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Magical Mystery Tour
Savant Blu-ray Review

Magical Mystery Tour
1967 / Color / 1:33 flat TV (16mm) / 53 min. / Street Date October 9, 2012 / 29.98
Starring John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Jan Carson, Ivor Cutler, Nat Jackley, Jessie Robins, Victor Spinetti, Miranda Forbes, Maggie Wright, Linda Lawson.
Richard Starkey
Film Editor Roy Benson
Original Music John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr
Written by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Mal Evans
Produced by George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Denis O'Dell
Directed by The Beatles, Bernard Knowles

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

To be fifteen years old in 1967 was great. Network TV was still adult-dominated but the music and the culture seemed to be aimed directly at US. One of the first questions to be answered when meeting somebody was, which do you like better, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones?

Kids my age were largely into LPs, not the 45s of our older brothers and sisters. We devoured the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album. I remember exactly when I bought my Muntz 4-track stereophonic tape cassette of the next Beatles album Magical Mystery Tour. The photos on the album appeared to come from an associated movie, but none surfaced. We finally learned that it had been screened only on British Television. It remained an MIA mystery for several years. What exactly was Magical Mystery Tour?

From the little I've gleaned of official Beatles history, the Magical Mystery Tour project arrived at a time when the group were striking out for independence and freedom from the corporate music world; they'd soon establish Apple Records and rule the short-lived Apple empire with its flaky business decisions. The Beatles seemed truly sincere in the idea that good people could, you know, just come together and form businesses around their music and image. They promoted bands they liked and opened a notoriously unprofitable Carnaby Street boutique. Having had the experience of making two movies with Richard Lester, the boys decided that they should use the same 'make it up as we go along' Apple business mantra as a filming concept. If they wanted to capture the spontaneity of a genuine Happening, formal scripting, over-planning and other rigid precepts of conventional moviemaking would just get in the way. After all, they spent most of their time on the set of Help! waiting around for the cameras and lighting to be ready. They could have been filming.

Former Beatles road manager came up with the idea of a mystery tour, an outing (usually by bus) where the participants don't know exactly where they're going or what they will do when they get there. As described by Ringo Starr, with real mystery tours details don't really matter because the point is for everybody on the bus to get roaring drunk as soon as possible. With very little organization (Joseph Losey's son Gavrik was an assistant producer) the group prepped a fancy touring bus. They hired a group of eccentric, fun-loving actors by picking their faces out of a London actors' directory. To fill out the bus, special friends of the group were included, like actress Linda Lawson (Night Tide) and two top Beatles Fan Club representatives.

According to sources not referenced in this disc's program notes, the bus drove around with a 16mm camera crew and all of these eager, un-directed talents, expecting marvelous things to happen that would make their movie unique. It didn't work out that way. The Beatles invented little mini-stories to go with some of the actors. Ringo argues with his "Aunt Jessie" (Jessie Robins of The Fearless Vampire Killers) and Jessie embarks on a coy romance with the odd Mr. Bloodvessel (the multi-talented Ivor Cutler). But the actors mostly sat on the bus or wandered about, unclear what to do in the absence of a director. In desperation the production quickly hired other actors (Victor Spinetti), circus performers, comedians, and rented a ton of assorted costumes; 'events' were cooked up at random and filmed willy-nilly. The bus and other vehicles chase each other around an abandoned airstrip.

The resulting musical odyssey is a random series of 'far-out' episodes that Paul McCartney describes as surreal. Aunt Jessie's 'food dream' is an absurd spectacle in a crazy restaurant. Some episodes illustrate specific songs from the album. The visuals for George Harrison's Blue Jay Way combine somebody playing with a multi-image trick lens, with aerial outtakes filmed for Doctor Strangelove (we recognize shots from Kubrick's opening prologue).

Tedious blackout sketches seem to have wandered in from The Goon Show. Victor Spinetti does an Army humor skit with Paul McCartney, and all four Beatles play wizards in a laboratory. The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah band performs in one scene, where an emcee introduces a stripper (Jan Carson). Finally, the last scene sees our boys dressed in white tuxedoes, descending a stairway as dancers cavort around them. End of show.

Magical Mystery Tour is an object lesson for aspiring filmmakers -- even the Beatles need an interesting idea and good direction to make a fun movie. Just as most music videos turn to crud when allowed to go more than six minutes or so, this show mainly functions for Beatlemaniacs interested in every detail of their heroes' incredible career.

Paul still has his lean face with the big, almost Keane-like eyes. Ringo is the most polished straight-man actor, mainly because he looks amused and relaxed even when not doing anything. Definitely along for the ride, George is the one Beatle who seems to have no desire to be in the spotlight. John looks like he's doing his best to be a good egg about it all, joining in on the team nonsense, smiling when needed, etc. Many stills of the production are compelling interesting but most scenes are joyless attempts at serendipitous magic that doesn't happen. The camera cuts to a new scene, and more often than not it looks the actors mill about in search of something to do. It's clear that they did some practice for the final staircase 'n' white tuxedo scene, but the choreography is just not there -- it looks like it was all set up for a still session. When the Beatles wanted something marvelous to happen, I don't think they envisioned themselves stiffly marching in unison down the stairs, looking as uncomfortable as pinned butterflies.

Apple's Blu-ray of Magical Mystery Tour is going to please a lot of Beatles fans, for the video restoration is a vast improvement on every previous edition I've seen. I know that it was filmed on 16mm (really by Richard Starkey/Ringo Starr?) but all earlier prints were an embarrassing mess, with dirty, color-challenged images that were unsteady in the projector gate. Paul Rutan Jr.'s Triage and Eque companies did a film and video restoration job on original materials that clears up all the technical presentation difficulties -- the shots are stable and the color consistent. All the 16mm opticals done with 1967 techniques look as good as they can. Magical Mystery Tour is now somewhat attractive, as it never was before. Some ragged edges cannot be removed, such as animation that pops in and out of focus when original material and dupes are spliced together. Poorly designed superimpositions aren't going to improve much even when the color timing has been straightened out.

Prime audio materials have been accessed for the DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Previously, anybody listening to a transistor radio got a better quality soundtrack than that found on original 16mm prints, so the aural experience has improved 100%.

The Apple folks have added some good extras. Paul McCartney's commentary is a little slow but he goes into detail on the production, explaining the group's aims. He's not critical of the result but he does remember some of the production problems. When they brought the miles of 16mm dailies to the cutting room, editor Roy Benson was horrified to find out that they hadn't shot sync sound -- all that film had to be manually synchronized with tracks from the locations. It must have taken several assistants weeks to do the work, and still things wouldn't be in true sync, as sound recorders not slaved to the camera would drift a few frames one way or another after just a few seconds. This was the primary deadly mistake made by every old-school film student since the dawn of time. My imagination can "see" Ringo saying, "Don't worry about it, we'll fix it later".

Some relaxed but interesting interview extras allow participants including Paul and Ringo to talk about the production at length. The featurettes include a 20 min. making-of piece, a 3 min. blip with Ringo explaining his role; new edits of three songs, a BBC piece filmed in the Magical Mystery Tour editing room and used to promote the single release "Hello Goodbye"; cut scenes featuring actors Nat Jackley and Ivor Cutler, and an unused piece in which the group Traffic sings "Here We Round the Mulberry Bush".

A very welcome rumor, heard at this year's AMIA The Reel Thing confab: next year Apple will finally release to video the long-missing Beatles film, Let It Be. I hope that comes to pass.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Magical Mystery Tour Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Subtitles: English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Finnish
Supplements: commentary and featurettes (see above)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 8, 2012


1. A hint from reader "Tony", 10.16.12:

Glenn, I thoroughly enjoyed your review of this Blu-ray. I thought you might be interested to know that the disc contains 4 'Easter eggs.' They are as follows:

"Fish and Chips Shop" - 4:44
"Missing Dining Room Scene" - 4:10
"Magic Alex Sings Walls of Jericho" - 1:31
"Jessie's Blues" - 2:17

To access them, go to the main menu and place the cursor on "Play Film" and hit the 'up' button on the keyboard to get "Fish and Chips" shop or to access "Missing Dining Room Scene," hit 'left' button. For "Magic Alex Sings Walls of Jericho," place cursor on "Audio Options" and hit 'up' button. For "Jessie's Blues," hit 'right' button. -- Tony

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2012 Glenn Erickson

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