Roll up, America; step right this way. Here comes the Beatles' "Magical Mystery Tour," getting a big night on domestic television, 45 Christmastimes after it first aired in the United Kingdom, on Boxing Day, Dec. 26, 1967.
Newly restored and premiering Friday as part of the PBS series "Great Performances," it has been packaged with an indifferently titled but well-made documentary, "Magical Mystery Tour Revisited," that gives helpful context to a famous, fascinating mess.
Apart from the inability earlier that year of the "Strawberry Fields Forever"/"Penny Lane" single to reach No. 1 in Britain — its way blocked by Engelbert Humperdinck's "Release Me," marvelous to relate — the TV special was the first real Beatles failure. According to a BBC report at the time, most viewers found it "virtually incomprehensible," though dissenting voices are heard in the "Revisited" documentary.
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"It wasn't a brilliant scripted thing that was executed well," says late Beatle George Harrison, seen in the documentary in archival footage. "It was like a little home movie." He reckons it had "a couple of good songs" and "a few funny scenes." It's a fair assessment.
Some planning had to go into it, but clearly they were making most of it up as they went along. For a script, they had a sort of pie chart, each slice representing an episode: "Dreams," "Recruiting," "Marathon," "Stripper and band."
"It was just a smiling face in No. 4," Beatle Paul McCartney recalls. But as it was a "mystery tour," says Neil Innes (who appeared in the film as a member of the Bonzo Dog Band), "you weren't supposed to know where it was going."
The result was an amiable psychedelic stew, suffused with that particular sad-happy nostalgia people in their 20s can feel for their not-yet-remote childhoods and most easily read as a collection of music videos connected by unrelated scenes. It has a device but no plot; the less you try to make of it and just enjoy the ride, on a shot-by-shot basis, the better.
Martin Scorsese, who appears in "Revisited" along with Terry Gilliam, Peter Fonda, Beatles Paul and Ringo Starr and others who remember that Christmas past, treats it as he would a work by Luchino Visconti or Michael Powell. ("It's influenced a lot of the work I've done.")
Paul, who often points out that he was avant-garde avant his bandmates, references Luis Buñuel and "Un Chien Andalou" and, in one of the documentary's best and certainly least expected moments, vocally imitates an Albert Ayler free jazz recording to describe the soundtrack of one of the experimental Super 8 films he had begun to make that year.
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Such action as there is confirms our understanding of Paul as the Cute One, George as the Quiet One, Ringo as the One Who Is Up for Anything and John Lennon as the One Who Is Inclined to Mock. Ringo, as usual, carries the heaviest dramatic load — he makes the trip with his aunt (Jessie Robins), with whom he argues — with the other Fabs emerging into the foreground now and again.
They dress as wizards for a couple of scenes, wear white tuxedos for a production number; John, enacting a dream he'd really had, plays a waiter shoveling mounds of spaghetti. And there is "I Am the Walrus," the film's most seen and arguably its best sequence, with its swaying policemen and animal masks, its long-lens close-ups, lowering clouds and air of fairy tale menace.
These days, every new Beatles documentary is a kind of memento mori, as each successive look back increases the distance between now and then. In one rather lovely edit, a 1960s interview with Paul cuts to a recent one, catching the persistence of his body language through the change in his body.
And yet the band does have a kind of permanent currency: They're the Shakespeares of Pop — age cannot wither them nor custom stale their infinite variety. Their records remain the textbook from which pop still gets written.
'Great Performances: Magical Mystery Tour Revisited'
When: 9 p.m. Friday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)
'Magical Mystery Tour'
When: 10 p.m. Friday