Judge Erich Asperschlager is waiting to take you away.
"Roll up for the Mystery Tour! Step right this way!"
For their third film, The Beatles wanted to do something different. Where A Hard Day's Night and Help! were made while the band was still a clean-cut group of mop tops, 1967's Magical Mystery Tour looked to capture the freedom and creativity of their Sgt. Pepper album. Taking their inspiration from "mystery tours" they saw advertised during their youth—bus trips where the passengers weren't told their destination—The Beatles grabbed a camera, hired a bus and actors, and set off across the country. Instead of a script, they had a few vague story ideas, six new songs, and ad-libbed the rest. Armed with ten hours of footage, they returned to London and edited it down to an hourlong special that aired on BBC1, to great fanfare, on the day after Christmas.
It was a disaster. Viewers were baffled by the film and critics ravaged it in the press. While it didn't help that the broadcast was in black-and-white, or that the music was constrained by tinny TV speakers, the public reaction to Magical Mystery Tour was so negative that McCartney issued a sheepish apology. Contrast the public's reaction to the film to that of the accompanying double EP, which got rave reviews and sold like crazy. In the US (where the EP got fleshed out to album length with the addition of six Uk singles) it hit number 1 and was nominated for a Grammy. Big difference.
Facts of the Case
More than 40 years after its infamous first broadcast, Magical Mystery Tour hits Blu-ray with newly restored picture and remastered sound—available in both the single disc version reviewed here, and a "deluxe" box set with the Blu-ray, DVD, 60-page book, vinyl reproduction of the original EP.
I'm sure Magical Mystery Tour has its fans, but I find it to be a slog. At least it's a quick slog. The 53-minute film breezes by, flitting from one silly set-piece to the next, pausing now and then for a musical number. The very basic story centers on Ringo journeying with his Aunt Jessica (Jessie Robins). Their eccentric fellow travelers include Buster Bloodvessel (Ivor Cutler), Rubber Man (Nat Jackley), Little George (George Claydon), Jolly Jimmy (Derek Boyle), and Wendy Winters (Mandy Weet). Along the way, they take part in a madcap marathon, meet an unintelligible Army Sergeant (Beatles movie mainstay Victor Spinetti), go to a strip club, and dream-eat at a restaurant where waiter John Lennon serves spaghetti with a shovel. There are a couple of linking scenes in which The Beatles play magicians who live in the clouds and care where the bus is, for some reason. If you're looking for a plot, don't. Magical Mystery Tour is a formless fable, a collection of half-baked ideas, a Monty Python sketch without any punchlines. Then again, to the film's fans, that's the point.
Whatever you think of the experimental structure, there's no denying the film's great music. Magical Mystery Tour introduced the songs "Magical Mystery Tour," "The Fool on the Hill," "Flying," "I Am the Walrus," "Blue Jay Way," and "Your Mother Should Know." The Beatles tunes play out like freeform music videos. Some are solo pieces, like Paul's "Fool on the Hill" and George's "Blue Jay Way." Other songs bring the full band together. In "I Am the Walrus," the band performs in animal costumes and "eggman" bald caps, against the concrete walls of an RAF airfield, while "Your Mother Should Know" caps things off with a fully choreographed Broadway production. The rest of the film features music that didn't make the EP, the most memorable of which isn't even a Beatles song. Art-comedy collective The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band makes an appearance in the strip club scene, where they perform the Elvis-inspired "Death Cab for Cutie" (whose title was co-opted by the alt-rock band of the same name).
Magical Mystery Tour might be divisive, but it's still a Beatles movie, which goes a long way to explain the care that's gone into this Blu-ray. Going back to the best surviving elements, the film has been restored, looking better than ever in this 1.33:1/1080i transfer. The Beatles' loose filmmaking style means this movie is never going to look as clean as a big-budget production. Even so, the picture is saturated and surprisingly stable. There is a polish to the image that suggests DNR has been applied, but where some Hollywood movies strain to achieve the look of celluloid, Magical Mystery Tour is never going to be mistaken for anything other than film. It's not a perfect picture, but I can't imagine it looking any better than this.
I can't imagine it sounding better either, for entirely different reasons. Where the Magical Mystery Tour film has never looked that great, there's a wealth of high quality Beatles recordings—especially since their entire catalog was remastered in 2009. To bring Magical Mystery Tour up to HD snuff, the film's music was remastered and mixed at Apple under the supervision Giles Martin. Like the Yellow Submarine Blu-ray restoration earlier this year, the results are outstanding. The film has with two lossless audio options: a DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio surround mix, and 2.0 PCM Stereo. It's a toss-up between the two. While the stereo mix hits a little harder, the surround track is more atmospheric. Both sound amazing, and easily best the album's '09 remaster. Even if you don't love the movie, I recommend Magical Mystery Tour just for the music.
Well, maybe not just for the music. The Blu-ray also comes with an impressive collection of HD bonus features that are informative and fun:
• Commentary with Paul McCartney: No apologies this time from Sir Paul, who is honest about the film's quirks without coming down hard on its shortcomings. He has a wealth of interesting production tidbits, including the fact that the aerial footage during "Flying" was left over from Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.
• "The Making of Magical Mystery Tour" (19:03): This fast-moving documentary follows the project from inception to release, combining archival behind-the-scenes footage with talking head segments with Paul, Ringo, George (recorded in 1993), John (in audio form), and various cast members and crew.
• "Ringo the Actor" (2:24): Starr sits down in front of a MacBook to watch himself on film. He doesn't provide the most insightful commentary, but hey. He was a Beatle.
• "Meet the Supporting Cast" (10:55): Profiles of Jessie Robins, Nat Jackley, Ivor Cutler, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Victor Spinetti, George Claydon, and Derek Royle—combining film footage with other clips from their TV, stage, and musical performances.
The remainder of the bonus features are somewhere between music videos, outtakes, and deleted scenes, with DTS 5.1 mixes for everything except "Hello Goodbye":
• "Your Mother Should Know" (2:41)
• "Blue Jay Way" (3:58)
• "The Fool on the Hill" (3:05)
• "Nat's Dream" (2:01): This unused segment stars Nat Jackley as Rubber Man, wandering the seaside and playfully accosting bathing beauties. Set to the Lennon/McCartney tune "Shirley's Wild Accordion."
• "I'm Going in a Field" (2:42): A deleted scene in
which Ivor Cutler goes into a field and sings a song about going into a field.
• "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush" (2:41): The Beatles commissioned the band Traffic to make a video of their song, but didn't include it in the final film.
• "Hello Goodbye Promo" (3:37): A surprisingly Beatles-free archival black and white promo video that aired on Top of the Pops.
There are also two Easter eggs for the intrepid explorer, which can be accessed from the outer edges of the main menu. "Jessie's Blues" (2:16), and "Magic Alex Sings Wall of Jericho" (1:31) are both off-the-cuff bus numbers, one performed by Jessie Robins, and the other by the kooky Greek electronics whiz who became head of Apple Electronics.
Magical Mystery Tour might not have be as accessible as The Beatles' earlier films, but this lovely Blu-ray package makes a solid argument in its favor. The restored HD picture is as impressive for pulling detail out of rough source material as the audio track is for finding new clarity and depth in music that sounded great already. Although the deluxe packaging comes with even more goodies, the standalone Blu-ray has plenty of bonus features to satisfy casual Beatles fans, completists, and people who like seeing popular musicians wear animal costumes.
Not Goo Goo G'joob Guilty!
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