Give four pop stars turned hippies a movie camera in 1967 and what do you get? The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour film, which will receive its long-awaited US broadcast TV debut on Friday on PBS.
Long a curiosity in the US, the film will be accompanied by a new documentary about its making. A restored version was released on DVD and blu-ray in October.
The third film for The Fab Four, after a A Hard Day’s Night in 1964 and Help! a year later, Magical Mystery Tour is a shambolic trip through the English countryside on a bus filled with odd characters, but thin on plot. It first aired on BBC TV the day after Christmas in 1967.
Although it was initially panned by British critics, time has delivered some justice to the project, said Jonathan Clyde, the producer of the documentary.
“Magical Mystery Tour has always been the black sheep of the Beatles family, but I think it’s been rehabilitated into the Beatles canon,” Clyde said. “It’s no longer the ‘mad uncle in the attic’ that nobody wants to talk about. It’s been let out.”
In the US, little was known about the film at the time of its release.
Beatles fans only had the album of music, or saw a poor print of the film in a double-feature midnight showing with Reefer Madness, a 1936 anti-marijuana propaganda film often screened decades later for comedic effect.
“I first saw it in 1974 at a university,” Bill King, the longtime publisher of Beatles fanzine Beatlefan, said of Magical Mystery Tour. “By then, though, it had taken on mythic status. I loved it.”
At the time of its making, The Beatles were arguably at their creative peak on the heels of a seminal album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and their summer of love anthem All You Need Is Love, which debuted on global TV.
However, even before Sgt. Pepper’s release in June 1967, Paul McCartney had already conceived of the film project. The only thing he was missing: a script.
“Paul had drawn out a pie chart,” said Clyde, also a longtime consultant for The Beatles’ company, Apple Corps. “It just said things like: ‘Get on coach,’ ‘Dreams,’ ‘End Song.’ They really had no idea what it was going to be like.”
The group hired a bus, a film crew and a handful of extras and set out around England, creating scenes with everything from magicians to Ringo Starr’s oversized Aunt Jessie being stuffed with spaghetti by waiter John Lennon.
McCartney did most of the directing.
“It really had something for everyone, which is something I like about it,” Clyde said. “It was really a nod not only to the younger people watching, but to their parents’ generation, as well.”
The film also was loaded with six new Beatles songs, presented as what now would be considered music videos.
The music itself, including the songs I Am the Walrus and The Fool on the Hill, was as innovative as any of the band’s music that year — and mostly recorded just before filming started.
“The Beatles were driven and inspired by having a deadline,” said Giles Martin, son of Beatles producer George Martin. The younger Martin remixed the songs at the legendary Abbey Road studios for the DVD and broadcast.
“And songs like Walrus are a brilliant mix of both The Beatles as a rock ‘n’ roll band and as masters of groundbreaking experimental recording,” Martin added.