Nothing is Real: The Beatles ‘Yellow Submarine’

Yellow Submarine, the movie, is a great, great film for children and adults, and, in its own way, is as good a Beatles movie as A Hard Day’s Night.

Released in November of 1968, the same month that The White Album came out, Yellow Submarine was produced with little involvement by the Beatles themselves. It was, in fact, at least at first, little more than an attempt to cash in on the Beatles’ success by others. Not a great recipe for success. But, simply by virtue of their, admittedly inspired, extrapolation of words and images from the Beatles songbook, its producers managed to create a terrific film.

Yellow Submarine is the story of Pepperland, a city deep beneath the sea, and its invasion and subjugation by the evil Blue Meanies; the journey in a yellow submarine of Old Fred, a retired mariner and cellist, to Liverpool to look for help; the enlistment of John, Paul, George, and Ringo; the wild and dangerous return trip through the Sea of Monsters, the Sea of Time, and the Sea of Holes; the rousing of the sleeping Pepperites to battle, and the final triumph of Love over Evil.

But, it is quite a bit more than an animated movie. A setting of 15 Beatles songs, the movie is perhaps the first and only “animated music video album”. (I can’t think of another such.) You could call it the first animated rock opera.

It is also a stunning visual work, combining the efforts of a team of talented illustrators lead by graphic designer Heinz Edelman (who passed away earlier this year). The trailer provides a nice anthology of the various visual styles and graphic inventions employed throughout the movie.

It features, in addition to the Beatles’ music, a wonderful film score by “the fifth Beatle”, producer George Martin. The suite he composed and rerecorded for the Yellow Submarine album, is some of the most under-rated film music I can think of, easily on a par, for melody and evocation, with the work of Ennio Morricone.

The movie is a brilliant aggregation and re-imagining of the Beatles music. The Disney classic Fantasia reveals similar imaginative exuberance, where storytelling follows directly from musical elements.

From the Beatles’ doppelgangers, the four members of Pepperland’s house combo — Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — (whose clothing comes straight off the cover of the Sergeant Pepper album), to virtuoso set pieces like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” with its psychedelic coloration, the movie quotes from the Beatles words and music at every turn.

Characters like Max, the Chief Blue Meanie’s hapless assistant, and Jeremy Hillary Boob (the “Nowhere Man”), are as fully realized, funny, and memorable as any cartoon creature you’d meet walking the streets of Disney World. (My cats, you won’t be surprised to learn, are named Max and Jeremy.)

The movie’s message, though hardly original, is simple — the power of music and love to defeat the blues and to tame our harsher impulses. It’s a sentiment perfectly summed in the anthemic “All You Need Is Love”.

And it’s funny. The Beatles characters (not voiced by the boys themselves) make terrible jokes throughout, the kind they made in real life in countless press conferences. Visual puns and eye candy abound.

When a dreaded Blue Mean called an Apple Bonker confronts a disguised Ringo, he says, “Are you bluish? You don’t look bluish.”

Jeremy Boob’s patois is an endless string of punning rhyme. And the aforementioned Max, who can’t please his boss by saying “no”, because he’s a “yes man”, or by saying “yes”, because the word is too life-affirming, can only appease the Chief Blue Meanie with the middle-ground, “Guy Lambardo?” (one of my girl’s favorite lines).

The genesis of Yellow Submarine was business. The Beatle’s first foray into the world of animation was their abysmal Saturday morning TV show (the only Beatles project I ever truly hated), a product of King Features. Beatles manager Brian Epstein negotiated the movie deal in order to satisfy remaining contractual obligations. The Beatles themselves had little interest in the movie, and other than John providing some of the weirder ideas and visual jokes to be found in the Sea of Monsters section, and a brief appearance by the band in the flesh at the end of the movie, the only contribution the group made was four songs (which were actually outtakes from unrelated recording sessions).

The script went through numerous revisions and rejections by Epstein, until the engagement of Eric Segal, of subsequent Love Story fame, who managed to craft a script that everyone could agree upon.

Its premier at Piccadilly Square in November of 1968, which caused a near-riot, is often seen as the last expression of “Beatlemania”. The movie did not fare well, however, in England. Marketed to children, it bombed. Parents balked when they saw hippies lining up to buy tickets.

The American release was far more successful. Backed by a broad marketing compaign, complete with comic books, paperbacks, and lunchboxes, Yellow Submarine was a huge hit, outsold by only The Sound of Music that holiday season.

Even the Beatles themselves came to like it. George Harrison called it “a classic”.

Then, sadly, the movie fell off the map. I remember seeing it on TV in 1970, then losing track of it entirely until I bought a used VHS in the late 80’s. I played it for my 4 year old daughter and it’s been an annual event for my daughters ever since, just as the annual TV broadcast of The Wizard of Oz was for me when I was growing up.

In 1999, Yellow Submarine was re-released on DVD, with several deleted scenes reinstated, including “Hey, Bulldog”. (I’d always wondered why the song was on the album, but not in the movie, until I saw its silly film treatment, both visually and thematically inferior to the rest of the movie.) It remains generally available, and the recent re-mastered release of the Beatles’ entire oeuvre has been accompanied by a flood of Yellow Submarine memorabilia.

The soundtrack was also re-released in 1999, including all 15 songs from the movie, but, dismayingly, excluding the George Martin score (happily, it’s the original album included in the new re-mastered version released in September).

In September, Disney announced plans to remake Yellow Submarine in time for the 2012 London Olympics. Director Robert Zemeckis, who made the Back to the Future movies, will employ — I’m disheartened to learn — the same motion capture effects he used in Polar Express and the upcoming remake of A Christmas Carol.

I love animation. In most cases, I dislike computer-generated animation, when it is used to emulate reality. Miracles like the Lord of the Rings movies are the exception. Polar Express seemed to me the worst of both worlds, a bastardization of the artform. Of course, I’ll have to go see the new Yellow Submarine, but I have little hope it will come even close to the original in visual freshness and achievement, humor, and emotional purity.

On the original album cover beneath the words, “Yellow Submarine”, are the words, “Nothing Is Real”. The Yellow Submarine exists. It’s not a mirage, or a mind game. Someone, inspired by the Beatles, built the Yellow Submarine, and it exits to this day.