By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 13, 2012)
The Busby Berkeley acid test.
Magical Mystery Tour – Capitol Blu-ray
So how do you follow up an album like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (no pressure, right?). There are a goodly number of otherwise die hard Beatle fans who would prefer to pretend that Magical Mystery Tour (the 1967 film, not the album) never happened. But it did. Right after Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play. And try as we might, we can’t change history.
According to a majority of critics (and puzzled Beatles fans), the Fabs were ringing out the old year on a somewhat sour note with this self-produced project, originally presented as a holiday special on BBC-TV in December of 1967. By the conventions of television fare at the time, the 53-minute film was judged as a self-indulgent and pointlessly obtuse affair; a real psychedelic train wreck. Over the years, it’s probably weathered more continuous drubbing than Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate combined.
However, despite the fact that this tragical history lore has become the meme, a newly restored Blu-ray release that hit shelves earlier this week begs a critical reappraisal (after all, it’s been 45 years). Granted, upon reappraisal, it remains unencumbered by anything resembling a “plot”, but in certain respects, it has held up remarkably well.
Borrowing a page from Ken Kesey, the Beatles gather up a group of friends (actors and non-actors alike), load them all on a bus, and take them on a “mystery tour” across the English countryside. They basically filmed whatever happened, then sorted it all out in the editing suite.
It’s the musical sequences that benefit the most from the audio/video cleanup; those washed out VHS prints with horrendous sound quality that have been floating around for years certainly did no favors for the film’s already tarnished reputation. The luxury of hindsight reveals that several (particularly “Blue Jay Way”, “Fool on the Hill” and “I Am the Walrus”) vibe like harbingers of MTV, which was still well over a decade away.
Some of the interstitial vignettes uncannily anticipate Monty Python’s idiosyncratic comic sensibilities; not a stretch when you consider George Harrison’s future production company HandMade Films was formed to help finance Life of Brian. As for the film’s episodic and surrealist nature, it falls in line with some of the work being done at the time by art house darlings like Fellini and Godard.
That being said, Magical Mystery Tour is far from what I’d call a work of art, but when taken for what it is (a long-form music video and colorful time capsule of 60s pop culture)-it’s lots of fun. So roll up!
Produced by George Martin – Eagle Rock Entertainment Blu-ray
While no one can deny the inherent musical genius of the Beatles, it’s worth speculating whether they would have reached the same dizzying heights of creativity and artistic growth (and over the same 7-year period) had the lads never crossed paths with Sir George Martin. It’s a testament to the unique symbiosis between the Fabs and their gifted producer that one can’t think of one without also thinking of the other. Yet there is much more to Martin than this celebrated collaboration.
Martin is profiled in an engaging and beautifully crafted 2011 BBC documentary called (funnily enough) Produced by George Martin . The film traces his career from the early 50s to present day. His early days at EMI are particularly fascinating; a generous portion of the film focuses on his work there producing classical and comedy recordings.
Disparate as Martin’s early work appears to be from the rock ’n’ roll milieu, I think it prepped him for his future collaboration with the Fabs, on a personal and professional level. His experience with comics likely helped the relatively reserved producer acclimate to the Beatles’ irreverent sense of humor, and Martin’s classical training and gift for arrangement certainly helped to guide their creativity to a higher level of sophistication.
The film also gives you a good sense of the close and loving relationship Martin has with his wife Judy (who he met while working for EMI) and son Giles (who is following in his dad’s footsteps; they collaborated on the remixes of Beatle songs for the LOVE soundtrack album).
81 years old at the time of filming, Martin is still spry, full of great anecdotes and a class act all the way. He provides some very candid moments; there is visible emotion from the usually unflappable Martin when he admits how deeply hurt and betrayed he felt when John Lennon rather curtly informed him at the 11th hour that his “services would not be needed” for the Let it Be sessions (the band went with the mercurial Phil Spector, who famously overproduced the album). Insightful interviews with artists who have worked with Martin (and admiring peers) round things off nicely.