For many people the Beatles have ascended to a could-do-no-wrong status: Everything they ever did was great, brilliant, as good as it has ever been. That’s not true, of course. Even the best albums had some filler, and none of the movies are likely to be mistaken for “Citizen Kane.”
On Friday night PBS’s “Great Performances” series gives viewers a chance to make their own judgment about one of the group’s more infamous efforts, the film “Magical Mystery Tour.” But before the showing of the film itself comes a little nudge, “Magical Mystery Tour Revisited,” a one-hour documentary that works hard to convince you that the film was visionary rather than a disconnected piece of nonsense.
“Disconnected piece of nonsense” might have been one of the kinder reactions to “Magical Mystery Tour” when it was first broadcast on British television in December 1967, at the height of the group’s fame and prestige. (“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” had been released that June.) Television viewers saw the film in black and white, a disservice to it since it was shot in color, which is how it will be seen in Friday’s broadcast. But those 1967 viewers probably wouldn’t have been much appeased, no matter what the format. Almost everyone who saw it seemed to hate it.
The film, not even an hour long, took the loose form of a tour-bus trip, one on which not much happened, or at least not much that mainstream British viewers could make sense of at the time.
“They hated it,” George Harrison recounts in a 1993 interview in the “Revisited” documentary. “At least the people who wrote in the newspaper hated it.” Then he adds: “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.”
Paul McCartney, in an interview conducted shortly after the film was broadcast, had this summation: “I think a lot of people were looking for a plot, and there wasn’t one.”
In the documentary, all four Beatles are heard from, including Mr. McCartney and Ringo Starr in fresh interviews. So are people who were in the film and who did the behind-the-scenes work, which was seat-of-the-pants, since the Beatles were largely making things up as they went along.
“Paul got me up about 2 in the morning and said, ‘We want a dozen midget wrestlers for tomorrow,’ ” recalls Gavrik Losey, who worked as a line producer on the film. When a Beatle asks for midget wrestlers in the middle of the night, apparently you find them, because sure enough, the finished movie includes some.
Certainly “Magical Mystery Tour,” which became widely available only recently, is interesting today because parts of it anticipated the music videos that the next generation of rock groups would make so abundant. It’s also a case study in just how difficult it is to budge mainstream tastes and expectations. Even the most popular band in the world couldn’t do it with its slapdash experiment in a decade of experimentation.
“Of course, the emphasis on professionalism and polish and politeness has come back now with a vengeance,” Martin Scorsese says in the documentary. “It’s expected. And there’s a tendency to forget that really that’s only one choice, one way of going.”
Great Performances
Magical Mystery Tour Revisited
On PBS stations on Friday night (check local listings).
Produced by Apple Films and BBC Arena. Directed by Francis Hanly; Anthony Wall, executive producer for BBC Arena; Jeff Jones, executive producer for Apple Films Ltd.; Jonathan Clyde, producer. For Great Performances: David Horn, executive producer; Bill O’Donnell, series producer.