The situation is that of a group of people on a British mystery tour in a 1967 coach, focusing mostly on Mr Richard Starkey (Ringo Starr) and his recently widowed Aunt Jessie (Jessie Robins). Other group members on the bus include the tour director, Jolly Jimmy Johnson (Derek Royle); the tour hostess, Miss Wendy Winters (Miranda Forbes, credited as Mandy Weet); the conductor, Buster Bloodvessel (Ivor Cutler); and the other Beatles (John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison).
During the course of the tour, "strange things begin to happen" at the whim of "four or five magicians", four of whom are played by the Beatles themselves and the fifth by the band's long-time road manager Mal Evans.
During the journey, Ringo and his Aunt Jessie argue continually. Aunt Jessie begins to have daydreams of falling in love with Buster Bloodvessel, who displays increasingly eccentric and disturbing behaviour. The tour involves several strange activities, such as an impromptu race in which each of the passengers employs a different mode of transportation (some run, a few jump into cars, a group of people have a long bike they pedal, while Ringo ends up beating them all with the bus). In one scene, the tour group walk through what appears to be a British Army recruitment office and are greeted by the army drill sergeant (Victor Spinetti). (McCartney appears briefly as "Major McCartney", on whose desk rests a sign reading "I you WAS".) The sergeant, shouting incomprehensibly, appears to instruct the assembled onlookers on how to attack a stuffed cow.
The tour group also crawl into a tiny tent in a field, inside which is a projection theatre. A scene in a restaurant shows a waiter (played by Lennon) repeatedly shovelling spaghetti onto the table in front of Aunt Jessie, while arriving guests step out from a lift and walk across the dining tables. The film continues with the tour's male passengers watching a strip show (Jan Carson of the Raymond Revuebar). The film ends with the Beatles dressed in white tuxedos, highlighting a glamorous old-style dance crowd scene, accompanied by the song "Your Mother Should Know".
The film is interspersed with musical interludes, which include the Beatles performing "I Am the Walrus" wearing animal masks, Harrison singing "Blue Jay Way" while waiting on Blue Jay Way Road, and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band performing Vivian Stanshall and Neil Innes' "Death Cab For Cutie" sung by Stanshall.
The movie was an attempt to combine the free-wheeling fun of Ken Kesey's 1964 cross-country American bus tour aboard "Further" with the Merry Pranksters, and the then-popular charabanc trips from Liverpool to see the Blackpool Lights. In The Beatles Anthology, Lennon states that "if stage shows were to be out, we wanted something to replace them. Television was the obvious answer." Most of the band members have said that the initial idea was McCartney’s, although he stated, "I’m not sure whose idea Magical Mystery Tour was. It could have been mine, but I’m not sure whether I want to take the blame for it! We were all in on it – but a lot of the material at that time could have been my idea." Prior to the movie, McCartney had been creating home movies and this was a source of inspiration for Magical Mystery Tour.
The film was unscripted and shooting proceeded on the basis of a mostly handwritten collection of ideas, sketches and situations, which McCartney called the "Scrupt". Magical Mystery Tour was ultimately the shortest of all Beatles films, although almost ten hours of footage was shot over a two-week period. The core of the film was shot between 11 September and 25 September 1967.
The next eleven weeks were mostly spent on editing the film from ten hours to 52 minutes. Scenes that were filmed but not included in the final cut include:A sequence where ice cream, fruit and lollipops were sold to the Beatles and other coach passengers;
Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr each looking through a telescope;
Happy Nat the Rubber Man (Nat Jackley, especially recruited for his 'funny walks', which the Beatles had long been drawn to) chasing women around the Atlantic Hotel's outdoor swimming pool, a sequence which Lennon directed;
Mr Bloodvessel performing I'm Going in a Field; and
The band Traffic performing their song "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush".
Much of Magical Mystery Tour was shot in and around RAF West Malling, a now-decommissioned airfield in Kent. Many of the interior scenes, such as the ballroom sequence for "Your Mother Should Know", were filmed in the disused aircraft hangars. The exteriors, such as the "I Am the Walrus" sequence and the impromptu race, were shot on the runways and taxi aprons. RAF Air Training Corps cadets can be seen marching in some scenes, and during "I Am the Walrus" a RAF Avro Shackleton is seen orbiting the group.
The mystery tour itself was shot throughout the West Country of England, including Devon and Cornwall, although most of the footage was not used in the finished film. The striptease sequence was shot at Paul Raymond's Raymond Revuebar in London's Soho district, and the sequence for "The Fool on the Hill" was shot (in a somewhat clandestine manner) around Nice, in the south of France.
For the psychedelic visual sequence during the song "Flying", production assistant Dennis O'Dell had worked previously on Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, and had secured the outtakes of Kubrick's aerial shots over Greenland, which he had filmed on 35mm black and white stock. Some of the footage in O'Dell's possession was then colorized (tinted) in alternating bold primary colors for Magical Mystery Tour. The result is often compared by fans of both films to one of the final scenes in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, where, using a hand-held 65mm camera, Kubrick filmed aerial scenes in the Hebridean islands, the mountains of northern Scotland, and Monument Valley on color film stock while altering the colors with filters in front of the camera lens, and inserted the footage into a brief section of the "Star-Gate' sequence in 2001. Arguments persist as to whose idea came first, but because both films were made during the same time-frame, there is no real evidence to suggest that one copied the other.
The coach used in the film, a Plaxton-bodied Bedford VAL, carried the registration number URO 913E. The vehicle was new to coach company Fox of Hayes in 1967. The Hard Rock Cafe acquired the coach in 1988, and the vehicle is now completely refurbished. In the race, Starr himself drives the bus around the airfield racetrack. During the filming, an ever greater number of cars followed the colourful, hand-lettered bus hoping to see what its passengers were up to, until a running traffic jam developed. The spectacle ended after Lennon angrily tore the lettering off the sides of the bus.
The script of Magical Mystery Tour was largely improvised. The Beatles gathered together a group of people for the cast and camera crew, and told them to "be on the coach on Monday morning". The film was made up along the way. Starr recalled: "Paul had a great piece of paper – just a blank piece of white paper with a circle on it. The plan was: 'We start here, and we’ve got to do something here …' We filled it in as we went along." Lennon recalled in a later interview, "We knew most of the scenes we wanted to include, but we bent our ideas to fit the people concerned, once we got to know our cast. If somebody wanted to do something we hadn’t planned, they went ahead. If it worked, we kept it in." At one point, Lennon had a dream in which he was a waiter piling spaghetti on a woman’s plate, so the sequence was filmed and included in the movie. Some of the older actors, such as Nat Jackley, were not familiar with productions without a script and were disappointed by the lack of one.
The British public's reaction to the film was scathing. Magical Mystery Tour initially aired in the United Kingdom as a made-for-television film on BBC1. George Martin, the band's producer, explained: "When it came out originally on British television, it was a colour film shown in black and white, because they didn’t have colour on BBC1 in those days. It looked awful and was a disaster." The film was shown in colour on BBC2 a few days later, but there were only about 200,000 colour TV receivers in the UK at the time.
Hunter Davies, the band's official biographer, said that "It was the first time in memory that an artist felt obliged to make a public apology for his work." McCartney later spoke to the press, saying: "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." He also said, "I mean, you couldn’t call the Queen’s speech a gas, either, could you?" With the passage of time, however, McCartney changed his view of the production, saying: "Looking back on it, I thought it was all right. I think we were quite pleased with it." He also noted in The Beatles Anthology DVD that the film features the band's only video performance of "I Am the Walrus".
The film carries a 58% approval rating at the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, based on twelve professional reviews. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe notes the similarity between Magical Mystery Tour and the exploits of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. In 1978 the film was parodied by the Rutles in their Tragical History Tour, "a self-indulgent TV movie about four Oxford history professors on a tour around Rutland tea-shops".
The poor critical reaction to the telecast soured American television networks from acquiring rights to the film, while its one-hour running length made it commercially unviable for theatrical release.
In his Diaries 1969–1979: The Python Years, Michael Palin reveals that the Monty Python team considered showing the film as a curtain-raiser to their 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. They received permission from all four Beatles to view the film, and did so at Apple on 10 January 1975. Although the Pythons were interested, the idea did not go ahead.
The film had its first US presentation in 1968 at the Fillmore East in New York City on Sunday, 11 August, shown at 8 and 10 pm, as part of a fundraiser for the Liberation News Service. However, it was not seen in commercial theatres in the US until 1974, when New Line Cinema acquired the rights for limited theatrical and non-theatrical distribution. It first played on American television in the 1987 as part of a syndicated release.
The critical reception in 1967 had been so poor that no one had properly archived a negative, and later re-release versions had to be copied from poor-quality prints. By the end of the 1980s, MPI, through rights holder Apple Corps, had released the movie on video, and a DVD release followed many years later.
A restored version of the film was broadcast in the UK on BBC Two and BBC HD on 6 October 2012, following an Arena documentary on its making. Both were shown in the United States as part of Great Performances on PBS ten weeks later on 14 December.
On 22 August 2012, Apple Corps (via Apple Films) announced a re-release of the film on DVD and Blu-ray along with a limited theatrical release, remastered with 5.1 surround sound. The DVD/Blu-ray was released on 8 October worldwide, with the exception of North America (9 October). The new release included an audio commentary from McCartney and special features including interviews (from former Beatles and others involved with the project) and never-before-seen footage. Also released is a deluxe edition "collectors box" featuring the film on both DVD and Blu-ray, in addition to a 60-page book, and a reproduction of the original mono UK double 7" vinyl EP.
The 2012 remastered Magical Mystery Tour DVD entered the Billboard Top Music Video chart at number 1 for the week ending 27 October 2012.
The songs in order of their use in the movie, written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney unless otherwise indicated:
- "Magical Mystery Tour"
- "The Fool on the Hill"
- "She Loves You" (played on a fairground organ as part of the general medley of background music during the impromptu race)
- "Flying" (John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Richard Starkey)
- "All My Loving" (orchestrated, as background music, in the style of the "Pas de deux" section from The Nutcracker ballet by Tchaikovsky)
- "I Am the Walrus"
- "Jessie’s Dream" (instrumental piece, not released on any audio recording)
- "Blue Jay Way" (George Harrison)
- "Death Cab for Cutie" performed by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (Vivian Stanshall / Neil Innes)
- "Your Mother Should Know"
- "Magical Mystery Tour" (part, once more)
- "Hello, Goodbye" (part, finale played over end credits)
A comic strip adaptation of the film's plot was drawn by British caricaturist Bob Gibson and printed in the sleeve of the Magical Mystery Tour soundtrack album.
A bus tour of Liverpool, marketed as the Magical Mystery Tour, has operated since 1983. The tour visits places associated with the Beatles, such as childhood homes, Strawberry Field and Penny Lane. The tour was originally operated by a Bedford VAL coach as in the film, but more modern vehicles are now used.