[15 June 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The Beatles didn’t want to make another movie. Help! had not been a good experience, and the introduction of drugs and studio experimentation to their career had seen them shun the main media limelight for more ‘esoteric’ pursuits. Still, they were contractually bound to the studio for one more film and there were rumblings about an animated take on the Revolver tune “Yellow Submarine.” Guaranteeing they’d be required to deliver nothing more than a cameo, the lads signed up, filmed their live action sequences, and then headed off to India…and infamy. Back in the UK, actors were hired to mimic the Fab Four’s famous voices while a crew of screenwriters attempted to turn the simply song into a solid story.
Thus, the pinnacle of motion picture pop art was born. Viewed today, it’s a silly, satisfying psychedelic piffle which thrives because of its sly subtext. At the time, it was a provocative piece of self-promotion, a cartoon classic on par with Fantasia (and, later, Italy’s Allegro Non Troppo). Trying to balance a reaction will depend solely on where you stand, Greatest Rock Combo of the 20th Century-wise. If you still adore John, Paul, George, and Ringo, assigning everything they’ve ever done to the column of “genius,” you’ll probably be a bit disappointed. The boys are present, if not wholly accounted for. Instead, if you can distance yourself from the band’s output and see the movie for what it is, you’ll come away impressed.
The narrative centers on Old Fred, a sailor sent out into the universe to help the population of Pepperland. Apparently, the neighboring Blue Meanies are tired of the territory’s policy of peace and love and want to ruin their communal good time. So they encase the popular Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in a sound-proof bubble, and immobilize the citizenry with various unusual weapons. Traveling through the many seas in this surreal ocean in the title ship, Fred stumbles upon the Beatles, who agree to travel to Pepperland and help. Along the way, Ringo gets lost, time speeds forward and backward, and the gang runs into a little “nowhere man” by the name of Jeremy Hillary Boob, PhD. Eventually, they arrive and defeat the Meanies with the gift of song.
Perched on the precipice with Peter Max and the rest of the pop art movement, Yellow Submarine is a feast for the eyes. It’s an acid head trip without the brain damage, a detour into a part of the ‘60s which believed that sight and sound could cure the world. With its mixture of memorable characters and recognizable faces, the film functions as a companion piece to the music the band was making at the time. From the flapper splash of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” to the newsreel nuances of “It’s Only a Northern Song,” Submarine shimmers. Even early entries in the Beatles catalog, like “Eleanor Rigby,” rewrite the rules of animation while literalizing the lyrics present.
Sometimes, the combination scores a significant hit. When the group finally succeeds in freeing Pepperland, the gorgeous George Harrison tune “It’s All Too Much” turns the celebration into a cerebral explosion. Color and patterns percolate while the brilliant multi-track production produces the desired dizzying effect. Character design and concept may be basic and slightly caricaturist, but the end result revitalizes our inner spirit. Indeed, Yellow Submarine is a cartoon for the soul, a significant statement by a band who had very little to do with its making and everything to do with its spirit and vitality.
Indeed, the main artistic forces here match the lads from Liverpool effortlessly. For all the mindscapes created by the band’s latter material, Yellow Submarine interprets them, and then goes a few steps further. Sure, the weird clown/bear known as Jeremy Hillary Boob is a freak show combination of kid vid vitals, but the bizarre baby toy is very effective. Even better at the Blue Meanies, villains with actual bite and a wealth of equally weird weapons at their disposal. From stilted gentleman dropping giant green apples to mobsters who produce handguns from their patent leather shoes, the bad is just as imaginative as the good here.
In fact, both the head Blue Meanie and his ready assassin, a flying fist known as “Glove,” turn what could have been cloying and calculated into a dream of misdirection. There is real menace in these characters, as well as a “nutty enough to do anything” intent which keeps the viewer off their guard. Toward the end, when the Meanies are losing and the chief is chewing the fabricated scenery, we see a real film here. This is not just some pharmaceutical supplement, like a laser light show or hippie dippy redirection of Disney. Like all the fictional films in the Beatles catalog, there’s a desire to avoid the showcase and present real cinema…and real art.
As a result, Yellow Submarine stands as one of the band’s proudest achievements, one in which they had little say or input. This latest Blu-ray, painstakingly reproducing the film in full remastered glory, proves this. The truth, however, is a bit more complicated. Without the Beatles, something like this would probably have never been considered, let along created. The group, more than any other element of the ‘60s (aside from the Vietnam War, perhaps), dictated the decade. Their initial sounds woke up a sleeping society while their stylistic experiments and professional polish allowed many unusual ideas to become part of the mainstream. From drugs to design, the infinity of sound to its place in pop music, the group gave the Peace movement its purpose. While it couldn’t last, it left behind a significant legacy.
Yellow Submarine is part of this amazing mythos. Yes, it’s self-indulgent and scattered, reveling in splash more than story. Sure, the lack of participation by the band means that the movie suffers from voice substitutes. Of course, the script is filled with Goon Show non-sequitors and pre-natal puns: that was The Beatles style. Yet for all these possible problems, for the elements that eventually came together to create a mini-masterpiece, Yellow Submarine endures. Unlike the rest of their cinematic canon, it’s the most and least dated film they ever ‘made.’ As curio from a career about to end, it’s intriguing. As a symbol of what the band meant to culture it created, it’s terrific.