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Behind The Scenes Of The Beatles' 'Magical Mystery Tour'

Dec 14, 2012
Originally published on December 14, 2012 3:01 pm

On Friday night on PBS, Great Performances presents a documentary about the making of a Beatles TV special from 1967 — Magical Mystery Tour — then shows a restored version of that special. Magical Mystery Tour has the music from the U.S. album of the same name, but it's not the album. It's a musical comedy fantasy about the Beatles and a busload of tourists taking a trip to unknown destinations.

It was written and produced in 1967, which was an incredibly fertile period for the Beatles. "Strawberry Fields Forever" came out that year, as well as "Penny Lane" and the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album. That was followed, a month later, by the live TV premiere of "All You Need is Love," broadcast globally. The Beatles, it seemed, could do no wrong. And then they did Magical Mystery Tour, which was televised by the BBC the day after Christmas — on Boxing Day — as a holiday special. A quarter of the British population watched it — and many of those hated it.

Back then, the 53-minute program was filmed in color but wasn't broadcast that way. Imagine the Sgt. Pepper cover in black and white, and you can imagine how much was lost in the translation. Reception to the TV special was so poor that the show wasn't even picked up in the United States — just the soundtrack. Eventually, the special was syndicated to some local TV stations and toured the college film circuit along with Reefer Madness. That's when I first saw it. But on a national level, Magical Mystery Tour has never been televised in the United States — until now.

On Friday — as always, check local listings — Magical Mystery Tour will be preceded by the new one-hour companion documentary, Magical Mystery Tour Revisited. This may be the first case on record in which a documentary about a film is longer than the film itself — but it's worth it.

The documentary, produced by Jonathan Clyde of Apple Films and directed by Francis Hanly, is wonderfully thorough. It explains how the idea for Magical Mystery Tour came about, and how Paul McCartney originally drew the concept as a pie chart — then shows the chart. It covers the origins of each number written specifically for the show, from the title song and "The Fool on the Hill" to "I Am the Walrus" and "Your Mother Should Know." It presents lots of outtakes and new interviews with McCartney and Ringo Starr, as well as Martin Scorsese, Terry Gilliam and Peter Fonda. It also includes a vintage interview with George Harrison, whose assessment of the 1967 TV special is as unfiltered as the program itself.

It's a fine documentary — better, to be honest, than Magical Mystery Tour itself. But Magical Mystery Tour is so much fun to watch if you're a Beatles fan, that it serves up one joy after another. John Lennon serving shovels of spaghetti as a waiter in a dream sequence. John and George in a strip club, watching the house band singing a song called "Death Cab for Cutie" — which, incidentally, inspired the name of a much more recent rock band. And the closing production number, "Your Mother Should Know," which has the Beatles in white suits, dancing in unison down a giant staircase.

In addition to the PBS double feature, Magical Mystery Tour is also now available as a deluxe boxed set from Apple. It includes Blu-ray and DVD versions of the original special, a vastly shortened version of the documentary, and lots of extras, including outtakes and complete scenes that were cut out of the program before its 1967 premiere. These extras are every bit as entertaining as Magical Mystery Tour, and one segment is a minor revelation: singer-songwriter Ivor Cutler, seated at an ornate white organ in the middle of the English countryside, performing his composition "I'm Going in a Field." It must have been hypnotically bizarre then. It's hypnotically bizarre now.

It's no secret that I'm almost ridiculous in my enthusiasm for the Beatles. But for me, all this new Magical Mystery Tour material -- the restored TV special, the documentary, the boxed set — is like a perfectly timed holiday gift. The boxed set is expensive — but the Great Performances double feature is free. All you need is ... a TV set.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. Tonight on PBS, "Great Performances" presents a documentary about the making of a Beatles TV special from 1967, then shows a restored version of that special, which is called "Magical Mystery Tour." It has the music from the U.S. album of the same name, but it's not the album. It's a musical comedy fantasy about the Beatles and a busload of tourists taking a trip to unknown destinations.

PAUL MCCARTNEY: It wasn't the kind of thing we could do a disclaimer before and say, ladies and gentlemen, what you're about to see is the product of our imaginations, and believe me, at this point they're quite vivid.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: That's Paul McCartney, talking about the original broadcast of the "Magical Mystery Tour" TV special in England. It was written and produced in 1967, which was an incredibly fertile period for the Beatles. "Strawberry Fields Forever" came out that year, and "Penny Lane," and the "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album, which was followed, a month later, by the live TV premiere of "All You Need is Love," broadcast globally. The Beatles, it seemed, could do no wrong. And then they did "Magical Mystery Tour," which was televised by the BBC the day after Christmas - on Boxing Day - as a holiday special. A quarter of the British population watched it - and many of those hated it.

Back then, the 53-minute program was filmed in color but wasn't broadcast that way. Imagine the "Sgt. Pepper" cover in black and white and you can imagine how much was lost in the translation. Reception to the TV special was so poor that the show wasn't even picked up in the United States - just the soundtrack. Eventually the special was syndicated to some local TV stations and toured the college film circuit along with "Reefer Madness." That's when I first saw it. But on a national level, "Magical Mystery Tour" has never been televised in the United States - until now.

Friday night on PBS - as always, check local listings - "Great Performances" is presenting "Magical Mystery Tour," preceded by a new one-hour companion documentary called "Magical Mystery Tour Revisited." This may be the first case on record in which a documentary about a film is longer than the film itself. But it's worth it.

BIANCULLI: The documentary, produced by Jonathan Clyde of Apple Films and directed by Francis Hanly, is wonderfully thorough. It explains how the idea for "Magical Mystery Tour" came about and how Paul originally drew the concept as a pie chart, then shows the chart. It covers the origins of each number written specifically for the show from the title song and "The Fool on the Hill" to "I Am the Walrus" and "Your Mother Should Know."

It presents lots of outtakes and new interviews with McCartney and Ringo Starr, as well as Martin Scorsese, Terry Gilliam, and Peter Fonda. It also includes a vintage interview with George Harrison, whose assessment of the 1967 TV special is as unfiltered as the program itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR REVISITED")

GEORGE HARRISON: They hated it, at least the people who wrote in the newspaper hated it. You know, they - don't forget that with all the success we had, every time something came out, a new record or whatever, they'd all try and slam it so that, you know, once they've built you up that high, you know, all they can do is knock you back down again. I mean, that's what happens. That's life. And so they really didn't like it. But it's understandable too because it wasn't a brilliant, scripted thing that was executed well. It was like a little home movie, really, an elaborate home movie.

BIANCULLI: It's a fine documentary. Better, to be honest, than "Magical Mystery Tour" itself. But "Magical Mystery Tour" is so much fun to watch if you're a Beatles fan, that it serves up one joy after another. John serving shovels of spaghetti as a waiter in a dream sequence. John and George in a strip club watching the house band singing a song called "Death Cab for Cutie" which, incidentally, inspired the name of a much more recent rock band.

And the closing production number, "Your Mother Should Know" which has the Beatles in white suits dancing in unison down a giant staircase. In addition to the PBS double feature, "Magical Mystery Tour" also now available as a deluxe box set from Apple. It includes Blu-ray and DVD versions of the original special, a vastly shortened version of the documentary, and lots of extras including outtakes and complete scenes that were cut out of the program before its 1967 premiere.

These extras are every bit as entertaining as "Magical Mystery Tour," and one segment is a minor revelation: singer-songwriter Ivor Cutler, seated at an ornate white organ in the middle of an English countryside, performing his composition "I'm Going in a Field." It must have been hypnotically bizarre then. It's hypnotically bizarre now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "I'M GOING IN A FIELD")

IVOR CUTLER: (Singing) I'm going in a field. I'm going in a field. I'm going in a field to lie down. I'll lie...

BIANCULLI: It's no secret that I'm almost ridiculous in my enthusiasm for the Beatles. But for me, all this new "Magical Mystery Tour material" - the restored TV special, the documentary, the boxed set - is like a perfectly timed holiday gift. The boxed set is expensive but the Great Performances double feature is free. All you need is a TV set.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) Roll on up for the magical mystery tour. Step right this way. Roll up. Roll up for the mystery tour. Roll up. And that's an invitation. Roll up for the mystery tour. Make a reservation. Roll on up for the mystery tour. The magical mystery tour is waiting to take you away. Waiting to take you away. Roll up. Roll up for the mystery tour. Roll up. Roll up for the mystery tour. Roll up... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.