Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Magical Mystery Tour (Apple, 1967)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the New York Philharmonic concert KPBS showed an even odder program: an hour-long documentary on the making of the Beatles’ notorious film Magical Mystery Tour, followed by Magical Mystery Tour itself in a beautifully restored print with the crappy TV-sound recordings of the songs replaced by the original master recordings we got on LP back in the day. Magical Mystery Tour was the Beatles’ first attempt to do a major project without the guidance of their original manager, Brian Epstein — though according to this film he actually green-lighted it and it was underway before his death — and it became known as the Beatles’ first flop, a debacle in their career of near-Heaven’s Gate proportions. The film was largely improvised — about all that they had going in when they started shooting was a basic concept (a psychedelic off-take on the so-called “mystery” or “charabanc” bus tours regularly taken by working-class Brits when the Beatles were kids) and a circular diagram, which Paul McCartney (who seems to have been the prime mover behind the project, just as he was behind the Sgt. Pepper album and a lot of the Beatles’ most experimental work in their last four years as a working band — since in the early 1970’s John Lennon’s work was considerably farther out than Paul’s, there’s a tendency to read that back into the Beatles’ career and assume that John did all the experimenting and Paul wrote the “home, family, love” songs, but in the late 1960’s it was John who was married to the homebody housewife and Paul who was involved with the avant-garde art world, not the other way around as it became after John met Yoko and the Beatles broke up!) called a “scrupt.” It represented the show’s hour-long running time and roughly indicated what would be happening at which point in the show. The Beatles largely directed the show themselves — though the imdb.com page on it also credits a fifth director, Bernard Knowles — and Ringo (as “Richard Starkey, M.B.E.”) is credited as director of photography — and they recruited a cast comprised of some professional actors (including Victor Spinetti as a martinet sergeant whose orders are utterly incomprehensible except for an occasionally audible “You bloody fool!” — he had appeared, memorably, as the TV director in A Hard Day’s Night and the mad scientist in Help!), some names from casting directories (the Beatles simply scanned the photos and called up anyone who looked interesting and didn’t have a job doing something else that week), and some total amateurs. The Beatles also played multiple roles, including themselves on the bus (much of the story, such as it is, revolves around the relationship between Ringo and his overweight aunt, played by Jessie Robbins); four of the five wizards who take over the bus tour by remote control and make it more “magical” than it was intended (the fifth one — uncredited on the film’s imdb.com page — was their record producer, George Martin); and various bizarre cameos, notably John almost unrecognizable with his hair slicked back and dressed in a red waiter’s suit, literally shoveling spaghetti on Aunt Jessie’s plate in a dream sequence, looking far more like John Cleese than John Lennon.

Magical Mystery Tour was released to the public with a black-and-white showing on BBC’s channel on Boxing Day, 1967 (Boxing Day is the day after Christmas, a holiday that’s observed only in the United Kingdom and the British Commonwealth) to almost universally derisory reviews and public comments — apparently the letters the BBC got in response to the broadcast have been preserved, and most of them were bitterly negative. The Beatles had been in negotiations with U.S. TV networks for an American showing and had set an asking price of $1 million for the film — and ABC had expressed interest — but after the fiasco of the British showing (which Ringo blamed on the fact that it hadn’t been shown in color — to which the BBC responded by showing it in color four days later, and it still bombed) no American network would take it on. I got to see Magical Mystery Tour for the first time in a public showing in San Francisco in 1968 under unusual circumstances; the D.J.’s at KMPX, the first “free-form” radio station (the D.J.’s were allowed to pick their own songs to play and weren’t limited to any one genre or format — if they wanted to play John Coltrane in between the Beatles and the Doors, they could — “free-form” radio was eventually shut down by the FCC on the ground that D.J.’s who could play anything they wanted could all too easily be bribed by record companies and their promotion men), had had a labor dispute with station management and had gone out on strike. John Lennon had heard of this and, as a fundraiser for the striking D.J.’s, he sent a print over and they showed it publicly — in a ballroom with no chairs; we sat on the floor and watched it … and were woefully disappointed. Along with the program the Beatles had released an album (in Britain it was a package of two EP’s — which required renegotiation of the Beatles’ record contract, and as their authorized biographer Hunter Davies put it this involved “endless discussions over fractions of a farthing. Multiplied by millions, fractions of a farthing matter” — and in the U.S. it was an LP with the Magical Mystery Tour songs on one side and five songs the Beatles had released as singles on the other) and the album had contained an elaborate booklet with a comic-book version of the film’s story that made the movie seem a lot more coherent than it is.

Then the film disappeared for decades and became the hardest item the Beatles were ever involved with to see or hear, and when it reappeared in the late 1980’s Cat Ortiz and I watched it and decided it was five great music videos of Beatles’ songs with a lot of boring stuff in between. Now — in yet another restored version with optimum picture and sound quality (Charles recalled that when he first saw it the quality was about at the level of a much-dubbed VHS tape), and after I’ve experienced a lot more of the peculiarly loony kind of British comedy that both directly and indirectly influenced the Beatles, it seems a lot better than it did before. One can trace the Beatles’ humor back through to the 1950’s — to the Goon Squad (Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe), Beyond the Fringe, and Flanders and Swann, and the direct connections between them (Sellers made his film debut in a short called The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film directed by Richard Lester, who later directed A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, and both A Hard Day’s Night and Magical Mystery Tour contain sequences of the Beatles running, jumping and standing still, tricked out with fast editing and jumpy camerawork the way Sellers was in Lester’s short; and the LP’s featuring all those acts had been produced by George Martin, who later signed the Beatles to the same label — Parlophone — and produced all their recordings as a group) both before and after: this sort of humor became best known to U.S. audiences through Monty Python, who also had direct Beatles connections: not only did George Harrison co-produce their last two features (The Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life) but among the musicians featured in Magical Mystery Tour was the Bonzo Dog Band — one of whose members, Neil Innes, later wrote the songs for Monty Python’s projects (including their marvelous send-up of the Beatles: The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash). Seen today, Magical Mystery Tour should hold no terrors for anyone who likes Monty Python (Terry Gilliam was one of the people interviewed in the making-of film); what seemed like total incoherence in the 1960’s now comes across as a similarly demented anything-goes humor whose only real weakness is an awful lot of tasteless gags about fat people and little people (at one point the Beatles demanded that their staff come up with 12 midget wrestlers for the big race scene).

It’s a charming movie, slow going at times (John Lennon — represented in the making-of documentary by part of his 1970 Rolling Stone interview as well as a brief interview he gave BBC radio in 1967 — said the reason much of it was boring was that through too much of the shoot the people they’d assembled on the bus, intending for “magic” to happen, just behaved in the bored and exhausted way all too typical of passengers on the real mystery tours) and one of the few times the Beatles produced something too “British” to play in the rest of the world (one commentator on the making-of show noted that Americans would never get on a tour bus without knowing exactly where it was going) — and of course the music remains the high point. In the Mystery Tour songs — as well as the videos they had shot earlier for “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” — one can see the Beatles, who were responsible for so many of the sounds that have become rock clichés, working out many of the sights that have become music-video clichés as well, including the bouncy editing, the airy disregard for space and time continuity, the staging of ostensible music performances in remote locales (you get to see the Beatles playing electric instruments in the middle of fields without any discernible source of power — incidentally during “I Am the Walrus” Paul is playing a Fender-shaped Rickenbacker electric bass instead of the Hofner violin bass he usually used with the Beatles) and the attempt to depict the music atmospherically instead of literally. One of the participants recalled how the energy level zoomed up whenever the playback speakers were turned on and they got to hear a Beatles song that until then nobody else had outside the Beatles themselves, George Martin and the tech staff at Abbey Road — and not surprisingly, the Beatles’ music (recorded right after Sgt. Pepper — indeed, “Magical Mystery Tour” itself was a Pepper outtake — and thereby at the height of the Beatles’ career aesthetically) remains the main attraction.

Magical Mystery Tour is also noteworthy in the respect the Beatles showed for the music of the past; like the real mystery tours, theirs contains an accordion player (played by real-life accordionist Shirley Evans, for whom John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote an instrumental for her to use in the film — lucky her!) and some sing-a-longs on old songs like “You Made Me Love You,” “Toot, Toot, Tootsie,” and “Swanee” — all introduced by Al Jolson. (After George Harrison died, the big memorial concert in London broadcast by the BBC included as its final song the 1920’s ballad “I’ll See You in My Dreams” — explained as the very last piece of music George had heard while he was on his deathbed.) At a time when U.S. rock fans considered the Great American Songbook irredeemably un-hip, British rock musicians continued to root their music in the country’s pop-musical past (maybe it’s not surprising that Paul in particular wrote the 1920’s-pastiche songs like “When I’m 64,” “Your Mother Should Know” — seen in Magical Mystery Tour in a 1920’s-style dance down a staircase the Beatles weren’t good enough dancers to pull off, right after the Bonzos do a song usually referred to as “Baby, Don’t Do It” but also called “Death Cab for Cutie” and the inspiration for a more recent band’s name — and “Honey Pie” given that his dad had led a Dixieland band before Paul was born) — the Kinks’ album The Village Green Preservation Society (made a year after Magical Mystery Tour) is a bizarre commemoration of Victorian English culture in a deliberately backward musical style. Given how much time modern bands take to do a project, it’s amazing how much the Beatles accomplished in a relatively short time — 13 record albums and five films in eight years — and Magical Mystery Tour remains one of the most enigmatic of their projects but still very much worth seeing for fans of both the Beatles and Monty Python.