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When film studies literature took an upswing in the 1970s, students heard about unusual and experimental English films that weren't distributed here, like the legendary Herostratus by Don Levy. Unless one paid close attention to fan magazines, the whereabouts of the rather high-profile Beatles attraction Magical Mystery Tour also remained a mystery. Some American fans may remember 1968's Wonderwall as a George Harrison record album soundtrack for a motion picture that never arrived. Over fifty years later, the Pinewood Studios film restoration team has come forward with a beautiful new edition of this obscure effort, which stars Jane Birkin, one of the top star personalities of the late- '60s London scene.
Director Joe Massot's show is a seriocomic tour through the fads of hippie-influenced fashion and psychedelic design, as experienced by an absent-minded microbiologist-voyeur. Unlike most filmic attempts to glamorize the 'groovy' counterculture, Wonderwall looks and sounds great. No oil-smear superimpositions or flower-power clichés here.
Elderly Professor Oscar Collins (Jack MacGowran) is an eccentric's eccentric. He runs his research department by a set of fussy guidelines, and by night retires alone to study the books that jam every corner of his dank, warren-like apartment. But Oscar's life changes radically when top model Penny Lane (top model Jane Birkin) moves in next door. Obsessed by her beauty, he is soon poking a hole in the wall between their apartments, the better to spy on Penny's glamorous fashion shoots and lovemaking sessions with her main boyfriend, a photographer (Iain Quarrier). Oscar refuses to go back to work, and rebuffs the concerned inquiries of his assistant, Perkins (Richard Wattis). He pries open numerous openings in the wall to permit his plunge into the deep end of voyeurism. Perhaps influenced by the parties next door or the sweet smoke seeping through the wall, Oscar experiences his own strange fantasy dreams. Although he's hardly the sort to attract Penny Lane, the previously aloof Oscar is madly in love with her.
Wonderwall captures an arresting, glamorous image of the times, thanks to the rich and creative cinematography of Harry Waxman (She, Twisted Nerve). The movie's basic visual is a peeper's eye view of the wild life in Penny Lane's apartment. No longer content to peer at microorganisms, the fascinated Oscar dashes from peephole to peephole to catch glimpses of Penny Lane posing in an endless succession of colorful fashions. He also learns that Penny sleeps with her handsome boyfriend, who takes her for granted. Oscar's associates back at the lab try to bring him back to reality, but the Professor would rather live with his fantasies.
Production Designer Assheton Gorton and costume designer Jocelyn Rickards take top honors, as Wonderwall displays a lush, attractive appearance at all times. Oscar's flat has unusual, Tolkien-like mottoes painted on the beams. When the voyeuristic wall is complete, it looks like a shrine or a site for a ritual. The pattern of viewing holes reminds us of the hallucinatory cemetery map that comes to life in the old horror film I Bury the Living.
Oscar's personal dream sequences aren't as distinguished. The talented Jack MacGowran improvises skit-like actions in a park or among regal-looking buildings, in broad daylight. It's here where we realize that Wonderwall isn't going to make any profound statements. The crazy visuals and teasingly erotic fantasies in Penny Lane's room are the whole show. Artful tricks with colored lights, filters and focus are expertly designed and achieved. Oscar rearranges his flat, constructs his Wonderwall and deals with various people that knock on his door, but the film's focus keeps returning to the desirable Penny Lane next door.
In 1967 and '68 the Beatles were entertaining grand ambitions to expand their marketing and creative activities. Wonderwall's director Joe Massot had made a short film called Reflections on Love that saw screenings mainly because it featured a few seconds of footage of the Beatles getting into a car, and any glimpse of the Fab Four was a rare treat. Massot parlayed his connections into a feature film deal. He convinced George Harrison to do the soundtrack, a coup that attracted other talent and investors. With Harrison demonstrating his new mastery of the sitar, the Wonderwall LP record saw wide distribution. It was reportedly the first album released on the new Apple label.
Massot's was also enmeshed in the nightclub scene frequented by associates of Roman Polanski, who was then a hot newcomer to London. Wonderwall's producer Andrew Braunsberg would eventually work on three Polanski pictures. Massot also hired some of Polanski's actors. Iain Quarrier and Jack MacGowran had been in both Cul-de-sac and The Fearless Vampire Killers. Although Quarrier's acting talent was limited, he was considered one of the most attractive young men in London. Star Jack MacGowran signed on as well.
Wonderwall looks great. The problem is that its story is barely enough to carry a short subject. Polanski's writing partner Gérard Brach is credited with the original idea, and the screenplay is by Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante. Once the basic situation is established little of consequence occurs until the film's finish. Jack MacGowran compensates with a performance that holds our interest in details of the moment. Unlike the vampire hunter in Polanski's film, Oscar is sweet and confused, a fussy fellow who's clearly a romantic softie at heart. But one questions why a movie about the Swinging London scene with its fancy fashions and dolly birds needs a whimsical, 'cute' character like Oscar. MacGowran was never a sentimental actor; the youth audience for Wonderwall would much rather have spent its time with the sexy, stylish activities on Penny's side of the wall.
Jane Birkin was at this time at the top of her popularity and had made a highly publicized appearance in Michelangelo's Blow-Up. Penny Lane's personal problems are central to the story, yet are not developed, and the actress is afforded little chance to offer a performance. We instead simply admire the brief glimpses we're given of her grace and beauty. Veteran character actress Irene Handl is Oscar's frustrated cleaning woman. Oscar's friends at the lab include Bee Duffel, the 'book lady' from François Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451. She and the ubiquitous Richard Wattis turn in standard performances. Face-spotters will easily pick out Anita Pallenberg at one of Penny Lane's crowded parties.
Shout Factory and Fabulous Films' Blu-ray of Wonderwall is a near-perfect transfer of this colorful curio from just before the bubble burst for the Swinging London scene. A separate DVD release is being offered as well. The disc is actually encoded with two versions of the film. The 1968 theatrical version runs 92 minutes, but the director has recently re-edited the film into his own 75-minute version, which is said to incorporate more of George Harrison's music. The music is now mixed in 5.1 surround. To these ears there is one reasonably catchy tune amid a number of spacey themes played on the exotic instruments. Fans of the old record album will finally be able to see the movie, too.
The handsomely appointed disc extras fill in a lot of detail. Joe Massot's 1966 Reflections on Love film is present. It played well enough when new but no longer seems very distinctive. A full publicity gallery gives us a look at Wonderwall's original ad art. A feature outtake is present along with a poem by John Lennon, and video by the Remo Four, who collaborated on the music. Among a couple of other short items is an edit of the film's artwork inter-titles by the artist Marijke.
The insert Collector's booklet consists of lengthy liner notes and essays, most of which are written by director Joe Massot as a personal memoir. We read much more about his social life and celebrity contacts of the period than the actual making of the film. Beyond the name-dropping and praise, the notes tell us little about the film's distribution or lack thereof. As a curio of a specific corner of '60s pop culture Mr. Massot's film has definite value. We've all seen films from the period that soon became dated embarrassments. Although unsatisfactory in some respects, in Wonderwall the much-disparaged psychedelic style once again seems artistically viable.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Wonderwall Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.