Friday, 11 September 2015

The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour Movie - review

Derided by some, misunderstood by many, the Beatles' "Magical Mystery Tour" film, released in 1967, remains one of the most hotly debated episodes in their career.  I recently watched the movie again to see if the picture would become any clearer in my mind.

In a few places I have seen it described as the prototype for the road movie. I'm not totally convinced by this assertion;surely there were lots of road movies before 1967?  It is certainly a road movie of a kind, with a strong current of English humour running through it, and of course suffused with the psychedelic aesthetic of its time.

The core of the narrative is a charabanc trip, something of a British institution, at least back then. I don't feel that The Beatles were belittling traditions such as this. In view of their own backgrounds, they may even have been seeking to romanticize such things, with a bit of mild satire added.

For me they were poking fun more generally at contemporary straight society and its absurdities, as well as some more pernicious aspects of British life which had become archaic in the context of the Swinging Sixties and its attendant social change. Some of the symbolism is there in the film, although sometimes half-buried in the dialogue or the behaviour of the minor characters. "A Hard Day's Night", the group's first movie, explored similar territory in a more conventional, less cryptic, way. This being The Beatles, it was all done in a gentle, impish manner which the Establishment would not find unduly threatening.

Much of the critical disdain aimed at "Magical Mystery Tour" back in 1967/68 stemmed from its perceived amateurishness, and its alleged pretentiousness. As I think Paul McCartney has pointed out, they didn't set out to produce a glossy mainstream film, but instead it was intended to be quirky and off-the-wall.

The problem was that the media and the public would not "allow" The Beatles to come up with anything deemed to be even slightly self-indulgent. Surely though, by the middle of 1967 they had earned the right to be experimental? As for the charge of amateurishness, I am torn between a feeling that this was intentional, and therefore essential to an understanding of the movie and its ethos, and a nagging sense that they tried and failed to do something more polished. The former theory ultimately holds sway every time...

Allowing for the occasional raggedness, intentional or otherwise, there are some great visuals, such as those in the "Fool On The Hill" sequence, and the footage which accompanies "Flying". Several scenes stand out, such as the one in the restaurant, where John Lennon shovels food on to the woman's plate. Another favourite passage of mine is during "Blue Jay Way", where the four guys are filmed playing cellos in a large garden. For all the "arty" sections, though, I must admit that my favourite part is the drunken sing-song on the coach....

One thing which can be said for "Magical Mystery Tour" is that it is fast-moving. No scenes linger excessively, and the brevity and the diversity of settings are both assets. This of course is conditioned by the patchwork format of the film. The randomness and the chaos succeed in holding the attention.

Even if The Beatles had emphasized beforehand that this was an art-film, and an experimental venture, they would still probably have not escaped the critical barbs. However, one must also say that it is no better or worse than many similar films of that era, and it has the advantage of being less self-conscious than most, with a hint of traditional English self-mockery helping in this regard. It is a harmless period-piece, if not a masterpiece.  And of course, the music is wonderful...

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