When asked to reflect on the genesis of the exuberantly wacky Beatles movie “Magical Mystery Tour,” Ringo Starr says, “I’d love to say there was this incredible master plan, but there wasn’t.”
It seems safe to say now that for anyone who saw the Fab Four’s funky little art film when it aired on BBC 1 in England on Boxing Day in 1967, the lack of a master plan was apparent. The surreal flick zigs and zags, from John Lennon literally shoveling spaghetti onto a woman’s plate in one scene to a boozy singalong by the eccentric cast of characters thrown together on a coach for the titular adventure.
A new documentary, “Magical Mystery Tour Revisited,” airing Friday at 9 p.m. as part of the “Great Performances” series on PBS, offers outtakes, never-before-scene footage, new interviews with Starr and Paul McCartney, and archival footage of George Harrison and John Lennon looking back at the making of the film. (Some of the footage is also included on the recent DVD reissue of the film.)
Of course, all that careening around was part of the head-scratching fun of it. Or at least, so says one of the film’s talking heads, Martin Scorsese, who cites “Magical Mystery Tour” as an influence.
“The freedom of the picture was something that was very, very important, the sense of breaking all the form,” says Scorsese. “Whether it fully succeeded or not was really beside the point.”
Peter Fonda, who knows a little something about surreal road trip movies, was also a fan, citing it as more authentic than other Beatles films, since the concepts came from the Beatles themselves — some from childhood memories — and the band was running the show. “In that way it was a magical mystery tour of them,” says the actor.
The original idea came from McCartney, who was, like many of his peers, interested in avant-garde cinema and theater and had also been experimenting with a Super 8 camera. He drew up a somewhat hazy, circular diagram to outline the film’s various passages; they cast friends, associates, and unknowns as the bus passengers and set off to have a laugh.
‘The freedom of the picture was something that was very, very important, the sense of breaking all the form.’
The results were met, mostly, with bewilderment.
Several fans who were teens at the time remember their parents writing off the whole affair as “rubbish.” One woman recalls, “Afterwards we just all looked at each other and said, ‘What was that all about?’ That was the beginning of the end of their innocence to me and my innocence.”
Harrison wasn’t surprised by the reaction. “It wasn’t a brilliant scripted thing that was executed well, it was like an elaborate home movie,” he recalled in a 1993 interview.
The participants had a blast, however, as several members of the cast and crew recall the loosey-goosey proceedings. One woman, who was a Beatles fan club secretary, even lost her day job but in retrospect decides it was worth it.
PBS follows the documentary with the film itself. While many US fans may be getting a look at the whole piece for the first time, several of the musical interludes will be familiar to viewers as the short clips associated with songs like “I Am the Walrus” and “Your Mother Should Know” did circulate widely after.
(Also of note, “Magical Mystery Tour” is where the band Death Cab for Cutie got its name, thanks to the song of the same title sung by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.)
At one point during the documentary, we are shown Starr watching the old footage of him and his buddies dancing in formation and cracking up with genuine amusement. “So great,” he says with a chuckle. As slight and wobbly as the whole enterprise feels, Beatles fans will likely be inclined to agree.
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