Tune In: The Psychedelic Film Experience: Magical Mystery Tour

FMV Magazine welcomes Brian Gregory as Tune In: The Psychedelic Film Experience continues as he takes a look at Magical Mystery Tour (1967) directed by and starring The Beatles.

In 1967, The Beatles were on top of the musical world. Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had been released to universal acclaim in the June of that year and they were, without doubt, the biggest band on the planet, a phenomenon that had swept all before it.

However, not all went to plan that golden year. Beatles manager, Brian Epstein, had overseen the initial budgeting of a new project named The Magical Mystery Tour but his sudden and tragic overdose (while The Beatles were seeking spiritual enlightenment from the Maharishi in Wales) had left them in big trouble. They were now without the one man who had so successfully guided them to the toppermost of the poppermost. As John Lennon commented years later, with typical Scouse honesty, ‘I thought, we’ve f**king had it now.’

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Realising that the band needed to get back to work as soon as possible, Paul McCartney suggested reviving Magical Mystery Tour to the others. (It’s very likely that his original ideas were based on Ken Kasey’s infamous hippy bus tour around America, entitled, The Merry pranksters Search For a Cool Place). The project would involve The Beatles producing a film and an accompanying soundtrack album. Of course, the Fab Four had worked successfully in celluloid before in both A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965) but these had been directed by the experienced Richard Lester. This time they would be making the film entirely on their own.

No script was forthcoming for the project. Instead, McCartney sketched out roughly what would happen on a simply drawn circle that was divided into segments; a song here, a magician there. This unorthodox way of working would have seemed very odd to professional film-makers but was perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the times. Those lazy, hazy halcyon days of the summer of 1967 where it seemed anything was possible, especially to a Beatle!

There is barely a plot to speak of. In a nutshell, a group of people, including some notoriously odd-ball characters such as Ivor Cutler, go on a coach trip where ‘strange things happen’ at the whim of four magicians (played by The Beatles themselves and their road manager, Mal Evans). The lack of plot is often a criticism labelled at the film, yet this free-wheeling, stream of consciousness way of working creates a perfect acid-drenched time-capsule of those heady days. Indeed, many of the surreal and subversive scenes pre-date the similar creations of Monty Python by several years. Whether it’s a Sergeant Major (Victor Spinetti) stood beside a desk in a field,  barking orders at the bus passengers on how to attack a stuffed cow, John Lennon as a grinning waiter (in a scene that he had dreamt the night before) feeding spaghetti with a shovel on to the plate of a crying, obese lady, while a ‘midget’ takes photos, or The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band singing the wonderfully silly ‘Death Cab for Cutie’ besides a stripper, the whole film has a free-flowing, anarchic, British fish n’ chip quality that I find delightful.

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Of course, the musical sequences are the highlights. McCartney’s beautiful, contemplative ‘Fool on the Hill’, George Harrison’s tripped out and eerie ‘Blue Jay Way’ and the closing big production job of ‘Your Mother Should know’ are all wonderfully evocative of the summer of love. The title song is an exciting LSD fan-fare full of suggestive fairground calls to ‘Roll up, roll up, step right this way’ , while there is a lovely, expressive instrumental named ‘Flying’ hidden away in a segment that used abandoned film footage from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 . However, the outstanding musical and visual highlight is without doubt Lennon’s acerbic ‘I am the Walrus’. Filmed at an abandoned airfield with The Beatles dressed as animals (including a walrus) and singing policemen sitting on airfield barriers, it captures a moment in time that will likely never be repeated in popular culture.  Overall, these brightly psychedelic, eccentric colours, gorgeous songs, accompanying trippy visuals and the film’s wacky Python-esque humour, make for a far out experience.

Unfortunately, the still stuffy and very un-swinging BBC decided to show the whole movie in black and white on Boxing Day at prime-time when the majority of the public were expecting good, wholesome family entertainment and the usual variety acts. Yet, instead of Morecombe and Wise or The Queen, viewers were treated to a monochromatic version of The Beatles latest psychedelic journey, in a film with no definable plot, improvised dialogue and acid soaked imagery. It was enough to make middle England choke on their turkey bones!

The establishment backlash was swift and unforgiving. Shocked at how those once cute mop-tops were developing and worried at the implications of such drug-influenced imagery and lyrical content on the people of Britain, there was a tabloid furore and The BBC distanced itself from the film, even banning ‘I am the Walrus’ from its airwaves. It was the first time that The Beatles had faced such a wall of criticism in their career thus far and would in many ways mark the end of the authorities indulgence of all things ‘Fab’……. only the kids dug it.

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Nowadays opinions are very different.  Magical Mystery Tour gains more positive than negative reviews, the songs remain as strong as ever and the film’s enduring weirdness still fascinates. Anthony Wall, the respected editor of long-running BBC arts programme, Arena, produced a re-evaluation of the film for its 2012 Blu-Ray release (also screened on the BBC) where Martin Scorsese, no less, pops up to sing the film’s praises.  Wall commented at the time, ‘For years, to say that you liked Magical Mystery Tour was almost an indication that there was something wrong with you. It’s taken all this time for it to be re-assessed.’

The Beatles themselves had positive views of the experience. Paul McCartney (who was the driving force behind the project) remains proud of his ‘cool, little film’ while John Lennon defended it right up to his very last interviews, stating defiantly, ‘The fact that we went out and tried to make a film with a load of freaks is great , you know?’

Beatle fans and lovers of the psychedelic, the strange or the bizarre, will find much to enjoy in this very English 60’s trip into the Fab Four’s collective imagination.

FMV Rating ****

Tune In: The Psychedelic Film Experience has Tim Wickens behind the Iron Curtain to review the Czech film Daisies (1966).



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