Review: The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour Arrives on Blu-ray

Worth picking up for the Paul McCartney audio commentary alone.

By , Contributor

It may not be much of a movie, but Magical Mystery Tour makes its high definition debut in great style. Not only does the 53-minute film look better than ever, the 5.1 DTS-HD soundtrack will undoubtedly please Beatle fans. For anyone on the fence about this Blu-ray release—which is understandable, given the film’s generally poor reputation and relative brevity—the extensive bonus features might seal the deal.

Magical Mystery Tour is a real oddity for The Beatles. Conceived in the wake of the tragic passing of their manager Brian Epstein, the film is a mishmash of half-baked set pieces cooked up by the four band members for broadcast as a BBC television special. The “plot” is the barest of threads. A group of passengers on an English bus tour experience a series of surreal events. Orchestrating the “magic” are five magicians (portrayed by The Beatles and their road manager Mal Evans). The events play out in sort of a free-form fashion. One scene finds Ringo Starr leading a number of vehicles in a high speed race. Another involves a mad military official (Victor Spinetti) spouting nonsense, first in an office but then suddenly in an open field.

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Unsurprisingly, the songs wind up being the highlights. Each of the six tunes written for the film plays out much like a music video. Best of all is the trippy “I Am the Walrus,” unique in the film for being the only one in which they are depicted playing their instruments and lip-syncing. The instrumental “Flying” is perhaps the weakest of the bunch, basically just a montage of brightly-tinted landscape footage. That one must’ve looked extra dull in the original black-and-white TV broadcast. The Beatles themselves, who not only play the magicians but also passengers on the bus, actually don’t have an abundance of screen time outside of the music sequences. George Harrison, in particular, barely speaks.

The new visual restoration boasts an improved image, though the limitations of the production are still evident. Magical Mystery Tour never looks great, with quite a few shots suffering from soft focus and excessive grain. But for the most part, the Blu-ray presents a very solid 1080i image. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is tremendous, really delivering with the music. McCartney’s bass has plenty of presence, while Starr’s drumming is pleasingly resonant. Beatle fans will love being in the center of this immersive mix. Dialogue and effects are fine, if a tad harsh at times, but the music is what counts here.

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When I first heard that Paul McCartney had recorded an audio commentary track for the film, I was stoked—even though candid discussion of his own work is not his strong suit. He provides a relaxed running commentary, pausing very infrequently and delivering lots of interesting tidbits of information. Not surprisingly, McCartney occasionally resorts to simply describing what we’re watching. But it’s interesting to hear him justify the project, while also acknowledging that they really were just winging it the entire time.

“The Making of Magical Mystery Tour” runs just under 20 minutes and includes a lot of cool, previously unseen footage. Ringo Starr offers his memories of the production, as do other participants. These include some pretty obscure folks, like Beatles fan club secretaries Sylvia Nightingale and Jeni Crowley, both of whom appeared as passengers. Neil Innes (Ron Nasty of The Rutles) turns up to talk about his Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and their performance in the film. “Meet the Supporting Cast” is an 11-minute piece that takes a closer look at some of the less familiar actors. Who knew that Jessie Robins, the actress who plays Ringo’s aunt and love interest of Mr. Bloodvessel (Ivor Cutler), was a capable jazz drummer? We not only see a brief clip of her playing, but also Starr’s newly recorded (and pleasantly surprised) reaction.

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Alternate “videos” for “The Fool on the Hill,” “Blue Jay Way,” and “Your Mother Should Know” are presented using only previously unseen footage. There’s also a Top of the Pops promo clip for “Hello Goodbye” that includes black-and-white footage of the Beatles working on editing Mystery Tour. Three deleted scenes are listed under the special features menu, including a swimming pool scene directed by John Lennon and a “music video” segment featuring Steve Winwood’s band Traffic. If that weren’t enough, you can access four additional deleted scenes—including a pre-vegetarian McCartney eating fish and chips with the other Beatles—hidden as “Easter eggs” in the main menu page.

Yes, only a Beatle nut would be excited to watch footage of the Fab Four doing something as ordinary as munching on fried fish. But I’m proud to admit that’s exactly what I am, and I know millions of others share the same enthusiasm. Am I a big enough nut to pick up the deluxe box set edition that includes a 60-page book and a repressing of the original double-vinyl soundtrack EP? Probably so, but for now I’m happy to have the standard edition. Magical Mystery Tour on Blu-ray is an essential release for fans of the group.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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