles ushered in the early 1960s British Invasion with a grand flourish, easily overtaking AM radio and record charts with their still-infectious rock’n’roll, as well as conquering stateside tellys with performances on The Ed Sullivan Show. Dominating the silver screen would soon be inevitable, as director Richard Lester guided the merry moptops to cinema stardom in 1964’s A Hard Day’s Night and 1965’s Help!
Yet just a few years into their career
run, the boys were less content with their flossy pop nuggets and more
inclined to experiment with ambitiously layered psychedelia. After all,
the sonic soundscapes of “A Day in the Life” and “Strawberry Fields
Forever” were a long way from the yeah-yeah-yeah innocence of “She Loves
You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Now replete with shaggier
hairstyles and mustaches and done up in flashy Carnaby Street togs, the
Fab Four not only branched out with their music, they also wanted more
control in shaping their screen personas. And the 1967 British TV
special Magical Mystery Tour was to be their vehicle, so to speak, of artistic expression.
Yet just a few years into their career run, the boys were less content with their flossy pop nuggets and more inclined to experiment with ambitiously layered psychedelia. After all, the sonic soundscapes of “A Day in the Life” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” were a long way from the yeah-yeah-yeah innocence of “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Now replete with shaggier hairstyles and mustaches and done up in flashy Carnaby Street togs, the Fab Four not only branched out with their music, they also wanted more control in shaping their screen personas. And the 1967 British TV special Magical Mystery Tour was to be their vehicle, so to speak, of artistic expression.
Things didn’t work out, alas. The 53-minute TV show was greeted with withering slams by Brit critics and confused reactions from the mainstream public that was expecting Another Hard Day’s Night instead of what seemed to resemble an overindulgent, plotless road movie—which it was, to an extent, but that’s beside the point. The brickbats even stopped plans to air Magical Mystery Tour on America’s ABC-TV network, despite the fact that its soundtrack spinoff was popular on album sales charts. The film wasn’t seen stateside until New Line Cinema began offering washed-out 16mm prints to college movie clubs in 1974, where it played at numerous campuses including Syracuse University.
For Beatles buffs who witnessed those shoddy prints of yesteryear, they should be delighted with the new Magical Mystery Tour DVD from EMI-Capitol and the band’s own Apple Films, with its thorough digital scrubbing of its full-screen images and its beefed-up Dolby Digital 5.1 stereo sound. The newly brightened visuals make the overall package much more appealing, especially since Tour was shot on the fly with 16mm stock by amateur filmmakers who were overflowing with ideas but had little knowhow in the ways of executing them.
The Beatles basically loaded up a motor coach with Fellini-esque supporting players plus some buxom babes and, over a two-week duration, traveled the English countryside and its seaside communities, including Cornwall, in search of wackiness, while also shoehorning in music videos of the LP’s six new songs, such as “I Am the Walrus” and “The Fool on the Hill.” The finished product, culled from more than 10 hours of footage, seems mostly unfinished, with silly stopovers, camera clowning (such as using a fish-eye lens) and improvised bits of business, yet that’s central to its nutty charm.
In a commentary track filled with mellow ramblings from Paul McCartney, he simply explains that the movie “was where we were at, at that time.” He recalls how each Beatle came up with bizarre sequences, from childhood memories of tug-of-war to John Lennon having a dream that led to Tour’s gross-out moment in which he wields shovelfuls of spaghetti onto the plate of plus-size character actress Jessie Robins. McCartney also gives away some secrets, including how leftover aerial footage from Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 satire Dr. Strangelove was borrowed for the sequence involving the instrumental “Flying.” And he ever so briefly addresses the Paul-is-dead rumors of the time to explain why he wore a black carnation on his white tuxedo for the choreographed “Your Mother Should Know” finale. “They ran out of red carnations,” he allows, perhaps putting an end to those 45-year-old conspiracy theories.
(On a local level, around 1970 a seventh-grade English class at North Syracuse’s Gillette Road Middle School had a section devoted to parsing Beatles tracks for hidden clues. One supposed revelation from Tour’s LP cover art: If you look at the Beatles logo upside-down, the letters resemble the phone number of the London morgue where McCartney’s body was located.)
Beyond its quirky appeal and imaginative touches, Tour’s most striking aspect is the band’s love of country, and the ways they visualize their road trip in not-quite picturesque yet endearing details. One DVD Easter egg features a four-minute deleted scene as the bus travelers invade a fish-and-chips shop, and the very Britishness of the moment, as the gang munches on their lunches, is amusing yet reverent. Clearly, even after five years of chart-topping super-stardom, the four working-class lads from Liverpool never forgot their hardscrabble roots.
Plentiful extras on the DVD start with a making-of documentary that, curiously, only runs 19 minutes; a longer version, clocking in at nearly an hour, ran Dec. 14 on PBS’ Great Performances as an adjunct to a subsequent broadcast of Magical Mystery Tour. The behind-the-scenes stuff is still informative, although the inference that nobody outside of England knew about this movie’s existence following its dismissed 1967 showing is plainly wrong: The accompanying album boasted a synopsis, credits list and production stills galore, so it wasn’t hard to connect the dots.
The second-best vignette is a 12-minute backgrounder on the eclectic supporting players. The boys favored casting oddball types such as the dour performer Ivor Cutler and broad music-hall comic Nat Jackley, not to mention the old-school Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band during a striptease number as they perform the song “Death Cab for Cutie,” since hijacked as the current name of the Washington state alt-rocker outfit.
Other extras employ ample outtakes for rearranged music-video edits of “Your Mother Should Know,” “The Fool on the Hill” and George Harrison fingering a sidewalk chalk drawing of a keyboard for “Blue Jay Way.” More dropped scenes feature Cutler’s strange performance of “I’m Going in a Field,” a Lennon-directed comic sequence with Jackley ogling bikinied women, and rock band Traffic guesting on “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush.” There is also a brief segment of Ringo Starr’s recollections, as well as a black-and-white music video for “Hello Goodbye” that demonstrates the boys’ fondnesses for goofy camera and editing tricks.
A quartet of Easter eggs, including the aforementioned fish-and-chips interlude, can be accessed on the main menu with some remote-control finagling of the “Play Film” and “Audio Options” instructions. An eight-page booklet wraps the basic Magical Mystery Tour DVD experience, although a pricier deluxe model offers DVD and Blu-ray discs, a 60-page book and much more.
And for the Christmas wish lists of Beatles fans, add the 1968 cartoon extravaganza Yellow Submarine, which likewise has merited an extensive DVD restoration from EMI-Capitol and Apple. The Beatles were never very keen on the cartoon series produced by Al Brodax that was a Saturday morning ratings hit on ABC from 1965 to 1969, yet they were so blown away by Brodax’s production of Yellow Submarine, with its still-jaw-dropping use of pop-art techniques a la Peter Max and spacey flower-power graphics, that they agreed to be filmed for a live-action epilogue. Indeed, the psychedelic transpositions of Beatles song favorites atop a fantasy landscape of Blue Meanies, nowhere men and flying gloves resulted in a timely “head” movie alongside other then-cinematic rule-breakers like the laser light show from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Disney’s reissue of Fantasia.
With its theatrical and DVD rights now in Apple’s hands after nearly 40 years as a United Artists release, extras abound in this edition, including an audio commentary track featuring art director Heinz Edelmann, storyboard sequences, a commemorative booklet and interviews with animators, voice personnel (the moptops did not do their own dialogue) and author Erich Segal (Love Story), who rewrote the script. (At the time, Segal was clueless about the band’s success; when Brodax said that the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP sold 3 million copies, Segal replied, “Mrs. Pepper must be very happy.”)
Yet it’s the extensive frame-by-frame do-over of this 89-minute animated wonder, presented in the original 1:66.1 ratio, that takes center stage, as its trippy images seem to pop right off the TV monitor. Plus, the reinstated number “Hey Bulldog,” cut from domestic release prints and having resurfaced in a previous DVD edition, is also back in its rightful spot in the final reel.Apple has one more Beatles flick yet to be released on DVD, the long-unseen 1970 documentary Let It Be, so here’s hoping that 2013 could be a banner year indeed for Beatles buffs.