Finding the Magic In The Mess: What’s Good About the Magical Mystery Tour Film

Beatles Month

This piece is part of Strange Currencies Music’s month-long celebration of The Beatles.

Look, Magical Mystery Tour (1967) is bad. It doesn’t please me to say it. I revisited MMT hoping it would be a revelation. A forgotten masterpiece. I thought, surely this has just been misunderstood. I’ll bet it’s even better than A Hard Day’s Night, and nobody realizes it! But, sadly, no. It’s aimless, boring and feels a little too long, even at 52 minutes. The musical sequences don’t save it, either. The first of which is an embarrassingly literal interpretation of “The Fool On The Hill” in which Paul’s heavy-handed cuteness is not enough to distract from the fact that multiple closeups of his eyeballs are used to illustrate the lyric about “the eyes in his head.” Yes, we can tell you didn’t have any actual “ideas” for this sequence, Paul. No, frolicking around in a fashionable coat doesn’t count as an idea.

To be fair, after you watch this movie two or three times, especially with the director’s commentary from Paul, you start to appreciate it as an endearing snapshot of a specific moment in time. Paul conceived the project shortly after the death of Brian Epstein, the band’s legendary manager. According to one-time Beatles Press Officer Tony Barrow in the unofficial follow-up documentary Magical Mystery Tour Memories (2008), Paul was worried that, without Epstein’s guidance, The Beatles would simply fly off to India to live with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and “never come back together again as a working band.” The film project was a way to keep them together and keep them working in the absence of Epstein’s leadership. The end result is a document of exactly the kind of behavior you’d expect from four orphaned boys with too much time and money on their hands: they sing, they flirt, they drive dangerously fast while racing a group of angry vicars, and just before the journey is over, they end up in a strip club to watch a lady take off her top. And throughout it all, they seem to be having genuine fun with a big group of like-minded weirdos and close friends. There’s a pleasantness to it.

Unfortunately, that pleasantness doesn’t make for captivating cinema. And let’s face it, you’re not going to watch this two or three times. You’re definitely not going to listen to the director’s commentary. You’re certainly not going to watch the unofficial follow-up documentary distributed by a company called WeinerWorld (perhaps a subsidiary of Poundland), hosted by an aging Victor Spinetti and featuring interviews with people who were barely involved with the project, all set to a background score of off-brand versions of the songs from the film and absent any actual footage from said film, presumably due to legal reasons. I have fallen on those swords on your behalf in order to gain as much appreciation for this flawed project as I possibly could. And since I don’t want to end Beatles Month on a sarcastic, sour note, I’ve found a way to put a positive spin on MMT, inspired by the old saying “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

With that in mind, here are five positive things about Magical Mystery Tour:

  1. The Massive Man Named Mal

Mal Evans was a bouncer at the Cavern Club, and would go on to become a sort of best friend and whipping boy for The Beatles throughout most of the 1960’s. He was ostensibly their roadie, but he was also the guy who would run to the store to pick up a pair of socks for John, or underwear for Ringo, apparently. He even contributed to some of the band’s songwriting and recording. It’s Mal that you hear clanging away on an anvil in “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” for example. These are the things you learn when you listen to that Paul commentary, and keep hearing the name “Mal” over and over and can’t help but pull up his Wikipedia page to learn more. Turns out, Mal is all over this movie. He’s the giant (6’6”) in the bowler hat and thick-rimmed glasses in the background of almost every scene. Once you spot him (he looks like a friendlier version of David Prowse in A Clockwork Orange), you can’t unspot him. He’s one of the red-robed magicians that never actually do anything. He’s the guy who jumps into the trunk of the tour bus and holds on for dear life while Ringo takes the wheel and nearly tips the whole thing over during the race scene. And I’m pretty sure Mal is the poor shirtless bastard with “Magical Mystical Boy” scrawled across his chest in the psychedelic Blue Jay Way sequence. Knowing about Mal turns watching the movie into a “Where’s Waldo” exercise that bumps up the fun factor by at least a couple of percentage points. A word of warning, though: don’t read the man’s entire Wikipedia page unless you want to ruin your day.

  1. Ivor Cutler, a.k.a. Buster Bloodvessel

If this movie is good for one thing, it’s introducing the viewer to various interesting, somewhat mysterious, people like Mal Evans and Ivor Cutler. Cutler plays Buster Bloodvessel, the tiny old man who falls in love with the comically larger-than-him Aunt Jessie. His deadpan line delivery and awkwardly handsy performance during a romantic beach scene are endearing enough, but it was actually an outtake featuring him that really hooked me. When he wasn’t acting in Beatles vanity projects, Cutler was a poet and singer who performed his songs in the exact stone-faced monotonous manner that’s on display in MMT. At some point during production of the movie, they apparently set up some cameras and made a little video for his song I’m Going In A Field.” It’s not in the movie, but rather tucked away in the Blu-Ray extras. If you do some googling, you’ll find all kinds of youtube clips of his songs. They have titles like A Donut In My Hand” and There’s A Hole In My Head.” They all seem funny at first, and he sounds funny singing them. But there’s a profundity hidden beneath the humor. And by the end of each song, you feel like you’ve just experienced great art. This clip of him performing “Looking For Truth With A Pin,” for example, looks like it’s meant to be laughed at. But by the end, you realize it wasn’t funny at all, just hauntingly beautiful. Anyway, I know none of that stuff is in MMT, but Ivor Cutler is. And if it weren’t for MMT, I wouldn’t know Ivor Cutler ever existed.

  1. Aunt Jessie’s Dream

The stress-nightmare experience by a dozing Aunt Jessie is based on an actual dream had by John Lennon. In his dream, he was shoveling piles of spaghetti onto a plate while dressed like his step-father, a waiter. In the film, the stuff he’s shoveling onto Aunt Jessie’s plate looks more like a series of mud-caked handkerchiefs or chocolate-covered washcloths. The scene is a little creepy, thanks mostly to John’s bizarre, tight-lipped grin and quiet muttering of “spaghetti lady” or “skidatty lady” that punctuates each shovelful of slop. (John is excellent in this film, by the way. The crazed sarcasm on his face in almost every one of his scenes is the antidote to Paul’s overly sincere eye contact during “The Fool On The Hill.”) But the strangeness of this scene is what makes it one of the only interesting sections of the movie. You’ve got creepy John, Mr. Bloodvessel and Jessie having a conversation that doesn’t quite make sense (“it’s intake, Jessie, not output”), and several members of the MMT entourage traipsing around shirtless, including Mal Evans and an unexpectedly ripped Jolly Jimmy Johnson, the endlessly smiling tour guide. The main shortcoming of the film as a whole is its lack of ideas. It can barely be described as a failure because it doesn’t really try, but this scene is an exception. For a few minutes, the film has a concept and attempts to bring it across. I wouldn’t say it succeeds, but in this scene it very briefly tries.

  1. The Bonzo Dogs

The strip club scene near the end of the movie features a band of ridiculous dudes playing a raunchy burlesque number while a well dressed lady slowly removes articles of clothing, never actually showing any naughty bits to the audience. The dudes in question are the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, and I call them ridiculous in the most affectionate way possible. These guys commit to the bit. They were the house band for a pre-Monty Python comedy TV show starring Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Eric Idle called Do Not Adjust Your Set (1967-1969), and in every performance on that show they commit to the bit (even in wildly inappropriate ways, at times). Their performances shout “We are weirdos! Look at how weird we are!” in a way that I find more charming than obnoxious. Here in MMT, the bass player and saxophonists perform the whole song while engaged in a slow, hypnotic choreography of circling instruments and deadpan facial expressions. The singer (Viv Stanshall, another giant) sneaks a massive set of plastic teeth into his mouth at one point. Add to all this that the song they play is called “Death Cab For Cutie,” a likely inspiration for the band of the same name, and my attention has been grabbed. The Bonzo Dogs are no Beatles, but watching them perform in this scene is certainly a high point in the bad Beatles movie.

  1. The Subsequent Album

Magical Mystery Tour is a half-assed film, but the songs The Beatles wrote for it are absolutely fully-realized, legitimately great Beatles songs. I said before that the musical sequences don’t save the film, and that’s true, but visuals aside, the songs are the only reprieve from an otherwise nap-inducing slog. There weren’t enough songs for a proper album, so the soundtrack was released in the UK as a double EP. That sort of thing wasn’t going to fly in the states, though, so Capitol Records slapped five previously released singles onto the end and put it out as an LP. I don’t want to give some record company executive too much credit here, but the resulting LP is an absolutely fully-realized, legitimately great Beatles album. Obviously all the songs are good, but even the sequencing is perfect. The movie songs are in the order they appear in the film except for the last two, which are flip-flopped, positioning “I Am The Walrus” as the side one closer. Perfect. Side two starts with “Hello, Goodbye” – which duplicates the energy of the album opener, “Magical Mystery Tour” – and ends with “All You Need Is Love,” which sounds like it was designed specifically to close out an album. And the inclusion of “Strawberry Fields Forever” elevates the whole thing into the upper tier of the entire Beatles discography. Can you imagine if that song had remained as a single? Just a bonus track on the CD reissue of Sgt. Pepper or something? That would have been a travesty. Without the film, you never get the album, and the album is one of The Beatles’ best.

So there you have it. Five reasons to not entirely dismiss the misguided mess that is Magical Mystery Tour. I was disappointed that it didn’t turn out to be a secret masterpiece, but watching it did lead me down some fascinating rabbit holes. You might get lost in them, too.

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