Magical Mystery Tour is an hour-long television special that served as The Beatles' third film. It debuted on BBC1 in 1967 It was poorly received by critics and viewers upon its release, but has now garnered a cult following of sorts.
The film was unscripted and shooting proceeded on the basis of a mostly handwritten collection of ideas, sketches, and situations, which Paul McCartney called the "Scrupt". The situation is that of a group of people on a British charabanc bus tour, focusing mostly on Mr. Richard Starkey (Ringo Starr) and his recently widowed aunt, Mrs Jessie Starkey (Jessie Robbins). Other group members on the bus include the tour director Jolly Jimmy Johnson (Derek Royle), the tour hostess Miss Wendy Winters (Mandy Weet), Buster Bloodvessel (Ivor Cutler), and the other Beatles.
During the course of the tour, "strange things begin to happen" at the whim of "four or five magicians", four of whom are played by the Beatles themselves and the fifth by long-time road manager Mal Evans.
During the journey, Starkey and his aunt argue considerably. Meanwhile, Mrs. Starkey begins to fall in love with Buster Bloodvessel, who displays eccentric and disturbing behaviour. The tour involves several strange activities, such as an impromptu race in which each tour group member employs a different mode of transportation (some run, a few jump into cars, a group of people have a long bike they pedal). The tour also goes through a long crawl tunnel which leads to a set-up projector theatre, and involves a strange scene where the group walks through what appears to be a British Army recruitment office. The film culminates with the group splitting up to see strip shows.
The film is punctuated by musical interludes which include the Beatles performing "I Am the Walrus" wearing animal masks, George Harrison singing "Blue Jay Way" while waiting on Blue Jay Way Road and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band performing "Death Cab for Cutie".
At various times, an audience is seen when something funny or unexpected happens; for example, when John asks a little girl, Nicola, if she wants him to blow up a red balloon for her, she exclaims a straightforward "NO", prompting John to pull a face that says "Why do I bother?"
Despite being the shortest Beatle film, nearly ten hours of footage was shot over a two week period. The core of the film was shot beginning on 11 September, and finishing on 25 September. The following eleven weeks were mostly spent on editing the film from ten hours to 52 minutes. Scenes that were filmed but not included in the final cut were a sequence where ice cream, fruit and lollipops were sold to the Beatles and other coach passengers, John, Paul, George, and Ringo each looking through a telescope, and Happy Nat The Rubber Man chasing women around the Atlantic Hotel's outdoor swimming pool, a sequence directed by John.
Much of the film was shot in and around RAF West Malling, an airfield in Kent that had recently been decommissioned. Many of the interior scenes, such as the final ballroom sequence for "Your Mother Should Know", were shot in the disused aircraft hangars. The exteriors, such as the "I Am the Walrus" sequence, and the marathon race, were filmed on the runways and taxi aprons. RAF Air Training Corps cadets can be seen marching in some scenes, and during "I Am the Walrus" an RAF Avro Shackleton is seen orbiting the group.
The mystery tour itself was shot throughout the West Country of England, including Devon and Cornwall, although most of the footage was not used in the finished film. The final striptease sequence was shot at Paul Raymond's Raymond Revuebar in London, and the sequence for "The Fool on the Hill" was shot around Nice, France.
The film was first shown in the United Kingdom as a made-for-television film on the BBC; it was shown in black-and-white on BBC1, then in colour on BBC2 a few days later. The poor critical reaction to the telecast soured American television networks from acquiring the film, while its one-hour running length made it commercially unviable for theatrical release. It wasn't seen in commercial theatres in the US until 1976, when New Line Cinema acquired the rights for limited theatrical and non-theatrical distribution; it wasn't seen on American television until the 1980s in syndication. However, it was shown in 1968 at the Fillmore East in New York City as part of a fundraiser for the Liberation News Service. The critical reception in 1967 had been so poor that no one had properly archived a negative, and these later re-release versions had to be copied from poor-quality prints. By the end of the 1980s, MPI (via rights holder Apple Corps) had released the movie on video, and a DVD release followed many years later. An official rerelease is due out sometime in 2008.
The British public's reaction to the film was scathing. Hunter Davies, the band's biographer, said: "It was the first time in memory that an artist felt obliged to make a public apology for his work." McCartney later spoke to the press, saying: "We don't say it was a good film. It was our first attempt. If we goofed, then we goofed. It was a challenge and it didn't come off. We'll know better next time." However, with the passage of time, McCartney's view of it has changed: "Looking back on it, I thought it was all right. I think we were quite pleased with it."
"Magical Mystery Tour (song)"
"The Fool on the Hill"
"I Am the Walrus"
"Blue Jay Way"
"Your Mother Should Know"
"Hello, Goodbye" (finale played over credits)
"Death Cab for Cutie" (written by Vivian Stanshall and Neil Innes and performed by their band, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band)
"All My Loving" (orchestrated, as background music)
"She Loves You" (played during the marathon with a carnival-style organ)