The Series Project: The Beatles (Part 2)

I have now watched all five feature films (well, to be fair, one was a TV special) made by and about The Beatles, and I have come to a startling new conclusion: “The Beatles” is a terrible band name. Of all the bizarre psychotropic imagery the band would come to employ in their movies and songs, they never went to actual beetles to represent themselves. I know the name was partly a tribute to Buddy Holly and The Crickets (which also featured no songs about bugs), but you would think The Beatles would think to incorporate actual beetles at some point. Are they Beetles with Beat? Beatles? Like musical cockroaches? Like The Roches? Why not something more evocative like The Rolling Stones, or oddly mind-poking like Led Zeppelin? Given how well-known the band is to the world, I feel they could have gotten away with merely calling themselves John, Paul, George, and Ringo (à la CSNY) and they would have been just fine. But I digress.

Welcome back to the second week in my Series Project analysis of the movies about the world’s most popular rock band. In last week’s installment, I covered A Hard Day’s Night, which I described as a peerless rock movie that should be standard issue to the world’s teenagers, and Help!, which only made me want to watch The Monkees’ film Head again, as Help! proved to be a bizonkers pseudo-comedy of indeterminate intellectual origin; my theory was that it was largely inspired by the newly discovered fistfuls of LSD that the band had only then recently began consuming.

While their drug intake was never directly referenced in their songs (despite all the rumors that “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is longhand for LSD), The Beatles’ actual drug consumption is pretty well-documented. Their latter three movies, indeed, can serve as pretty strong circumstantial evidence of their interest in psychedelics. I know they were also interested in Eastern mysticism as well, and even talked about peaceful meditation and finding your inner self, so maybe they were just meditating and finding new creative avenues the same way David Lynch is doing these days. While also taking fistfuls of LSD.

This week’s installment of The Series Project: The Beatles will take us through the three final years of The Beatles’ surprisingly brief career (bear in mind that they rose and fell between the years of 1960 and 1970), and their final three movies. Two will be odd portraits of their gradual dissipation (the final film especially) and the other will prove to be a bizarre comedy classic that can easily match the caliber and joy of A Hard Day’s Night. Two of the films will be psychotropic and inexplicable journey’s with unknowable creative origins, and the third will be (finally) the real Beatles at work. All three films will feature some of the best soundtracks of any movie ever. As I said about A Hard Day’s Night, there’s something comforting about humming the soundtrack to a film before you even watch it.

Let’s start this bizarro journey with…

Magical Mystery Tour (dir. Bernard Knowles & The Beatles, 1967)

Technically speaking, Magical Mystery Tour was not a theatrical feature, but an hour-long TV special made for the BBC. It is, however, often considered part of the theatrical canon, and I have no qualms about discussing it here.

A “Mystery Tour,” I have recently learned, was a common vacation practice in Liverpool in the ’50s and ’60s, and were engaged in by the Fab Four. Their idea behind a Mystery Tour was that you’d buy a bus ticket not knowing where the ultimate destination would be, all in the hopes of seeing something new and exciting that was within driving distance of Liverpool. I’d kind of like that kind of vacation package today. You plop down, say, $1000 at the airport, and they book you into a hotel in a random location and fly you there. I’d love the adventure. You might end up in Brazil. Or Russia. Or an obscure island in the South Pacific. Or somewhere in the Sahara. Is that a good idea? I can’t really tell. I digress.

The Beatles’ approach to making Magical Mystery Tour was very much of the same mindset. Paul McCartney and his friend Mel Evans gathered a film crew together, and hired a literal busload of actors, and took to the road in a bus, sans script, to make up a movie as they went along. They didn’t know what the story was going to be, what the ultimate point of the film was going to be, or what their destination was. They thought of a scene on the spot, and then immediately filmed it according to their whim. Sometimes this freewheeling approach to filmmaking can warrant some interesting results. To draw another comparison to David Lynch, his 2006 epic Inland Empire was constructed along similar lines; Lynch would think of (or dream) a scene the night before, and then film Laura Dern acting it out the following day in a hastily constructed set, or with hastily assembled co-stars. Inland Empire may not have been as engaging as some of Lynch’s other films (it ran a bloated 179 minutes), but it did ultimately have a coda and a denouement. I’m not sure if I can say the same thing of Magical Mystery Tour. It has some fun moments, and the music is naturally amazing, but there is no ultimate thrust. It’s essentially The Beatles messing around with a movie camera.

But hasn’t that been the point of every one of the The Beatles’ movies so far? An excuse to watch them messing around and being themselves? All The Beatles’ movies are less about the imagery from their songs, and more about the band members themselves. About how they relate to one another in a largely fictionalized context (their actual inter-band drama is not ever discussed). As such, I can only write off Magical Mystery Tour as The Beatles doing their thing (however bonkers it may have been) for the benefit of the fans.

Some stories from within the brief 52 minutes of Magical Mystery Tour: Ringo Starr has an old grouchy aunt Jessie (Jessie Robbins) who bickers with him, and ends up having an affair with a wormy guy (Ivor Cutler). There is an awesome music video for “I Am the Walrus.” There is an abstract 2001-ish compilation of colored landscapes set to the forgettable “Flying,” which would come across as extra baffling to TV audiences in 1967, as the flick was broadcast in black and white. There are occasional visits to a quartet of red-clad wizards (The Beatles) talking about casting spells and manipulating the Magical Mystery Tour themselves. There are songs on the bus. There is a car chase. It all kind of tumbles along in a mad fashion. Magical Mystery Tour shoots for casual and fun, but often comes across as confused at itself, longing for good ideas.

Then the film stops, The Beatles sit down at a table in a night club, and we bear witness to one of the awesomest music videos this side of “Smooth Criminal.” The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, that inimitably creative British comedy group responsible for “I’m the Urban Spaceman” and dozens of other wonderfully out-there pop oddities, perform a sultry doo-wop spoof called “Death Cab for Cutie” while a foxy babe (Jan Carson) with a feather boa performs a striptease. For this number, the obtuse confusion of the previous 40 minutes melts away into an effervescent cloud of amazing and baffling glory. Odd that the film should cohere the moment The Beatles stop singing. The Bonzos are probably well-known to connoisseurs of novelty music, so for a certain audience, their appearance will be a joy. And yes, their song is where the early ’00s hipster band got their name.

I’m not sure if people really need to see Magical Mystery Tour. Hardcore Beatles fans should check it out, of course, but I think the rest of us can be content with the “I Am the Walrus” video (and yes, John Lennon does dress as a walrus), and the “Death Cab for Cutie” segment. Oh, and the closing number is pretty cool, too. Watch those three musical numbers, and you’ll have experienced the best of Magical Mystery Tour.

I cannot be as dismissive for the next film, as it is a legitimate classic in its own right, and one that I have (in all honesty) seen about a dozen times. Let’s look at…