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Waaaaay back in the 1980s, when I got my first home VCR (a technological marvel that seemed like the height of space age tech at the time), the first two tapes I rented at the nearby Wherehouse on University featured the Beatles: Get Back and Magical Mystery Tour.

PBS will screen a documentary unfolding the story behind the controversial and surreal Mystery Tour film, featuring new interviews with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, on Friday, December 14 at 9 p.m., followed by a remastered print of the film itself.

In August 1967, in the wake of their Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album, the Beatles made a film. It was seen in the U.K. by a huge audience, at 8.35 p.m. on BBC One on Britain's Boxing Day...and all hell broke loose.

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Magical Mystery Tour was chock-full of thinly veiled references to psychedelia, anarchy and fantasy, all in the setting of a traditional British sightseeing bus outing to the seaside. This was a far cry from the innocent loveable mop-top japery of Help! and A Hard Day's Night.

Middle Britain had tuned in, but was a long way from turning on and dropping out. From all reports, the nation was baffled and outraged by the film's unexpected and uncompromising surreal, non-linear narrative. Paul McCartney appeared on The Frost Programme on rival ITV the day after transmission. He was called upon to account for himself and the rest of the group.

Could it be that a pearl was cast before swine and then thrown away? To its small band of admirers, it was a masterpiece of surreal British wit and imagination in the tradition of The Goons and Alice in Wonderland.

The film featured six new songs: "Magical Mystery Tour," "The Fool on the Hill," "Flying," "I Am the Walrus," "Blue Jay Way" and "Your Mother Should Know." They've all become classics, but the loose unscripted narrative of the film, very much in the experimental mood of the art of the time, proved too much for the majority of viewers.

Magical Mystery Tour is a surreal take on the British working class tradition of a coach trip to the seaside, featuring an eccentric cast of characters, some played by professional actors. Other passengers included friends, associates and people they'd just invited along for the ride. In September, they set off from London and headed west to Cornwall where most of the film was shot.

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The film was broadcast in black and white at 8:35 p.m. on BBC One on Britain's Boxing Day 1967 to a family audience expecting a frothy entertainment in the style of A Hard Day's Night and Help! It followed a Petula Clark special and preceded a Norman Wisdom feature film.

While the music itself had been rapturously received in the form of a double EP high in the charts, the response to the film from the establishment TV critics and the majority of the 15 million adult viewers was negative to the point of vitriolic in some cases. As a result, the film was never nationally broadcast in the US and had only limited distribution elsewhere.

Some of the musical extracts have become familiar, and though the film did appear briefly on videotape in the 1980s, it has only otherwise been available on bootleg DVD. Forty-five years on, how many of its viewers are still around? And how many of them remember? The chances are that very few under the age of 50 have ever seen it.

"Magical Mystery Tour - is that the cartoon film?" is the most common response to the title. Its life has been lived as an album, albeit a monumental one, not even as the double EP of the original release.

Now with the film fully restored to the highest technical standard with a remixed soundtrack, PBS says it's ready to tell the extraordinary story of Magical Mystery Tour: why it was made, how it was made and the circumstances in which it was made.

In the summer of 1967, The Beatles had the world at their feet. It's impossible to overestimate the effect of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band; that was revolutionary too but everyone loved it. In August, Brian Epstein tragically died, leaving the Beatles not only without a manager, but without their ambassador. They decided to go ahead with the film they'd been planning.

To tell the story, this film calls on those who were there, most notably Paul McCartney, who had the original idea, and Ringo Starr, who is credited as the director of photography. John Lennon and George Harrison are represented through interviews over the years and through their appearances in the film itself and in the copious and fascinating outtakes.

Line producer Gavrik Losey and cameraman Michael Seresin evoke the heady atmosphere of the shoot, along with Jeni Crowley and Sylvia Nightingale who, as teenagers, reported from the coach for the Beatles' Fan Club magazine. Paul Fox, then controller of BBC One, recalls making the deal with the Beatles for the film. Also sharing their reminiscences are Peter Fonda, Paul Gambaccini, Terry Gilliam, Neil Innes, Paul Merton, Barry Miles, Annie Nightingale and Martin Scorsese.

Finally, this is a chance for the film's admirers to have their say; its detractors have been given plenty of opportunities to have theirs. It provides a chance to evoke 1967 as it was - post-war Britain as much as the summer of love, when a new set of artists with The Beatles at the helm came up with an alchemy that turned the ordinary and the commonplace into the magical and mysterious.

Magical Mystery Tour Revisited was filmed and directed by Francis Hanly; Jonathan Clyde is producer; Anthony Wall is executive producer for BBC; and Jeff Jones is executive producer for Apple. For Great Performances, Bill O'Donnell is series producer, and David Horn is executive producer.


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Comments

Colonna Dec. 6, 2012 @ 3:51 a.m.

"Magical Mystery Tour" did have an official DVD release - wayyy back in 1997:

http://www.amazon.com/The-Beatles-Magical-Mystery-Tour/dp/6304708521

About six months ago, this DVD had fantastically high prices - $100-$150 range at best. Since the announcement of the newly remastered DVD, you can get a copy for a bag of chips.

Paul's widely quoted quote about the film:

"Was the film really all that bad compared to the rest of Christmas TV? You could hardly call the Queen's speech a gasser. We could put on a moptop show, but we really don't like that sort of entertainment anymore. We could have sung carols and done a first-class Christmassy show starring The Beatles with lots of phoney tinsel like everyone else.

"It would have been the easiest thing in the world, but we wanted to do something different. So maybe we boobed... maybe we didn't. We don't say it was a good film. It was our first attempt. If we goofed, then we goofed. It was a challenge and it didn't come off. We'll know better next time."

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