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I Pity ‘The Fool on the Hill’ Who Misses PBS’s ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ Double Feature
December 13, 2012  | By David Bianculli  | 2 comments

Friday on Great Performances, PBS presents a fab Fab Four double bill: Magical Mystery Tour, preceded by a making-of documentary. There’s also a new boxed set…

Put them all together, and it’s a feast for Beatles fans.

I’ve written about this before, but since then I’ve spoken with Jonathan Clyde, who runs Apple Films and produced the Magical Mystery Tour Revisited documentary that has its U.S. premiere Friday night at 9 ET on Great Performances, just before the 10 p.m. ET national premiere of the 1967 Beatles TV special itself.

“I’ve always loved Mystery Tour,” Clyde told me by telephone last week, “and I knew it was time that it was brought out of the attic, as it were, and rehabilitated… It’s always had this curious reputation. And I understand it — if you look at it, just on its own, you go, ‘How? What? What were they trying to do? How did this come together?’

“And we really felt there was a story to be told, which has never been told. No one’s ever taken that much interest in Mystery Tour... There aren’t many aspects of the Beatles’ career that haven’t been sort of gone over with a fine-tooth comb. And Mystery Tour has never really been examined.

“It’s a bit like the crazy uncle in the attic that’s kept locked up there.”

Its eccentric reputation came about, initially, because the 53-minute TV Magical Mystery Tour was broadcast by England’s BBC-1 on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, as a major holiday special — but the BBC had no idea what was coming. The Beatles had delivered a free-form, experimental comedy with music — more trip than tour — complete with dream sequences and colorful hallucinogenic effects.

Unfortunately, BBC-1 broadcast only in black and white in those days, and the film’s general craziness, along with its monochromatic pallor, made it seem positively underwhelming in 1967, despite the inclusion of such songs as “I Am the Walrus” and the title song.

But look at Magical Mystery Tour anew — with a newly restored print and soundtrack — and it’s magical indeed. So is the Revisited documentary, produced by Clyde and directed by Francis Hanly, which goes into delicious detail. So much so that the one-hour Magical Mystery Tour Revisited achieves something unusual, if not unique: it’s a documentary about a film that ends up being longer than the film it’s about.

“That’s true,” Clyde admitted, laughing.  “But we could have made a much longer film... As we dug deep into the Mystery Tour film archive, we kept finding more and more outtakes. There was a wealth.”

Clyde added, “There was so much we left out. But it would have been wrong to make a longer film.”

Especially since the decision was made to complement, rather than duplicate, things when it came to presenting extras for the Magical Mystery Tour deluxe box set. The documentary will gave you tastes — but only the boxed set presents, in their entirety, scenes cut from Magical Mystery Tour, including the jaw-dropping, fascinating, eerily entertaining  “I’m Going in a Field,” performed by Ivor Cutler. (“I love ‘Going in a Field,’” Clyde said, adding, “It was wonderful to discover that.”) And a John Lennon-directed sequence which Clyde likens to Benny Hill.

And wait, there’s more.

Paul McCartney, who conceived and directed the original Magical Mystery Tour TV special, provides audio commentary on the Blu-Ray and DVD track, remarking on the movie he hadn’t seen since its original telecast.

“His memory was triggered by what he was seeing,” Clyde said. “Very natural.”

The box set also includes a double vinyl EP duplicating the original British mini-album release, and a deluxe picture book. The extras are great, and the movie itself is wild. But the documentary is a much shorter version than what you see on PBS — so, by all means, see it on PBS as well.

What could be better? I asked Clyde that question, put another way: What’s next?

“We’re not really sure what’s next,” he said of the next projects to be released in remastered form out of the Apple archives. “Let it Be will come one day,” he promised, referring to the long out-of-print 1969 movie documentary.

“One day, Let it Be will come. I know it’s the one everybody wants.”

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As individual skits, perhaps broken up by interstitials or a commercial (though definitely not by today's out-of-control commercial "clusters"), this might have made some sense. As an integrated entity, it's really a mess, color or no color. I can see why it got locked in the attic with the crazy uncle after only one airing. The Beatles could be brilliant, but like many other artists, they could occasionally go off the rails with self-indulgence; this was one of those times.
Dec 19, 2012   |  Reply
Charmed by Pythons
Two years after "MMT," came "Monty Python's Flying Circus." Will anyone else beside this perhaps solitary viewer witness seeds of many a Monty Python skit in "MMT's" recruitment-center sequence? Correct me if I'm wrong.
Dec 13, 2012   |  Reply
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