Monday, December 10, 2012

Get Back on the Bus: The Magical Mystery Tour Returns

It was a film produced in psychedelic color that debuted on BBC1 at a time when most British televisions were black and white.  It was programmed for Boxing Day, a traditional evening of family television viewing, guaranteeing those least inclined to appreciate a spot of hippy goofiness were most likely to see it.  Due to its disastrous reception, many Beatles fans only know The Magical Mystery Tour as the bestselling album.  After years of obscurity, the film has been re-released for public consumption, even returning to broadcast television with a special presentation this Friday on PBS’s Great Performances (promo here) to be followed by the premiere of Francis Hanly’s behind-the-scenes documentary Magical Mystery Tour Revisited.

The plot, such as it is, will hardly matter to diehard Beatles fans.  The real attraction is the music, including the band’s only video performance of “I Am the Walrus,” done in precisely the style one might expect.  The audience follows the day-glo tour bus as it makes a series of surprise stops throughout the English countryside.  Ringo Starr plays Richard Starkey who takes his recently bereaved Aunt Jessie on the tour, bickering like cats and dogs every step of the way.  The other three lads are also on the tour, essentially playing unnamed versions of themselves, as well as a pack of trickster wizards.  Stops will include a visit to an army recruiting station, a chaotic marathon, a brief swing through a London strip club, with a number of wacky dream interludes in between.

Seen with contemporary eyes, MMT, directed by the Fab Four with the assistance of former Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Knowles, looks exactly like the trippy jokiness we would expect from the post-Pepper Beatles.  Sort of like a series of Python sketches stitched together, but not nearly as consistently funny, it makes perfect sense to find Terry Gilliam singing its praises in Revisited.  Still, the film itself very definitely feels like a giddy time-capsule from a more innocent age when Postmodernism was little more than glint in the eye of the French intelligentsia.

At just under an hour’s running time, MMT offers viewers the title song, “Fool on the Hill,” “Your Mother Should Know,” and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band performing “Death Cab for Cutie” amidst its improvised tomfoolery.  Frankly, the latter number might be the most memorable, since it accompanies a PBS-safe striptease.  Ironically, the making-of-program clocks in at almost exactly the same length.  We hear from both surviving Beatles as well as Martin Scorsese, who evidently saw every movie ever made when he was a teenager and influenced by everyone of them.  Hanly also incorporates some archival footage of John Lennon and George Harrison.  Everyone seems to credit or blame Paul McCartney with the original concept for MMT, but that hardly makes any sense, since “Revolution #9” played backwards clearly implies he died before 1967.

MMT is neither the affront to good taste many argued at the time, nor the lost masterpiece most fans will be hoping for.  It is the product of its time, well in keeping with the playful personas carefully crafted by the Beatles.  An amusing but minor film, it is certainly worth fans’ time for the music and to satisfy their curiosity when it airs on free TV this Friday (12/14), along with Hanly’s companion film, as part of the current season of Great Performances.