Elvis Costello, Steven Van Zandt Discuss The Beatles’ ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ Film
The day after Christmas, 1967. The Beatles’ first film directed by themselves (rather than Richard Lester, who helmed Help! and Hard Day’s Night) premieres on the BBC, titled Magical Mystery Tour. These aren’t the same mop-topped boys, and the film’s psychedelic sensibilities reveal as much to the people of England. There’s outrage from the older generation, and there’s confusion from all – except maybe those who are experimenting with drugs.
The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour film has served a specific role in both the band’s history and pop culture overall. Yet compared to the band’s more “produced” films (the ones including an actual script and plotline), it’s greatly overlooked, due in part by the fact that it was never broadcast in the U.S. Now the film has been gorgeously restored in color (it originally aired in black and white) and the audio remastered by George Martin’s son, Giles, released on DVD/Blu-Ray and massive box set earlier this month. Screenings of the new Magical Mystery Tour have been taking place at a handful of theaters across the country, and last night, New York was treated to an extra special screening at the Paley Center for the Media. Following the film was a panel discussion, which included Elvis Costello, Steven Van Zandt, screenwriter/director Tony Gilroy (of Bourne Identity fame), Apple Film’s Jonathan Clyde (who oversaw the restoration), and MTV’s Bill Flanagan as moderator.
Each panelist brought a distinct point of view to the subject of the film’s legacy. Costello was the Beatles scholar, as well as one of the few in the room who’d seen its original 1967 broadcast. Gilroy was a bit of a fanboy, noting that the Beatles are synonymous with his proverbial “happy place.” Van Zandt was, at times, the quiet appreciator, and at other times, the dose of “real talk” regarding the film’s non-plot. And Clyde was the man with the behind-the-scenes scoop.
The panel started with the film’s influence and influences. As Gilroy noted, the Beatles “made a film like they made music” and “obviously watched a lot of Fellini films.” He threw out names like Monty Python, Easy Rider and The Monkees show, with the absurdist adventure film serving as a predecessor in some way for each. “It was a whole toolbox of what would happen in film right after,” he noted.
Costello, however, noted the shock he felt upon first seeing the original broadcast, and just how revolutionary the film was for “light entertainment” intended for the whole family in the year 1967. Clyde echoed this, discussing just how subversive it was to the people of England. He later mentioned that the BBC has made new documentary about England 1967 to now and the film’s influence, which is set to air stateside on PBS on December 14.
Clyde also revealed bits of trivia regarding Magical Mystery Tour, such as how long the film’s restoration took (one year) and the high cost to license the film’s non-Beatles songs (such as standards like “Lovely Bunch of Coconuts”). Additionally, the BBC had apparently purchased the film without seeing it first, following a phone call from Paul McCartney. While the network allowed the film’s closing scene with a stripper, it was “deemed improper by the BBC that a fat woman would have a love affair” so they cut the romantic scenes between Ringo’s Auntie Jessie and Buster Bloodvessel. He reminded us that “fifth Beatle” George Martin had been a comedy producer before working with the Beatles, which he claimed made a lot of sense.
The hour-long film represented, in a way, the Beatles’ full transition from the Fab Four to the creatively experimental group of their latter years. Essentially, it showed the oddity of the Beatles, for those who had overlooked that fact. Gilroy wondered if the film would have ruined them in the U.S. if broadcast stateside, given the polarizing nature of the hippie movement here. And yet, Magical Mystery Tour was this inclusive thing, full of colorful characters of all ages and walks of life – very unlike the hippie movement emerging in the U.S. at the time. As Costello noted, mystery tours were a real thing in north England (“the destination was always Blackpool,” he said with a groan).
Van Zandt was more critical overall, though quite complimentary of the song “I Am The Walrus” (“I’d argue it’s the pinnacle of the incredible evolution taking place before our eyes”). His closing comments weren’t as fawning: “I wish they had taken a few weeks to make it. What would have happened? What would have happened if [their manager] Brian Epstein hadn’t had died days before they filmed? A little bit of writing, a little bit of thought – it would have been spectacular. It’s an interesting curiosity with a masterpiece in it [“Walrus”]. It’s fine for us freaks.”
Gilroy, who praised the Beatles’ acting abilities (particularly George), said that he “wouldn’t change a thing” and that he’s “happy it’s a mess.” In fact, he called it his Quran. Costello split the difference between the two, noting that the film “showed so much” and that the Beatles “winged it because they could.” Ultimately, he noted that it’s not even as good as the Monkees’ trippy feature film, 1968’s Head, but that we “wouldn’t be sitting here talking about it if songs didn’t have strong emotion.”
– Jillian Mapes, CBS Local