The best film-related article I read on my trip down to Austin — where I’ll be covering South by Southwest for other outlets, and hopefully talking to fellow critics for some future Criticwire posts — was this piece by Mike Tyrkus on “The Tragic History of The Beatles’ ‘Magical Mystery Tour.'” I’m not sure that history was all that “tragic” — it’s not like the public’s reluctance to accept The Beatles’ rambling acid trip of a movie broke Ringo’s heart and sent him into spiraling into a deep depression from which he never recovered — but it certainly was fascinating.
What’s particularly interesting about “Magical Mystery Tour,” according to Tyrkus’ piece — which is well-researched and chock full of annotated quotes from Beatles historians and the Fab Four themselves — is that The Beatles essentially applied the exact same formula they used to make music to make this movie. They just showed up on set with a few rough ideas and their creative juices flowing and waited for inspiration to strike. But while that was a perfect technique for great pop music, it was a disastrous technique for making great cinema. From Tyrkus’ piece:
“They filmed for five days in a variety of locations, or essentially, wherever the bus stopped. Since nothing had been formally planned in terms of travel arrangements or lodging or anything really, the shoot went far from smooth. Hotels rarely had enough rooms for the cast and crew and feeding the entire production proved almost impossible… After completing location filming, the production was supposed to move to Shepperton Studios to shoot several of the film’s more complicated scenes, which would hopefully stabilize the project. Unfortunately, no one had bothered to book studio time. So, the Beatles were forced to scramble and secure the use of an abandoned US Army Air Force base at West Malling Air Station as a makeshift studio.”
With “Magical Mystery Tour,” The Beatles were essentially trying their hand at improvisation long before guys like Will Ferrell and Judd Apatow made it fashionable to do so in movies. But their missteps highlight some of the common misconceptions about improv: namely that it means you just turn on the camera and see what happens. As “Magical Mystery Tour” makes clear, if you’re going to make stuff up, you better have a damn good game plan before you do.
This story reminds me of the time Michael Jordan decided to retire from basketball at the height of his career to pursue his dream of becoming a Major League Baseball player. Granted, The Beatles didn’t quit music to make “Magical Mystery Tour” — the best parts of the movie are their glorious songs — but the parallels are striking. There must be something about being in that position that The Beatles achieved in music, and Jordan attained in basketball, where you’re undeniably the greatest person, living or unliving, who’s ever done something. Eventually being the best starts to lose its luster. It comes too easily. You thirst for a new challenge. The Beatles had conquered music, even conquered film playing themselves in “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!” They wanted to prove they could do something different. Or maybe they were just out of their minds on drugs and their judgment was slightly impaired.
Either way, there’s one other undeniable lesson here: if you’re going to make a psychedelic movie, make sure it’s going to be shown on television in color and not in black and white, as “Magical Mystery Tour” was when it premiered on the BBC. Oops.