Bonfire Of The Vanity Projects Case File #16: Give My Regards To Broad Street and Magical Mystery Tour
Imagine, for a moment, that you are Paul McCartney. Everywhere you go you create a frenzy of excitement and exhilaration. If you choose to escape your coterie of handlers and flunkies and head down to the local Starbucks for a latte, the barista who serves you will probably never forget the minute and a half she was blessed to spend in your presence. She might forget birthdays and anniversaries and the names and genders of her illegitimate children (this is one debauched, forgetful barista we’re talking about), but she’ll never, and I mean never forget the time she served coffee to the great Paul McCartney.
The excitement you cause isn’t limited to encounters with anonymous service employees. Even movie stars and other rock stars are overwhelmed to be in your presence for even a little while. The world is one big green light for you. People find you endlessly fascinating. Everything you do is touched by some of that old Beatles magic. People write books about you. Lots and lots of books. Books about you and your former bandmates practically constitute a literary subgenre. In fact, just about every facet of your existence has been chronicled for a curious public.
Within that context, it almost constitutes an achievement to make a movie about a fictionalized version of yourself and your life that is utterly devoid of energy, excitement, momentum, or any element that might possibly interest anyone, a half-hearted shrug of a movie seemingly designed to test the affections and patience of your fans more than anything else. Yet that’s just what Paul McCartney did with 1984’s Give My Regards To Broad Street, a film of raging meaninglessness and staggering, almost inconceivable tedium.
Part of what makes Give My Regards To Broad Street such a punishingly somnolent endeavor is that nobody in it seems remotely excited to be in Paul McCartney’s presence. Everywhere he goes, McCartney is greeted with nothing but bored professionalism he returns in kind. McCartney’s life, as “dramatized” here, is a tedious checklist of obligations he performs dutifully and with little passion or enthusiasm. One of the most charismatic figures in rock history proves a charisma-free leading man.
Give My Regards To Broad Street opens with McCartney being chauffeured through a traffic jam in a torrential downpour, scribbling lyrics to his latest mediocrity while “Good Day Sunshine” on the radio reminds him and the audience of McCartney’s golden past (as if anyone could possibly forget, let alone the audience for Give My Regards To Broad Street). From the outset, McCartney seems bored. If A Hard Day’s Night captures the livewire electricity of being young, famous, beautiful, and positively vibrating with energy and youthful sexuality, Give My Regards To Broad Street unintentionally conveys what it’s like to be rich, middle-aged, bored, and boring.
McCartney stares vacantly into the grim, gray distance where suddenly clouds give way to a radiant sun. He speeds behind the wheel of a souped-up ride while getting his daily schedule from his in-car computer. It reads:
9:30 a.m.: Meeting at office
10:30 a.m.: Recording studio
12:30 p.m.: Film studio
4:00 p.m.: Rehearsal
5:30 p.m.: Interview, followed by a short break
Pretty exciting, huh? Between the meetings and rehearsals and short breaks it’s almost more visceral excitement than even a world-famous rock star can handle. Don’t worry: McCartney’s day is nowhere near as exciting as that checklist of adrenaline-pumping thrills suggests, even after he learns from business partner Bryan Brown that the master tapes of his latest album have mysteriously gone missing, along with the ex-con with whom McCartney had the solid judgment to entrust them.
This is the catalyst that kicks what passes for a plot into action. McCartney learns that unless the master tapes are found by midnight, his record company will be taken over by an evil businessman (we know he’s evil because he looks kind of creepy) and all will be lost. But it’s a testament to the film’s low stakes and maddening lack of urgency that McCartney never seems particularly worried about the situation, even though his livelihood is ostensibly at stake.
In the recording studio, McCartney is reunited with Ringo Starr. This should be a moment of incredible excitement. McCartney and Starr, together again! The rhythm section of the greatest group in history reunited! Instead, it’s as painfully anticlimactic as everything else in the film. In a bored monotone, McCartney tells Starr that the tapes have gone missing and Starr unwittingly underlines how little is at stake when he tells his fellow ex-Beatle of the seemingly lost tracks, “I don’t fancy recording them again.” Of course! If the tapes aren’t found, they can simply re-record them. Judging by the film, it’s not as if McCartney or Starr have anything better to do with their time. But no, we learn that, because of the sinister businessman’s conniving, unless the tapes are found in time, “all is lost” and “the consequences will all be very serious.”
In the studio, McCartney sleepwalks his way through a medley of “Yesterday” and “Here, There And Everywhere” that gives the audience what they want in the blandest, most predictable manner imaginable. The humor of the scene comes from McCartney telling Starr to accompany him with brushes and Starr only finding brushes to play with after they’re no longer needed. It’s not remotely funny, but it is indicative of the film’s mild-gag-every-half-hour comic sensibility.
McCartney performs a lot of new material in Give My Regards To Broad Street: The soundtrack album was a hit even as the glorified infomercial of a film it never comes close to justifying deservedly flopped with critics and audiences alike. But the juxtaposition of classic Beatles songs (albeit with wimpy new arrangements by McCartney) and mid-period McCartney solo material does the new stuff no favors. Instead, it highlights how slick and empty McCartney’s later efforts sound when placed alongside “For No One” or “Eleanor Rigby.”
Give My Regards To Broad Street would be a lot easier to accept if it were presented as a music-video compilation loosely tied together with linking segments. But feature films create expectations this quintessential vanity project never comes close to meeting. In the film’s trippiest music-video sequence, McCartney and his band perform “Silly Love Songs” in costumes and make-up that suggests what might happen if Smurfs cross-pollinated with the cast of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats on a set seemingly borrowed from a stage production of Metropolis. Because Give My Regards To Broad Street is a film from 1984, the “Silly Love Songs” production number also features moonwalking and pop-locking from a back-up dancer, which at least breaks up the tedium of watching an ex-Beatle perform while sporting a baby-blue mullet/pompadour combination.
A Hard Day’s Night casts a long shadow over Give My Regards To Broad Street, which intermittently feels like that film’s lobotomized, terminally bland quasi-sequel. The scenes of The Beatles bantering with the press in A Hard Day’s Night remain a gold standard of rakish rock ’n’ roll wit. So when McCartney sits down with a BBC interviewer in Give My Regards To Broad Street, it inspires foolish hope that he might have somehow found his errant funny bone and finally written some clever dialogue. Instead, we are treated to the following exchange, which is nowhere near as exciting as it reads on paper:
BBC Interviewer: How’s the new record coming along?
McCartney: We finished mixing it last week and it sounds good.
BBC Interviewer: So it’s due for an imminent release?
McCartney: Yeah, it shouldn’t be long now.
In between clumsily shoehorned performances and elaborate fantasy sequences featuring the cast (which includes McCartney’s wife/keyboardist/back-up singer Linda McCartney in the role of Linda McCartney and Ringo Starr’s wife Barbara Bach as Starr’s love interest) in old-timey dress-up wear, McCartney indifferently tries to figure out the missing tapes’ whereabouts in what can only be dubbed “Inspector McCartney And The Case Of The Painfully Arbitrary Plot Point.” Did McCartney’s friend and employee go over to the dark side and sell the tape to a nefarious, ogre-sized bootlegger? Will McCartney retrieve the tape in time? More pointedly, who could possibly be expected to care, especially when McCartney so obviously doesn’t? The least riveting mystery in the history of film receives an appropriately pointless anti-climax when it turns out that McCartney’s ex-con pal didn’t sell the tapes after all. No, he accidentally locked himself in a shed and left the tapes on a nearby bench.
McCartney and the embarrassed bloke share a chuckle before a final revelation renders an already featherweight concoction somehow even more insultingly inconsequential. The whole film was a dream, a pointless, pointless dream McCartney had while napping in the backseat during the traffic jam that opened the film. There’s an unfortunately appropriate symmetry to the scene and its relationship with the rest of the film. McCartney seems like he’s been sleepwalking his way through a dull vanity project for a good reason: His character literally has been asleep the whole time. In every conceivable way, Give My Regards To Broad Street is a drowsy, drizzly afternoon nap of a movie from a rock icon with nothing left to prove and, regrettably, nothing left to say.
Give My Regards To Broad Street wasn’t McCartney’s first undernourished idea for a film project. Post Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, McCartney had the fuzzy notion that if he and the other Beatles were to go on a bus trip with a series of eccentric characters, something magical would happen. He was so undeservedly confident about this hunch that he didn’t even feel the need to write a screenplay for the project. Instead, the group simply cobbled together a rough outline of what it wanted to do, then improvised the rest with the cast and crew. Given the intense adulation The Beatles received—by the time Magical Mystery Tour’s soundtrack album saw release in late 1967, even Jesus grudgingly conceded that the group was both bigger and better than him—they could be forgiven for imagining that anything they collectively came up with would captivate a wide audience. That was not to be the case: The band’s 52-minute exercise in free-form motherfuckery received such a toxic response in Great Britain when it aired the day after Christmas in 1967 that it wasn’t released in the U.S. until 1974 and wasn’t seen on American television until the ’80s.
Magical Mystery Tour follows a bus tour that unites The Beatles with a coterie of kooky characters, including a camera-toting little person and a man with a Hitler mustache, as well as Ringo Starr’s corpulent aunt (Jessie Robbins), a guilelessly enthusiastic tour guide (Derek Royle), a sexy hostess (Mandy Weet), and the tour’s creepy conductor (Ivor Cutler). The wiggy experiment is tied together less by a conventional plot than a freewheeling, anything-goes sensibility that delights in random silliness, crude mugging, and weirdness for its own sake. At best, Magical Mystery Tour is the loose, loopy, and bravely improvisatory cinematic equivalent of jazz, a giddy lark from charismatic young men literally making it all up as they went along. At worst, the film is an unwieldy fusion of transcendent music and amateurish shenanigans that are better suited to the McCartney home movies that inspired the project than in a proper Beatles film.
Much of the film is devoted to proto-music-video-style sequences for songs from the soundtrack. “Fool On The Hill,” for example, is just barely dramatized by having McCartney jump around and frolic and sometimes just stare plaintively into the distance while the song plays. In his gorgeous youth, McCartney was able to command the camera with just his boyish face, but it’d be nice if the filmmakers had figured out something more ambitious for the sequence than just Paul being Paul.
Magical Mystery Tour aspires to the impish surrealism of The Goon Show—as in an endless sequence where the bus patrons interact with a military man who unleashes a never-ending stream of incomprehensible but urgently delivered gibberish at a machine-gun clip before miming a bullfight—but the film’s goofiness only intermittently translates into actual comedy. Compared to the sleep-inducing blandness of Give My Regards To Broad Street, however, Magical Mystery Tour’s high spirits feel energizing and audacious. There are more gags, ideas, and energy in just about any five-minute stretch of Magical Mystery Tour than there are in the whole of Broad Street. Magical Mystery Tour boasts the vitality of youth where Broad Street feels old and irrelevant.
While Magical Mystery Tour meanders nowhere much in particular, its music saves it. Where else are you going to see The Beatles—who had stopped performing live at that point—perform “I Am The Walrus”? The “I Am The Walrus” sequence feels more like a primitive music video than a proper production number, but music that good excuses an awful lot of self-indulgence, and heaven knows Magical Mystery Tour has a lot of self-indulgence to excuse.
Magical Mystery Tour is essentially a head film, a psychedelic collection of blackout skits and vaudevillian absurdity rooted in dream logic. It’s easier to appreciate if you don’t expect it to make sense and simply give in to the droning, hypnotic weirdness of George Harrison performing “Blue Jay Way” as if inside his own dream.
The strangeness isn’t limited to The Beatles themselves. Late in the film, The Beatles’ pals in Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band perform “Death Cab For Cutie” in a performance that splits the difference between Elvis Presley and Andy Kaufman alter-ego Tony Clifton. (Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s Neil Innes, incidentally, would go on to form the nucleus of Beatles parody band The Rutles alongside Monty Python’s Eric Idle.)
Time has been kind to Magical Mystery Tour. It’s easy to see why audiences expecting another A Hard Day’s Night or Help! from the super-geniuses who had just given the world a pretty nifty album called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band might see Magical Mystery Tour as an amateurish, self-indulgent vanity project. But today, the film stands as an inspired lark, a brave attempt to hook into the spirit of the times and the innovations of the French and British New Waves, as well as the pioneering work of experimental filmmakers, and render them palatable to a mainstream audience.
Magical Mystery Tour anticipates both MTV’s early days, when it seemed like anything was possible and the cost of entry was exhilaratingly low, and the gleeful absurdism of Monty Python, which would go on to work extensively with Harrison and his Handmade Films. As an attempt to freestyle a film out of nothing but some fuzzy, stoned ideas, Magical Mystery Tour gets far on audacity alone, but it has more going for it than an ingratiating willingness to venture boldly into unexplored territory without a map or any real idea what it’s doing. Magical Mystery Tour takes too many chances, which is eminently preferable to Give My Regards To Broad Street, which doesn’t take any chances at all.
Give My Regards To Broad Street: Failure, Fiasco, Or Secret Success? Failure
Magical Mystery Tour: Failure, Fiasco, Or Secret Success? Secret Success