When Magical Mystery Tour first premiered on the BBC in late 1967 as a black-and-white broadcast, the critical reaction was almost uniformly negative. The Beatles’ first two films, A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, were popular successes helmed by the American film director, Richard Lestor. Magical Mystery Tour was entirely conceived and directed by the Beatles themselves, and their inexperience making movies is plainly evident in its execution. It’s loose, unscripted narrative was mostly a vehicle to showcase six new songs to an adoring public. If the songs themselves weren’t all Pop classics or near classics, this film would be nothing more than a historical curiosity today. The intense interest in seeing it released is entirely due to the Beatles’ disproportionate influence on popular music and the culture even today, decades after they broke up and stopped releasing new music.
Sir Paul McCartney takes most of the claim for the concept behind this project, in a letter dated August 2012 in the included liner notes. The four Beatles go together on a bus tour with a bunch of wild characters like Ringo’s fictional aunt, Jessie, in a very loose narrative structure that barely knits the story together. Traveling along through the English countryside on a packed bus, there are short skits for lack of a better term between the featured songs. The songs here are presented in a crude, embryonic form of early music videos. Featured in the interstitial material are a number of bizarre elements, from midgets wrestling each other to a strip tease by a professional stripper on stage.
None of Magical Mystery Tour besides the music is entirely coherent, but there are some amusing moments, particularly seeing the Beatles ham it up for the camera. Ringo has the most speaking lines, as his outgoing personality seems to be a perfect fit for this film’s zany mood and style. George Harrison has very little presence, outside of his lip-syncing performance for “Blue Jay Way.” John Lennon dresses up in his lead role as singer for “I Am The Walrus,” but he seems oddly detached on screen during his appearances. Sir Paul McCartney partially plays the role of straight man, coming off cool and above the antics surrounding him. The entire price of the disc is almost worth it alone to see a young Paul skipping along a hill while “Fool On The Hill” plays in the background. It’s one of those moments that a Rock star would never contemplate putting on video today.
The six songs, created primarily for this film, are: “Magical Mystery Tour”, “The Fool On The Hill”, “Flying”, “I Am The Walrus”, “Blue Jay Way” and “Your Mother Should Know.” Most Beatles’ fans will know these songs like the back of their hand. These songs are all from a period when the Beatles were at the height of their musical success and creatively fertile in their output. Capitol Records in the U.S. added a handful of songs to this list for the album’s eventual release in the U.S. and in 1987 that configuration became an official part of the Beatles’ core canon of music.
Magical Mystery Tour is not a great film by any means, but the staying power of the music itself overcomes the sheer banality of the story and dialog. The Beatles still have such a huge presence in the culture that it’s interesting to see the primitive beginnings of what would eventually become an art form in its own right, the music video. While the music is still as relevant and fresh as it ever was to a mass audience, the short film likely won’t be of much interest to non-Beatle fanatics. This is a release for the fans, and fans alone.
Magical Mystery Tour has been released through Apple Films, the global entity that controls all of the Beatles’ video features. It’s controlled by the surviving Beatles and the estates of John Lennon and George Harrison. So the main feature has been produced from the best surviving elements possible and given the royal treatment. Unfortunately there are legitimate rumors that the original camera negatives have been lost or destroyed. That means this transfer is from secondary 16mm film elements at best, and some scenes look a tad worse than even that level of quality.
It’s an erratic presentation, with wildly varying picture quality from scene to scene. Without the benefit of inside knowledge, it does appear the transfer has been heavily processed by digital tools. The film elements had photochemical restoration and then were scanned at 4K. 16mm film elements should produce more detail than is visible on this disc with that type of process. Fine detail such as strands of hair and facial features are completely missing at times in the soft and hazy presentation. Tight close-ups don’t produce any more detail than far-ranging shots, though they do have a bit more clarity and focus.
There is no real sign of sharpening, though there might be a bit of aliasing artifacts from the 1080i presentation. The digital clean-up does produce an image extremely free of grain or film damage. Check the unrestored footage in the special features to see the vast difference, where the film looks very dirty with a number of scratches and splotches to the print. They are entirely absent on the restored main feature.
Color saturation is slightly disappointing. The film print appears to have faded over the years and it doesn’t produce the rich hues typically seen on a film transfer made from the original camera negatives of its era. The image is bright, especially in the opening reel where blown-out highlights are not uncommon. Black levels are another erratic aspect, though most of the time they become deep enough to truly be opaque without crushing shadow detail.
From a technical perspective, Magical Mystery Tour has been provided a strong video encoding. The 53:32 main feature has been included on a BD-50, in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio due to its origin as a television special on the BBC. The featured resolution is 1080i, likely due to some of the source elements in the transfer being created at the European standard of 25 frames per second. It could have been converted to 1080p at 24 fps, but that would have entailed digitally altering the pitch of the music and that was probably a concern by the producers. The video encode itself is in AVC at excellent bitrates, often topping 30 Mbps. There isn’t a hint of compression artifacts in the picture, such as macroblocking or banding.
The raison d’être for this Blu-ray is the incredible soundtrack. Three different audio options are provided: a DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix at 24-bit/96kHz, a Stereo PCM mix at 24-bit/96kHz, and a 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack presented at 640 kbps. Both lossless soundtracks are phenomenal, completely remixed from the original audio elements and offering the music at audiophile resolution from the original multitracks. The 5.1 surround mix offers a new and exciting way to hear these classic songs once again, but in a new way that spreads the music across all the channels. The PCM stereo mix is nearly its equal and should easily satisfy 2-channel purists who prefer stereo.
A deep, rich bass fills the subwoofer, adding a thump to the soundtrack. The clarity and separation of the instruments, often discretely placed in one channel, bring a startling reality to the music. It’s a flashy mix that is distinctly modern in its use of surround elements and vocal placement. That is not a problem, longtime fans will hear new elements in the songs they had previously overlooked in the stereo mixes on CD or LP.
The non-musical portions of Magical Mystery Tour suffer a great deal more from age and poor production values. The dialog is thin and vastly less dynamic sounding than the songs themselves. Dialog is largely intelligible, though it’s mixed much lower in volume than the music and some of the transitions between the dramatic scenes can be unpleasant.
Subtitles are offered in many languages, as the disc is region-free and intended for distribution in multiple territories: English, Français, Deutsch, Español, Italiano, Português, Nederlande, Svenska, Norsk, Dansk, and Suomi.
While the collector’s set got an impressive array of physical goodies as extras, this standalone Blu-ray release only received a number of video-based special features and an 8-page booklet.
Director’s Commentary by Paul McCartney – Sir Paul goes on at length about the film. He sounds somewhat tired and groggy at times, though his information does provide some insights into the helter skelter film’s design and production method.
The Making Of Magical Mystery Tour (19:03 in 1080i) – A scattered documentary, though it has interviews or audio comments from all the Beatles. That alone makes it essential viewing. Some of the archival footage could be more extensive, but recent interviews with Ringo and Paul in HD make up for it.
Ringo The Actor (2:24 in 1080i) – Ringo talks up his acting abilities in a brief snippet about the film.
Meet The Supporting Cast (10:55 in 1080i) – A feature on the background and careers of Nat Jackley, Jessie Robins, Ivor Cutler, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Victor Spinetti, George Claydon, and Derek Royle, the supporting actors in the film.
Your Mother Should Know (2:41 in 1080i), Blue Jay Way (3:58 in 1080i), The Fool On The Hill (3:05 in 1080i) – All three musical featurettes are new edits of the performances, featuring footage and outtakes not seen in the original film, set to the each song.
Hello Goodbye from ‘Top Of The Pops’ 1967 (3:37 in 1080i) – A promo video made by the BBC for “Hello Goodbye.”
Nat’s Dream (2:01 in 1080i) – A scene directed by John Lennon featuring Nat Jackley. It’s not included in the original film.
I’m Going In A Field by Ivor Cutler (2:42 in 1080i) – A song performance by one of the actors.
Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush by Traffic (2:41 in 1080i) – Possibly the best special feature on the entire disc. The Rock group Traffic sings a song in this vintage music video, presented with a full 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack. It’s a terrific performance and an amusing early music video.
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