16 September 2010

DYING TO TAKE YOU AWAY

Notwitstanding the heroic amounts of marijuana consumed by its stars, the set of the Beatles' second feature, Help! was not a happy set. And that is why the band took a bit of a break from making movies, dedicating their time instead to assembling records with silly names like Rubber Soul and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. You know, goofy little bits of nonsense that fundamentally altered the way that music was composed and recorded in the latter half of the 20th Century. I mean, *yawn*, amiright?

I don't suppose that anyone was especially clamoring for another Beatles movie; when you're getting albums like that, and singles like "Daytripper"/"We Can Work It Out" and "Paperback Writer", you're hardly going to pound your fists and furrow your brow and say, "But John, Paul, George, and Ringo, we don't want you to keep redefining the nature of popular music! We want a shrill, amateurish travelogue film, with bargain-basement psychedelia and neither a plot nor a complete screenplay!" Nobody was saying that. Luckily, nobody had to say that, because the Beatles, in their infinite wisdom, saw into their fans' secret hearts and fulfilled exactly that wish with Magical Mystery Tour, a 1967 television project that was the very first creation of the newly formed Apple Corps, the group's very own media empire seedling.

Before we get into the whole thing, I shall give you the short version of this review. Watch this video:



Then watch this one:



At this point, you have seen just about every single frame of Magical Mystery Tour that is even a little bit worthwhile (I will perhaps admit that there is some merit to the numbers for "Flying", "The Fool on the Hill" and "Blue Jay Way", in that order. There is absolutely no merit in "Magical Mystery Tour" itself). Be glad that you have spent less than ten minutes of your life watching two pretty swell proto-music videos, and not 55 minutes watching six proto-music videos surrounded by a dire fucking home movie of the Beatles on a bus with a bunch of game actors trying desperately to make dicking around in front of a camera look like fun, right up until the point the shoot got to the day that John Lennon decided that life just wasn't long enough to waste another moment on this godforsaken project, and it pretty much just stops in its tracks.

It's easy to see how the basic idea behind the project would appeal to a group given to the sort of "who the hell cares?" experimentation of the Beatles: they'd have a bunch of actors pile into a bus, they'd drive across England heading to a set destination, and along the way everybody would come up with grand ideas that would be filmed and put into the final movie. It didn't work out that way, of course, and if the Beatles had been savvier filmmakers they'd have known from the word "go" why that was going to be the case. Putting a whole bunch of actors on a bus for two weeks, driving all over God's creation, and expecting that they are going to generate content right there on the spur of the moment... the surprising thing to me is that it was Lennon who ended up rebelling, and not one of the professional actors who was disgusted by the shambles all around (at any rate, Paul McCartney seems to have been the only person terribly engaged by the whole concept, and he did the bulk of the direction which was simply, and horribly vaguely, credited as "Made by The Beatles").

The plot, such as it is: Ringo Starr and his Aunt Jessie (Jessie Robins) are going on a mystery tour, with tour guides Jolly Jimmy Johnston (Derek Royle) and Miss Wendy Winters (Mandy Weet), along with an old man named Mr. Bloodvessel (Ivor Cutler) who may or may not just be an insane person who takes over the tour. Sights along the way include an army office staffed by McCartney and Victor Spinetti (the only person besides the Beatles themselves to appear in their first three films), an impromptu race, several wizards (played by the band) observing the tour, and lastly a journey into Jessie's dream. Paul and George and John are around, but it's somewhat hard to figure out why.

Narrative incoherence is no merit, but it doesn't have to be a great sin: one can imagine a Magical Mystery Tour that is a triumph of surrealist comedy and psychedelic illogic. That is not the Magical Mystery Tour that the Beatles signed their name to. Instead, we have a film that plays exactly as the thing that it is: a bunch of people who had no fucking idea whatsoever how to make a movie assuming that it was an easy thing to do, and imploding in the process. How easy did the Beatles think it would be to just toss together a movie? Ringo Starr, as "Richard Starkey, M.B.E." was the director of photography, I guess because he was the only one who knew how to focus a camera, or something like that.

The end result is a mess that looks cheap and plays like a series of improv sketches thrown together by people who don't know what comedy is. The military office scene is particular dire: the rest just seems grandiose and stupidly over-the-top, but the relative intimacy of two goofy army officers spouting gibberish is containable enough that it's easy to see where the humor is supposed to come from, not to mention the fact that, nowadays, it's hard not to think of Monty Python when the subject of comically absurd British military men comes up.

Monty Python is a perfect touchstone for this film: the whole thing plays a lot like the "Middle of the Film" sketch from The Meaning of Life, though in that film, the point of the gag was that it was inscrutable and unfunny and generally gross. Magical Mystery Tour has no idea what it is, though I am pretty sure that "gross" was not what the Beatles were gunning for. I think they wanted something breezy and fun and jolly, maybe assuming that the long days and waiting around and general boredom on the sets of A Hard Day's Night and Help! were all about bureaucracy or something, and that a truly unfettered film shoot would result in an even better, more imaginative end. In fact, there is nothing more tedious than watching other people's videos of goofing around, being crazy, even if those people are the Beatles (mostly McCartney and Starr; Lennon and Harrison were able to stay out of it, for the most part). At the very least, it proves them to be human: the only serious artistic mistake in the Beatles' career is easy to forgive, especially since it was in an unfamiliar medium, but a mistake it is nonetheless. A big, nasty, ugly, boring mistake. With killer musical numbers.

3 comments:

james1511 said...

I've never seen the film, though I've seen "Walrus" and "Fool" excerpted as music videos. Don't think I've ever seen anything good written about the film either, of course.

Looking at the chronology, Paul had the TV film idea in April '67, and the band started work on the songs for it almost immediately after work on Sgt Pepper was done (which had lasted about five months by then, much longer than they'd spent on one album before). And then while they were working on the EP, they were *also* working on the songs for Yellow Submarine. *And* "All You Need is Love" plus other non-album single tracks. And they discovered the Maharishi around this time too. And—to cap everything—Brian Epstein died in the middle of all of this, leaving the boys to run their own show with no experience. From what I can tell, the decision to actually make the MMM film there and then was done so rather suddenly. Considering all of those things—overwork, other interests, grief, inexperience at business, lack of preparation—it's probably incredible that any good came out of the film at all, especially when most bands would've just scrapped the project.

Agent 57 said...

At first, I thought 'here's another guy pouncing on this piece of shit movie' (and God yes, it is that) but your review is actually the most well-thought-out and lucid analysis I've ever read about it.

I actually don't even think this movie is as good as you do, because "Blue Jay Way" doesn't exactly stand up under close scrutiny, at least once the first chorus is over. Am I the only person who ever noticed how unfortunate that a movie which everyone who watches it is dying to end after 10 minutes in contains a song in which the phrase "don't be long" is sung 29 times? That HAD to be fuck-you to the fans, I've always been convinced of that...

Anyway, great review, sir...

Simon Sheward said...

Another rather unsettling scene was the one where the ladies are told to stay on the bus while the men go off to watch a strip show. I guess feminism hadn't really really got off the ground properly in the early hippy days.