Friday, January 11, 2013

"Roll up for the mystery tour"

I was lucky enough to catch a showing of Magical Mystery Tour on PBS the other day. It was my first time. Verdict? I'm confident in saying I enjoyed it more than the average viewer did in December of 1967 when the film premiered on BBC1. Unlike the British public, who was blindsided and then thrown into a state of bewilderment by The Beatles' unscripted gonzo surrealism, I knew what was coming. All told, I found the movie amusingly antic, funny (or maybe funny enough is more accurate) and, in terms of its use of The Beatles' music, delectable. Any project that incorporates ten-plus songs by the Fabs is off to a formidable start. The scenes with "I Am the Walrus" and "Your Mother Should Know" stand out in particular. Then throw in Ringo's always winning charm, an inscrutable character named Buster Bloodvessel, an unsettling dream sequence in which John, as a pencil-mustached waiter, shovels heaps of spaghetti onto a plate, and a general spirit of anything-is-possible, we're-having-a-blast anarchy, and what results is a very memorable film. Not a great film, not a work of art, just a memorable hour-long romp.
What's it about? The plot is both beside the point and important, as the movie is part-spectacle and part-sendup. It follows Ringo, his Aunt Jessie and a colorful collection of folks as they travel on a mystery tour bus to some curious destinations. For The Beatles, these trips, which were common in Britain at the time, symbolize their past - a past that was steeped in notions about proper behavior and tradition. This is what the film is lampooning. Thus, the operative line comes when Buster Bloodvessel says he hopes the tour participants will enjoy themselves "within the limits of British decency." Hardly. With its madcap comic aesthetic, Magical Mystery Tour represents a total subversion of "British decency." All the flights-of-fancy, non-sequiturs and tangents served notice that the old rules of the game didn't apply anymore. It was a different world. To be sure, The Beatles still had deep affection for their past, but their new identities were simply so far removed from it. They would have been strangers to their former selves. As one commentator noted on the Arena documentary about the film, the band's message seemed to be "That's who we were, and this is who we are."
Not long after critics and viewers delivered their harsh judgement of the film, Paul essentially apologized for it. In his words: "If we goofed, then we goofed. It was a challenge, and it didn't come off. We'll know better next time." Since then, Paul has changed his tune, saying the film's style was ahead of its time. Its legacy has also benefited from the support of Hollywood heavyweights like Martin Scorsese. But I think it's more interesting to consider what The Beatles' pre-release mindset was. What were their expectations going in? How did they think the public would react to this very different kind of project? It's possible they were puffed up on hubris and just assumed that anything they put out, however avant-garde or uncommercial, would be well received. Or maybe they didn't care. Maybe they made the film for their own amusement. Whatever the case, Magical Mystery Tour was The Beatles' first critical black eye. With Brian Epstein dead, touring a thing of the past and uncertainty in the air, it set the stage for a bumpy final stretch.
(If the video is removed, go here.)

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