The Beatles Movie That Grabbed Steven Spielberg’s Attention in Film School

After the innovative Revolver (1966) and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), you might have believed The Beatles would keep topping themselves with every project. Then the band released the Magical Mystery Tour TV film on Boxing Day ’67.

Almost immediately, fans began phoning the BBC to say how much they hated what they’d seen. Going by the BBC’s reaction index, Magical Mystery Tour had the worst rating in history (23 out of 100). Critics pounced on the film as well, describing it as “rubbish,” “piffle,” or worse.

With the lack of plot and a considerable dose of psychedelia, The Beatles acknowledged they might have asked too much of its holiday audience. However, the BBC had its share of blame as well — it had shown a color film in black-and-white.

As time went by, Magical Mystery Tour’s reputation recovered, with some comparing the Fab Four’s cinematic effort to the work of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. Paul McCartney has pointed out how the next generation’s leading filmmakers appreciated the work.

Steven Spielberg and others have praised ‘Magical Mystery Tour’

The Beatles shoot surreal comedy film ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ at West Malling Air Station, Kent, 23 September 1967. | Mark and Colleen Hayward/Getty Images

In Anthology, all four Beatles weigh in on the reception of Magical Mystery Tour. To a man, they acknowledge the work has clear flaws. However, they also point out the flaw in the BBC presentation. “We were stupid and they were stupid,” Ringo said.

Ringo also pointed out how the reactions changed once viewers saw it as intended. “It was really [panned] but when people started seeing it in color they realized it was a lot of fun.” Paul said he heard very encouraging feedback from authorities on the subject.

“People like Steven Spielberg have said since, ‘When I was in film school, that was a film we really took notice of,'” Paul said in Anthology. “It was an art film rather than a proper film. […] I defend it on the lines that nowhere else do you see a performance of ‘I Am the Walrus.'”

Paul was being humble in some respects. The video for George Harrison’s “Blue Jay Way” is another great moment in Magical Mystery Tour. And Spielberg wasn’t the only great director to point out the film’s charm.

Martin Scorsese appreciated the looseness of ‘Mystery Tour’

Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr work on the ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ film. | David Redfern/Redferns

In a 2012 PBS documentary on Magical Mystery Tour, Paul and The Beatles got another heavyweight endorsement — this time, from Martin Scorsese. Seeing the big picture of the medium (as usual), Scorsese felt the need to stick up for the film’s freewheeling style.

“Of course, the emphasis on professionalism and polish and politeness has come back now with a vengeance,” Scorsese said in the movie’s defense. “It’s expected. And there’s a tendency to forget that really that’s only one choice, one way of going.”

Indeed, there’s nothing polite or polished about watching John Lennon shovel spaghetti into an overweight woman’s plate. But John had a dream that was similar and Paul told him to write the scene. It may not have turned out like Fellini, but the Fab Four did their best.

Also see: Why Ringo Preferred Playing John Lennon Songs Over Paul McCartney’s in His Beatles Days