Saturday, December 23, 2017

Magical Mystery Tour

A Hard Day's Night, the Beatles' comic pseudo-biopic, is widely considered one of the one hundred greatest films ever made. The Citizen Kane of rock films stands on its own as brilliant comedy with actors who each fully realized their roles. From Paul and his grandfather to Ringo's "This Boy" segment, the film is utterly charming and endearing. HELP! didn’t have that same appeal, but the colors, the comedy, the songs and espionage tie-in worked to make The Beatles' second venture equally watchable. The Beatles's third film, and definitely the weirdest, Magical Mystery Tour, failed instead on so many levels, while what was most important, the music, was one of The Beatles' triumphs. Mired in complications, a lack of script and an overconfidence that had to come with the Fab Four's miraculous success, MMT just didn’t work. Essential the strategy was get high, get on a bus, see what happens. Here in the U.S., our first look was two showings at the Fillmore East on August 11, 1968; Americans spared any other exposure to a film that they just couldn’t "get," until its wide release in 1975. 50 years later, we should be celebrating the American release of the LP as joyously as we did Sgt. Pepper.

Essentially, in the way of a script, The Beatles tried to explore on film what Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters did on the school bus dubbed "Further" earlier in the decade (read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test). The film starts out as Mr. Richard Starkey, who is constantly bickering with his aunt, purchases a ticket to the titular Mystery Tour. Mystery Tours to unknown locations were all the rage in England at the time, and ideal fodder for comedy. Once on the tour bus, stuff happens, allegedly at the whim of "four or five magicians," and in the end everyone goes to a strip club. That's about it.

Basically, the Beatles and a bus full of other people drove around for two weeks, wrote the script (an impromtu beast that McCartney called "the Scrupt"), filmed things on a whim and hoped something magical would happen. Instead, many of the incidents and complications that plagued the shoot were more interesting than the film itself. It was envisioned for theaters, but instead aired on BBC 1 on December 26, 1967. In glorious black and white! This was especially erroneous for the "Flying" sequence, which was simply filmed abstract colors and shapes; a lot of nothing on black and white TV. One could view the film as The Beatles' first misstep, signaling the events that would eventually lead to the band's break-up. As time goes by Magical Mystery Tour has been re-appreciated as a charming time document with surreal comedy ahead of it time, though this writer has tried on so many occasions to even like it, let alone find it redeeming. Interestingly, I do like it, but in the way that I like Hot Rods to Hell or Panic in Year Zero.

"We knew most of the scenes we wanted to include," said John, "but we bent our ideas to fit the people concerned once we got to know our cast. If somebody just wanted to do something we hadn't planned they went ahead. If it worked we kept it in. There was a lovely little 5-year old girl, Nicola, on the bus. Because she was there and because we realized she was right for it, we put in a bit where I just chat to her and give her a balloon." It’s one of the film’s elements that actually works. Keep in mind that Americans have never been particularly keen on British comedy. There are Benny Hill fans indeed, but there are more people who claim to love Monty Python although have rarely gone beyond The Holy Grail.

Anthony Wall of the BBC said, "There was a sense that anything went. You could have the avant garde of Antonioni at one end, where everything would be perfectly orchestrated and fashioned; and, down at the other end, you've got Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, or William Burroughs. The big point for me was when I saw Un Chien Andalou, the Buñuel and Dalí film, at much the same time. Magical Mystery Tour is a kind of acid-rock, 1967 version of that." That indeed is a pretty powerful statement and I would guess that those who truly have no interest in the MMT film would have no interest in Un Chien Andalou either. Interestingly, the film puts into context the cutting-edge company the Beatles kept in Bohemian London, and suggests that when their visions collided with a Britain still clinging to sensibilities of the war, there had to be some kind of disjointed surrealism. So, who are you? Like Bunuel and Monty Python, big Avengers fan (you know, Emma Peel, not Iron Man), watch the BluRay. Not so much, revisit one of the greatest LP's of all time. Me, I'll just keep on trying.