The Beatles psychedelic patchwork of seemingly incongruent ideas and visual oddities was released nationally on the BBC on boxing day of 1967 and it caused an immediate small furore, departing radically as it did from many people’s image of the Beatles as clean cut nice young boys as well as straying from any familiar sort of storytelling. It follows the loose story arc of a group of people, including the Beatles themselves, albeit in character, boarding a bus for a mystery tour that takes them around the English countryside and eventually to Cornwall.
It’s quite fun, and the suffusion with their music of the period and the wonderful colours throughout (it’s recently been restored and digitally remastered, which doubtless ‘helps’) makes it very easy to watch and to allow one’s mind to meander as the experimental film unabashedly progresses. The Red Dragon’s main complaint with the film is that it’s way too short!
In preparation for the film, the whole of the storyboarding procedure comprised of a single pie chart, with each part of the film occupying one wedge (some parts were idea-less and simply filled in with a smiley face). It’s impossible not to see the imprint of drugs throughout everything, which doubtless had many concerned parents outraged, but there are bad trips in there as well as good ones. Parents had good cause for concern, the Beatles were leaders in the counter revolution not just in the UK but in America too and, by osmosis, many other parts of the world (the spelling of their name is a reference to the ‘beat generation’). This film is a fascinating footnote, not just of the story of the Beatles, but perhaps the story of drugs in rock and roll in general.
At the planning stage their producer Brian Epstein, sometimes referred to as the fifth Beatle, showed a lot of interest and eagerness at getting the project off the ground, perhaps desperate to get his teeth stuck into a new project since the Beatles were on a small hiatus at the time. Whilst the Beatles have maintained their image of experimenting with drugs and coming out afterwards unharmed (though that is debatable), producing some great music and having a pretty good time doing it, Brian Epstein died of a drug overdose before the film was begun. It’s a dark shadow that contrasts vividly with the luminous greens and purples of their Magical Mystery Tour, and one that is often eclipsed by their successful and iconic status, intermingled with acid trips and narcotic inspirations – but there it remains, the other side of the same coin.