"It turned out to be a wacky, impromptu romp that puzzled a few people at the time but as the years have gone by it now stands as a fond reminder of that period in our lives." -Paul McCartney, from the accompanying booklet
Magical Mystery Tour was a film project produced and directed by The Beatles (John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr) themselves, from an idea mostly from Paul McCartney with Richard Starkey (AKA Ringo Starr) credited as director of photography. It was intended mainly for television, first shown on the BBC on Boxing Day 1967, but has also had a few theatrical releases as well, with New Line Cinema distributing its US release in the 1970s. It's best described as a long-form music video before such things existed- had home video been around in 1967 it certainly would have been issued that way.
The plot is rather loose but it's used to hold the film together. The Beatles fill a tourbus with their friends and relatives (though Ringo's Aunt Jessie, one of the more prominent characters, isn't really his aunt but an actress playing the part). "Mystery tours" were actually quite common in England, where patrons would actually board a bus with no knowledge of where they would be going, and that's what happens here. Scenes take place during the bus ride and locations where they stop and explore. Four original Beatles songs (Fool on the Hill, I Am the Walrus, Blue Jay Way and Your Mother Should Know) are worked into the film which are essentially music videos themselves, along with an instrumental (Flying) and the title track played over the beginning and end. There's also a guest performance by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (another song by Traffic was done for this too, but did not make it into the final film. It is included as an extra on the Blu-Ray however.) In between the music is largely improvisation by the Beatles and the supporting cast- it's been said no actual script was written and everyone was told just to do whatever came naturally. Also sort of just thrown in is a brief sub-plot featuring the Beatles and their road manager playing "magicians" watching over the bus from someplace- it plays like a bad children's show of the era.
Whether you like Magical Mystery Tour depends mainly on if you like The Beatles- and not just casually liking their most well-known songs but also their lesser-known stuff and general history. It's long been regarded as one of their biggest "flops", though critics have been kinder to it as the years have gone by. If you've never seen it before and don't care about the Beatles or their music, you'll probably find it almost incomprehensible. On the other hand if you like the Beatles and/or nostalgia for the 1960s psychedelic era, you'll be entertained and might even love it.
Having been available on home video off and on since the late 1970s (it was first issued unauthorized by Media Home Entertainment, the first independent home video label), Magical Mystery Tour has been given a high definition restoration for this Blu-Ray disc although only in 1080i (interlaced) rather than progressive. Originally shot on 16mm film, the picture here is very clean. I had MPI's 1997 DVD (which the pictures seen here were taken from) and 1993 laserdisc on hand to compare, and virtually all of the dirt and scratches present in those editions has been cleaned up for this release. I had always felt that the color looked faded and attributed that to the age of the film, but very little has been done with it for the Blu-Ray- it still looks quite faded. I assume that must be how it's intended to look, though I had always thought it would look better with brighter colors. (The initial BBC airing was in black and white, which Ringo was reportedly upset with- only BBC2 was equipped to broadcast in color at that time, and only every so often.)
The audio for Magical Mystery Tour was first remixed for stereo in 1988 for MPI's video release, and that has always sounded good for what this is (I had first seen this in 1985 as a syndicated TV showing which I still have on tape somewhere, and remember the audio on that being pretty awful.) The Blu-Ray has both a 5.1 channel mix in both DTS HD Master Audio and standard Dolby Digital, and a 2-channel mix in PCM, and these expand on the 1988 mix further by including even more separation in the ambient sounds and dialogue. I did find the 5.1 remixes of the music to be rather disappointing compared to those on the 1999 Yellow Submarine re-release and the Beatles "Love" DVD-Audio. While those went all-out, here the surrounds are hardly used at all. The surrounds are used a few times during the non-music portions, so I'm curious as to the reason for the minimal use during the music.
Subtitles are included (showing only the spoken dialogue, not the song lyrics) in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Finnish for the movie and most of the extras. There are also subtitles in all of these languages for Paul McCartney's commentary track. As with the subtitles on the 1997 MPI DVD, the lettering is rather small.
If viewing Magical Mystery Tour leaves you confused, there are a good number of extras on the disc (all in high definition) that might clear up a few things. The main extra is a full-length commentary track with Paul McCartney where he discusses the inspiration for some parts and other interesting info. There's also a 20-minute "making-of" piece with recent recollections from Ringo and Paul as well as some of the supporting cast.
A wealth of unused footage is included here as well- the songs Your Mother Should Know, Blue Jay Way and Fool on the Hill are repeated with alternate footage and outtakes from the film's segments, a deleted scene "Nat's Dream" with an accordion composition by Lennon and McCartney, Traffic's unused song and "video" Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, and a solo organ and vocal number by Ivor Cutler, I'm Going in a Field. Also included is a black-and-white segment done for "Top of the Pops" by the BBC, essentially a music video for Hello Goodbye, with footage of the Beatles madly editing the film together interspersed with some unidentified actors outside in the snow. Hidden in the main menu are footage from two more unused scenes and outtakes from the sing-along on the bus.
Magical Mystery Tour comes in a standard Blu-Ray case and includes a nice 8-page booklet with a written intro from Paul McCartney, some photos, extensive credits and further description of the included extras. There is also a "deluxe edition" available that also includes a regular DVD and a reprint of the original British EP on two 7-inch records. A new standard DVD is also available separately.
Magical Mystery Tour is an amusing oddity that deserves to be seen at least once by anyone remotely interested in The Beatles, and this disc is easily a must-have for die-hard fans. I was especially pleased that ALL of the extra material was transferred in high definition. Those hoping for aggressive 5.1 remixes of the songs or brighter colors will be disappointed however.
Pictures in this review were taken from the 1997 DVD release of this title and included only to illustrate the content; they do not reflect the quality of the Blu-Ray disc or recently remastered standard DVD.
Jesse Skeen is a life-long obsessive media collector (with an unhealthy preoccupation with obsolete and failed formats) and former theater film projectionist. He enjoys watching movies and strives for presenting them perfectly, but lacks the talent to make his own.