Can the Beatles Really Do No Wrong?

The Beatles: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr. Directed by Richard Lester (A Hard Day's Night, Help!), The Beatles (Magical Mystery Tour). Aspect ratios: 4:3 pan&scan (A Hard Day's Night, Help!); 4:3 (Magical Mystery Tour). Dolby Digital Stereo. 90 minutes, 90 minutes, 50 minutes. 1964, 1965, 1967. MPI DVD 7082, 7081, 1538. Not rated. $24.95 each.

Almost 30 years after their demise, the Beatles remain above the law, inviolate creators of an art beyond criticism and beyond redefinition. They are beyond even the kind of reappraisal that is the cultural lifeblood of other (lesser?) talents. Musically, visually, literally, the Beatles are untouchable, and the only criticism that can ever stick to them now is that whatever the latest reissue/repackage/restoration might be, it just isn't as good as it should be. Certainly that's the case with the Fabs' first three (of a potential five) DVD releases.

Sourced from the restorations created for the American Movie Classics cable channel in 1996, A Hard Day's Night and Help! balance their undeniably peerless visual content with the same kind of irritating, corner-cutting soundtracks that have marred almost every other reissue of the films---namely, the substitution of a stereo mix for the original mono, and the omission, therefore, of those little sonic oddities for which true Beatlefans live: the sound of an amp falling over during "If I Fell" in A Hard Day's Night, the exclusive mix of the title track from Help!

Such absences, of course, will scarcely mar anyone else's enjoyment of either movie, both of which remain the same mayhem-packed romps through the outer limits of mid-'60s zaniness that we've always remembered them to be. But it does mean that the definitive home video release is still in the future, and that this set of offerings is just a good-looking stopgap.

Magical Mystery Tour, on the other hand, falls down in almost every category, and doesn't even match up to the old late-'80s video (from which it appears to have been mastered). Jerky at the best of times, the picture itself continually fades to fogginess. The colors are washed out, the full-frame image looks cropped, the soundtrack sounds muffled and hissy, and they didn't even use a clean print---as the once-dreamy but now flecked and grainy "Blue Jay Way" sequence makes painfully apparent. Arguably the most controversial move---and movie---the Beatles ever made, Tour is a 50-minute psychedelic smorgasbord of action, sound, and vision, but precious little plot. Magical Mystery Tour can be enjoyed only if action, sound, and visuals are tweaked to the max---this incarnation isn't even an attempt to do that.

Unfortunately, the bonus material doesn't begin to compensate for the shortcomings in those basic elements. In common with A Hard Day's Night and Help!, Magical Mystery Tour is accompanied by a couple of period newsreels, but that's all it has. Compare that with the generous serving of extras that arrives with its shelfmates---theatrical trailers, behind-the-scenes footage, and, in the case of Help!, the full 11-minute Peter Sellers/Richard Lester silent short Running Jumping Standing Still, which introduced the Beatles to director Lester in the first place. Indeed, of the three movies, Help! is so far ahead in terms of value (regardless of its musical shortcomings) that the other two leave you feeling distinctly cheated---and that is still being generous to MMT.

If you're simply browsing for an old favorite to pick up, Help! is worth owning, A Hard Day's Night is good for a rental, and Magical Mystery Tour . . . yeah, well. But if you're a diehard fan who's going to buy all three regardless of what you see or hear anywhere else, don't be surprised in a few years' time when you find yourself buying them all over again. They're good . . . but they're not as good as they should be.