By Sarah Street
To celebrate International Colour Day (21stMarch) I’ve picked a film from the period covered by our project that celebrates colour in no uncertain terms. The Beatles’ film Magical Mystery Tour (1967) is brimming with colour interest as the purest expression of their fascination with experimental visual techniques and counter-cultural expression. After its first broadcast on television on Boxing Day in 1967, a BBC audience report quoted a schoolboy’s verdict as ‘a marvellous programme in black and white – in colour it would be indescribable!’ Although shot in colour, Magical Mystery Tour was indeed broadcast in black and white which may have contributed to its controversial reception as a film that to some viewers prized experimentation over narrative comprehension. What were the Beatles doing, many asked, although for other viewers its anarchic, spontaneous and psychedelic style perfectly captured the mid-1960s revolution in music, pop art and film. Paul McCartney liked to experiment by re-winding Super-8 footage, and Ringo Starr collected cameras and filters (BBC Arena/Apple, 2012). These passions were incorporated into Magical Mystery Tour along with multi-coloured fashions, surreal locations and a series of bizarre scenarios as the yellow bus with the iconic ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ rainbow-lettered logo made its apparently haphazard journey from London to Cornwall.
One of the pleasures of watching Magical Mystery Tour is the sheer number of scenes that are of chromatic interest, including Paul’s multi-coloured tank top, the red magician costumes worn by the Beatles when they appear in a ‘secret place’ that looks like a laboratory, and the orange suit worn by George, sitting in Lotus position and playing an imaginary keyboard to the sound of his song ‘Blue Jay Way’. This is accompanied by multiple kaleidoscopic, prismatic imagery, double-exposures and superimpositions that function similarly to an avant-garde film-within-a-film.
The sequence I want to highlight comes however earlier in Magical Mystery Tour and is probably the most dramatic colour visual effect to be presented. Having worked on tinted and toned silent films extensively in my last project, I am always interested in examples of techniques associated with that era being applied in later decades and contexts. One such sequence is used for ‘Flying’, an instrumental piece unusually composed by all four members of the group using an electro-mechanical, polyphonic tape replay keyboard known as the Mellotron. Here is the extract:
As the bus proceeds on its westward journey the tour guide says the view to the left is ‘not very inspiring’ but on the right we see a completely different vista. This is a succession of images of a terrain that resembles a lunar landscape, each image coloured differently so that it looks strange, as if the bus has been transported into another universe. According to Paul McCartney and other sources, the aerial footage originated in outtakes from Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964) acquired by the producer Denis O’Dell who at that time headed Apple Films (Neaverson, 1997: 65). The outtakes had been shot in Iceland in black and white, but they were subsequently laboratory-tinted for the sequence in Magical Mystery Tour. These images, beginning with the ‘uninspiring view’ from the bus, contrast with the deeply saturated colours which follow:
The sequence can be seen as the perfect expression of the Beatles’ involvement with hippy counter-culture, LSD and a desire for creative freedom they were able to articulate in Magical Mystery Tour. As Bob Neaverson notes, they were influenced by ‘the current climate of cross-fertilization and synergy which was taking place in pop art culture on a vast scale’, as represented by artists including Peter Blake, Richard Hamilton and Andy Warhol (1997: 49-50). These rich, intermedial influences are present in Magical Mystery Tour, particularly its assertive use of colour. While the film’s radical form was controversial, it also marks the film as significant in the history of the pop musical. It also drew on an eclectic number of filmic and artistic styles including surrealism and Dada, improvised documentary, satire and the fantasy film (Neaverson, 1997: 59-60). The ‘Flying’ sequence, with its heightened colour shots presented after the ‘not very inspiring’, ordinary view, links directly to the altered states associated with drug culture of the period. As Neaverson comments, the sequence, ‘with its colour-filtered cloud images, closely resembles a simulated “trip”’ (1997: 65). Yet one can also see in these images, with their privileging of colour over conventional representation, as a ‘liberation of colour’ as evident in films such as Red Desert (Antonioni, 1964) and Blue (Derek Jarman, 1993). The successive images of the landscape in different colours disrupts prior associations between colour and mood, colour and affect. From this perspective they indeed ‘Fly’ with the accompanying instrumental into the undulated forms of deeply saturated shapes. As Coates observes of colour’s attractiveness for modernists: ‘Difference goes beyond the status of an exoticism used to dislodge the familiar…Instead, the difference acquires validity in its own terms. In other words: colour as implicit polemic modulates into colour as a source of reverie, fantasy’ (2010: 5). That this can be achieved quite apart from the association with drug culture that has provided the dominant reading of the sequence is suggestive of colour’s multivalent possibilities. The different-coloured shapes also expand the sequence’s notion of time, as movement-images capable of the multiple temporalities and superimposed durées as appreciated by Deleuze. On International Colour Day, Magical Mystery Tour is indeed an inspired flight of fancy and a celebration of chromatic depth, diversity and possibility.
BBC Arena/Apple Films Ltd., ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ documentary, 2012.
Peter Coates, Cinema and Colour: The Saturated Image (London: British Film Institute/Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).
Bob Neaverson, The Beatles Movies (London: Cassell, 1997).