Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
This film contains “I am the Walrus”, my favourite Beatles song, and therefore, by extension, my favourite piece of music by anyone ever. “The Fool on the Hill” ain’t half bad, either, and if “Your Mother Should Know”, “Flying” and the title song are more minor tracks by the band, they’re not unpleasant. (Never been keen on “Blue Jay Way”, though, although it does effectively convey a disconcerting atmosphere.)
So the music video aspects of the film work well enough – the problem is pretty much everything else.
The plot: Ringo and his aunt get on a coach for an outing to an unknown location. (I wonder if the presence of Ringo’s aunt was intended to be reminiscent of Wilfred Brambell’s role as Paul’s Grandfather in A Hard Day’s Night?) The passengers observe some bizarre events, and some wizards up in the clouds observe the coach’s progress. (Those wizards were the main thing I remembered about the film from when I watched it as a kid, but it turns out that they’re only in it for about two minutes.)
… Except it, er, doesn’t.
Some of the sketches would be called Pythonesque if not for the fact that a) the film was made almost two years before the first episode of Flying Circus was broadcast, and b) they’re not funny. (There is something of The Meaning of Life’s Mr Creosote in the spaghetti scene, and Victor Spinetti’s incomprehensible drill sergeant is very much like a stock Python character.)
A couple of John Lennon’s brief snippets of narration hint at the sometimes hilarious wordplay in his books “In His Own Write” and “A Spaniard in the Works”. For example, one line of dialogue in the film is followed by the narrator’s storytelling addition “… he said”, and I like his deadpan uncertainty over whether there are “four or five magicians” (perhaps prefiguring Yellow Submarine’s “Once upon a time, or maybe twice”). But these snippets appear rarely and don’t last more than a sentence or two – I wanted more of them!
One bit that is mildy amusing is the cut from Ringo’s Aunt daydreaming of a romance with Buster Bloodvessel, to the reality of the man drearily droning on and on. (Only mildy amusing, though.)
Late in the movie, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band turn up to provide the soundtrack to a stripper’s performance (“CENSORED”), and to some extent they outshine the Beatles in their own movie.
In The Beatles Anthology, Paul McCartney’s main defence of the film is to say “Where else are you going to see a performance of ‘I Am the Walrus’?” but he also makes the claim that he’d heard that “people like Steven Spielberg” saw it in film school and were impressed/influenced by it. I’ve always been skeptical of that claim… but then, in the Arena documentary that accompanied the BBC’s October 2012 broadcast of the film, who should turn up but Martin Scorsese, confirming that he for one genuinely thinks it’s a remarkable film.
Some of the talking heads in that documentary remark on how the film’s approach of drawing upon avant-garde* experimental influences (lack of plot or script, Ringo Starr messing about with lenses in his role as Director of Photography(!), random shots of cheering crowds) and filtering them through working-class Liverpudlian childhood nostalgia (a charabanc coach trip) is representative of exactly what the Beatles did so successfully in much of their music. These are good points – at least until the moment the doc gets Macca attempting to tie MMT’s experimentality to Un Chien Andalou, which is just a little bit of a stretch. (And of course the documentary illustrated the comparison with THAT shot – ARRGGHHH!)
So it’s not a good film. But the story behind it is interesting for what it says about where the Beatles were at that point – after Brian Epstein’s death and dominating the world with Sgt Pepper, they were casting about wildly for new ideas, which eventually led to them going off to India with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and founding Apple and trying to make a fly on the wall documentary about themselves, and we all know what happened with that. So the film’s scriptless nature is nicely representative of all that – but it doesn’t really make for a very fun film to watch.
[2.5 out of 5]
* “French for bullshit”, I think someone once said. I wonder who?