"Hey, you, wanna make a quick buck? You know who's an easy mark? Beatles fans. They're abundant, and they are legion. They'll buy any slipshod DVD you slap the Fab Four's picture on, no matter how inconsequential or poorly made. No, seriously. They'll buy anything."
I'm imagining this conversation took place a few years ago between some of the bargain DVD distributors. Maybe there was a seminar at a convention a while back. All I know is that the cheap-o unauthorized Beatles DVD has become a cottage industry over the past few years, and if you've ever had the misfortune of watching The Beatles: Destination Hamburg, Beatles' Biggest Secrets, or The Beatles: From Liverpool to San Francisco, then you're all too familiar with the formula: Gather a bunch of lesser-known folks from the sidelines to sit for interviews, piece together whatever toss-off newsreel footage and photos you can get your hands on, and spackle over it with a soundtrack of either instrumentals, sound-alikes, or lackluster pre-fame recordings (thanks to the prohibitive cost of actually, you know, using the music of the band you're profiling). Slap it together with a $14.99 price tag on the front, and you can apparently laugh all the way to the bank.
The latest entry into this dubious sweepstakes is The Beatles: Magical Mystery Tour Memories, from an outfit called (no kidding) Wienerworld Limited. I'll let you insert your own joke here. The first question that the disc calls to mind is this: Why would you give this kind of in-depth examination to the project that was, most fans will agree, the single biggest flop of their career? Aired during the 1967 holiday season on BBC 1, Magical Mystery Tour was an hour-long film for television that the boys directed themselves, without a script. The idea was to gather a group of friends and freaks on a bus and travel around, filming whatever happened (which turned out to be very little). The film was scorched by critics across the pond and was seldom seen on this side of the Atlantic until its home video release, where its many reported flaws were more than verified.
Most fans will defend the film on the strength of the music (including "I Am The Walrus" and "The Fool on the Hill"). But Magical Mystery Tour Memories isn't about the music (heard entirely in instrumental and sound-alike versions); it's all about how they made the mediocre movie. So why was this documentary made? Well, it seems that the producers got their hands on some previously-unknown home movie footage of the boys on the set, and here's how they're making some money on it.
The interviews are with such peripheral figures as Paul McCartney's brother Mike, fan club president Frieda Kelly, musician Spencer Davis, journalist Miranda Ward, and actor Victor Spinetti, who is something of a narrator as well. None of them have much of interest to say, though they're all master storytellers compared to the townspeople and passerby from the shoot that are assembled to reminisce. From them, we get such spellbinding tales as that of the cop whose photograph was put in the album's booklet and the kid who got his autographs stolen.
Seriously, I've been a Beatles fanatic since I was 8, and I couldn't keep my attention from wandering during Magical Mystery Tour Memories. Some of the photos (as well as the vintage home movies that apparently prompted the entire project) are fun, but certainly not worth seeking out this one.
The full-frame image is average to poor. The vintage film from the original Mystery Tour shoot is understandably worn, full of dirt and scratches, but there was clearly no effort to clean it up either. The new interviews are shot on standard-definition video, and suffer from occasional aliasing and edge enhancement. Some of the interviews show some poor lighting choices as well, with too-hot lighting blowing out skin tones of some subjects. Add in a couple of digital dropouts, and you've got a less-than-stellar video presentation.
The 2.0 stereo track also suffers from some less-than-solid production errors; specifically, several of the interviews (especially Spinetti's) have a heavy amount of echo and room noise, sounding almost as if room microphones were used instead of lavalieres. The result is a busy, noisy, unappealing track.
As with the video, there are audio problems with some of the source materials as well. In one scene, excerpts are heard from journalist Miranda Ward's interview with George Harrison, but a constant bass thumping (a heart beat?) is heard throughout. I realize there were precious few pieces of the actual Beatles available to the filmmakers, but if they couldn't clean up that audio, it shouldn't have been used.
However, the audio does come alive during some of the musical interludes, which have a nice, dynamic sound.
All we get in the way of extras are (quoting the packaging) "Beatles related stories" from the folks interviewed in the film; in other words, a 20-minute outtake reel of stories deemed not interesting enough to share time with the stories that made the cut. Shudder.
All in all, Magical Mystery Tour Memories is a waste of time. It is an in-depth (but uninteresting) account of the creation of a project that no one ended up liking very much, as told by those who made none of the creative decisions. Some of the behind-the-scenes footage (though rough in quality) is of passing interest to fans, but only as, say, a bonus feature on the DVD of the film itself. Why anyone (even a die-hard fan) would spend their hard-earned cash on a fifty-minutes-too-long bonus feature sold as a stand-alone release is a mystery to this Beatlemaniac. Skip it.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.