The clip above, you might notice, is not terribly ridiculous or crazy or just plain weird, or any number of the things you might have heard about this movie. Well, let me promise you that this is only a lull. There is plenty of that weirdness here. By 1967, The Beatles had completely changed their sound, their look, and the boundaries of pop music, subsequently forcing the rest of the music industry to follow suit. What proceeded was a complete opening of the doors, a complete changing of the guard; The Beatles were reconfiguring the rules of pop culture, and showing that they could do more than write love songs. In their brief and beautiful 7-year stint as a band, they did more than anyone to turn rock and roll into an art form. Along the way, at the height of their creative powers, they decided to shoot a movie to show the fans where they were creatively. And what they got was a 53 minute TV movie created for the BBC that combined elements of The Goon Show, Beatles music, and my nightmares to create something truly peculiar.
If there’s a plot to be had, it’s that The Beatles (John, Paul, George, and that other one) head off on a bus trip around England with Ringo’s aunt and some other weird people and do weird things together. That’s really it. The main plot revolves around the bus trip and all the odd fellows onboard, and there are a series of vignettes interwoven, some of them being music videos for new songs, some of them being tour stops, some of them being about five magicians (four who are The Beatles and one who is their road manager) who make all the strange stuff happen on the bus because I suppose they’re bored (perhaps), and some of them being just weird-ass asides. There’s a Wacky Racers-style competition involving the Tour bus and a lot of other eccentric vehicles, a 60s parody group viciously mocking Elvis, and John Lennon shoveling lots and lots of spaghetti onto a table for Ringo’s aunt to indulge in. Uh, and a strip show.
It might sound a bit fawning and obsequious, but you can’t deny that this movie was ahead of its time. They use a lot of techniques that most of the world had no idea about. Magical Mystery Tour is a movie that brought the art film sensibility out of France and Germany and into the British and American audience. Now, is it a great movie? Nah. But it’s influence is more than a lot of people would care to admit. This movie, which has a LOT of humor that most would find Python-esque, came out a full 2 years before Monty Python aired their first episode. It’s outrageously absurd, but isn’t The Mighty Boosh? Isn’t Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace? Isn’t most great British humor, and, to a lesser extent, American humor, nowadays based on the grounds of absurdity? The Beatles knew way back then what was funny, and they took their unique sense of humor, added an artistic sensibility, added quite a bit of nonsense, and made something the world wasn’t quite ready for, at least not for a few years.
The songs are the highlight of this, and they might be some of the best of their career. Their musical inventiveness knew no bounds then, and so a lot of the songs featured here are wildly imaginative. Not yet in the dour reflective phase of Let It Be but past the “Please go out with me!” love songs of anything pre-Rubber Soul, the Fab Four were seemingly inventing new ways to sound, using tape loops, backwards music, Indian instruments, and retro sounds to make their new songs. Songs like “I am the Walrus”, “Fool on the Hill”, “Your Mother Should Know”, “Hello Goodbye”, and the titular track all create this sense that anything was possible.
But, in all honesty, the movie isn’t the best. The Beatles, now left to their own devices and directing themselves, forgot how to act (especially George, who, during the “Blue Jay Way” sequence, looks like he couldn’t care less about the fucking movie). Their delivery is shoddy at best, and their once spot-on rapport together virtually dissolved by this point. I don’t know what happened, but rarely are they in scenes together, and when they all are, it’s usually for a musical interlude. The magician scenes are fun, as they are all together there and having fun, and I wish there were a lot more of those, but they take up about 5 minutes of this picture. I think they lost here the idea that the main reason people liked Beatles movies was that they featured the antics of THE BAND, not some guys from THE BAND. Much like their careers post-Beatles, it becomes very apparent here that the actions of these fellows individually don’t add up to the potential endemic of the whole.
So try this movie out if you’re a fan of The Beatles. It should be mandatory. There are a lot of good songs, the atmosphere is still chipper, and it’s a rare look into a Beatles flop. You’ll never see anything quite like it in the entirety of your lives, simply because it’s just so off-kilter and odd. If you like Monty Python or The Goon Show, this is an awesome alternative. If you think that stuff is stupid, though, wait ’til you get a load of this! I give Magical Mystery Tour 6 nasty plates of spaghetti out of 10! Yum!
Tomorrow I’ll be watching Chasing Amy, much to the delight of Kevin Smith fans everywhere! Until then, I leave you with one of the more disturbing moments from MMT: