Magical Mystery Tour

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We rented a bus and off we went. There was some planning: John would always want a midget or two around..
-Ringo Starr

With the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band sessions in the rearview mirror, Paul McCartney conceived of a new project for The Beatles. As tensions began to rise within the group following Brian Epstein’s suicide in 1967 it became increasingly important for The Beatles to stay busy if they were going to continue to function as a group. McCartney took it upon himself to fill the void left by Epstein and became the de facto leader of the band.

The project McCartney envisioned was Magical Mystery Tour (1967), a film to be written, directed and produced by The Beatles for the BBC. McCartney was partly inspired by Ken Kesey and even more inspired by the bus tours from Liverpool to Blackpool of his youth when he put pen to paper to draw the spherical diagram that served as the script for Magical Mystery Tour. The Beatles would enlist friends (Mal and Lily Evans) and actors they knew (Victor Spinetti) to realize their “collective” vision.

But Magical Mystery Tour, despite the hype, was always Paul McCartney’s project. The other three members of the Fab Four contributed very little to the project, except for perhaps John Lennon who authored Aunt Jessie’s (Jessie Robbins) dream sequence and supervised the editing of his number “I Am The Walrus”. Ringo Starr, the most gifted actor of the four, was given the most substantially dramatic part to play even though McCartney gets more screen time.

Magical Mystery Tour is a self-indulgent mess of a movie that is fueled in equal measure by McCartney’s momentous ego, marijuana and LSD. But there are three sequences in Magical Mystery Tour that work as insular sketches. One such moment is Buster Bloodvessel’s (Ivor Cutler, the Scottish poet) romantic daydream sequence in which he courts Aunt Jessie on a beach; this is an affecting bit of kitsch with an ironic sense of humor about itself. The other two instances are those in which Lennon played a major part.

The most infamous of these is Aunt Jessie’s dream sequence. In this surrealist fantasy a greasy waiter (played with relish by Lennon) literally shovels pasta onto Aunt Jessie’s plate while she dines with Mr. Bloodvessel. Lennon’s sequence is a dimly lit nightmare that follows the sort of free-associative logic that defined his prose works. This grotesque bit of pantomime betrays Lennon’s own issues with his physical appearance; thusly adding urgency to the scene.

The most important sequence of all in Magical Mystery Tour is the “I Am The Walrus” scene. Here The Beatles take what Richard Lester did in A Hard Days Night (1964) and Help! (1965) with the musical numbers but condense it even further. “I Am The Walrus” feels more like a contemporary music video than anything else the band ever put to film. They take Lester’s sense of a mini-narrative that propels the song but dice it up with experimental film techniques which themselves match the structure of the song on a technical level.

The Beatles poured a lot of their money into this ill advised passion project that aired on Boxing Day, 1967. The British press damned the movie first and the rest of the world wasn’t long to follow. Since then Magical Mystery Tour has become a minor cult classic, and not just amongst fans of The Beatles. Even the band Death Cab For Cutie takes their name from a scene in Magical Mystery Tour. Yet, whether any of this is grounds for recommending Magical Mystery Tour is another story.