Magical Mystery Tour, the surrealistic 1967 Beatles TV special shown in the U.K., finally will premiere on TV in the States — 45 years later, newly restored, on PBS.
The telecast, to be presented by Great Performances Dec. 14, will be part of an exclusive double feature, accompanied by a new documentary, Magical Mystery Tour Revisited, featuring the history of the bizarre project, as well as snippets of outtakes. A DVD release, with a longer version of the documentary, is forthcoming.
For the occasion, Magical Mystery Tour — which, in addition to the title tune, includes psychedelic-era Beatles songs “I Am the Walrus,” “Fool on the Hill” and “Blue Jay Way,” along with the instrumental “Flying” and Paul McCartney’s retro “Your Mother Should Know” — has been restored both musically (by Giles Martin, Beatles producer George Martin’s son, who also revitalized the group’s recording for the Las Vegas LOVE show) and visually. It was screened Wednesday night by New York’s Paley Center for Media, and followed by a panel discussion.
The panel included two veteran rockers – Elvis Costello and Stevie Van Zandt — one screenwriter (Tony Gilroy of the Bourne movies), and Jonathan Clyde of Apple Corps Ltd., producers of the documentary and restored TV special.
Magical Mystery Tour was filmed after the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the death of Beatles manager Brian Epstein, and televised by England’s BBC-1 on Boxing Day 1967 (the day after Christmas), as a family holiday special. It was not well received at the time — partly, at least, because, like all programs then shown on BBC-1, it was not televised in color.
“I saw it Boxing Day, 1967,” Costello said after Magical Mystery Tour was shown to the Paley Center audience and the panelists in all its day-glo psychedelic glory. “It was in black and white — so it was quite a surprise tonight.”
His praise for the special, however, was more as a cultural artifact than as a cinematic work of art — unlike director Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night, the Beatles’ 1964 movie debut, which Costello likened to the brilliance of the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup.
This TV special, Costello said later, was not of that quality, and not even comparable to a later film starring the Monkees.
“It’s not Duck Soup,” Costello said. “It’s not even Head.”
Costello was savvy and enthusiastic enough to put Magical Mystery Tour in its full pop-culture context — after, and influenced by, Peter Sellers and The Goon Show, and prior to, and influencing, Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Van Zandt called Magical Mystery Tour “a curiosity with a masterpiece in it” — that masterpiece being the music, and accompanying video images, of “I Am the Walrus.” And screenwriter Gilroy marveled at the naturalistic performances of the individual Beatles, who were so amazingly at ease in front of the cameras. Gilroy credited Hard Day’s Night director Lester with imparting that invaluable, unusual style on the Fab Four.
“I don’t know how he trained them, or what he told them,” Gilroy said, adding that on camera, “It’s very hard to be yourself.”
Apple Films producer Clyde explained that the whole concept of Magical Mystery Tour was a McCartney idea, inspired partly by Ken Kesey’s psychedelic bus trips in the States, but also by a series of “mystery tour” bus promotions staged in McCartney’s home town of Liverpool, promising day trips to surprise destinations.
“The destination,” Clyde said, laughing, “would always be Blackpool.”
Clyde said the accompanying Apple Films documentary, Magical Mystery Tour Revisited, includes recently uncovered pieces of discarded footage (“Our archivist just dug and dug and dug”), and the DVD release would include even more — including a sequence filmed for but not used in the TV special, of the rock group Traffic performing its then-current single, “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush.”
One performance that did make it into Magical Mystery Tour, and is one of the unexpected highlights of the restored version: a performance, in a strip club accompanied by gyrating dancer Jan Carson, by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, of a bizarre original song lampooning Elvis (Presley, not Costello). The song’s title, much more recently, inspired the name of a group younger rock fans might recognize instantly: “Death Cab for Cutie.”