The best thing The Beatles ever did? Well, apart from Tomorrow Never Knows. And that’s without their involvement, aside from a brief appearance at the close of the picture (Wiki has it this was a contractual obligation, while the alternate explanation is that, when they saw what director George Dunning and co were cooking up, they readily approved and agreed to feature in the flesh). Forget Theodore Adorno, this is the ultimate version of the Fab Four as fabrications, distilled into much more appealing incarnations of themselves and voiced with wit and distinction by a quintessential quartet of actors. Yellow Submarine is, obviously, a psychedelic marvel, but more than that, what really makes it is the marriage of knowing (and surrealist) humour with a simple but effective theme (the healing power of music, and more especially of The Beatles). Oh yeah, and the tunes.
Narrator: Once upon a time, or maybe twice, there was an unearthly paradise called Pepperland.
Having said that, though, whenever I listen to the Yellow Submarine soundtrack, it’s the George Martin contributions – snidely dismissed by Lennon – that I always looked forward to the most. They do so much to set the mood and tone, whereas there are times when the song selection announces a sense of “How do we fit that in there in any kind of vaguely relevant way?” There’s enough riffing throughout on The Beatles canon to make any fan happy (A Day in the Life most notably), while the caricatures of the four – sarcy John, cosmic George, pretty-boy Paul and soulful Ringo – are product packaging the Tavistock Institute could only dream of, and out-Monkees The Monkees (whose “swansong” Head arrived the same year). Lennon would later say “I think it’s a great movie, it’s my favourite Beatle movie” (citing Julian loving it), and it presents the Fabs in only a positive light, myth-making but simultaneously piss-taking. It’s affectionate, basically.
John: Steady on! I mean, you don’t want to be showing your motor to just anybody.
Lennon is introduced as Frankenstein’s monster (“… I’ve just had the strangest dream”), perhaps pre-empting his Lost Weekend. Or the version of his death sold to the public; it seems he was shot but didn’t die (and, in contrast to the alt-Lennon seen in Yesterday, was not a nice guy). Paul, who by this point has been replaced by Faul, so that would make his one Paul Mk II, mostly preens himself (both non-animated Pauls are now ex-Pauls).
Ringo: Liverpool’s a lonely place on a Saturday night. And this is only Thursday morning.
Ringo’s the soppy one who rescues Jeremy Hillary Boob (Dick Emery, also voicing Meanie lieutenant Max and the Lord Mayor) from the Sea of Nothing. George, meanwhile, is introduced with the sound of sitars, meditating, being in two places at once, and informing sagely “It’s all in the mind” (is this The Matrix, pre-predictive programming? I guess that’s just following in the tradition of preceding spiritual perspectives, given a sly spin to mislead their disciples. Amusingly, the animators tend to reserve a more classically heroic pose for George. But then, for all its more obviously flippant alignment with Lennon, this (Pepper) land is, ultimately, Harrison’s territory.
Old Fred: We’ll be sucked into oblivion.
Ringo: Or even further.
The plot, a there and back again of casting our musicians as heroes and saviours of Pepperland – where their “obviously extensions of our own personalities” doppelgangers,
the Lonely Hearts Club Band, have been sealed in a bubble – is loose enough that many flights and detours are sustainable along the way. I was, as a youngster, and am, as a not so much, always particularly partial to the Seas of Science, Monsters and Nothing. These featuring such amusements as a University of Whales, a riff on the Hamlet cigar advert (complete with Air on a G String), Ringo being chased by monsters (“Learn to sing trios” suggests Old Fred Lance Percival, of what they’ll do without him), and the landscape-guzzling vacuum flask (“Oh no, not the dreaded vacuum flask again!”). The Sea of Holes, especially, offers perspective-boggling feats that perfectly encapsulate not only the movie, but also the era. Jeremy is an irrepressibly upbeat type, given to speaking in rhyme. And, like a number of the characters here, he boasts a voluminous rear.
Chief Meanie: Ah, the hills are alive…
Max: … with the sound of music!
Chief Meanie: (Punches Max) Who did it? Who is responsible for this?
(The Chief Meanie shoots Max, and a Blue Menial stomps him into ground.
Max: (Poking his head up from ground) Guy Lombardo?
The prime exhibits thereof being the Meanies. The interaction between Chief Blue Meanie and Max is entirely a highlight. Angelis’ insanely antic Chief, a drag act on the edge of whatever edge he’s already teetering over, won’t let anyone say “Yes” (“No, your Blueness”), has a pet glovey-dovey (“The Dreadful Flying Glove?”) and routinely berates faithful major-domo Max. Like the subsequent Dougal and the Blue Cat, blue is synonymous with evil, but it seems not to have carried political associations in either case (Millicent McMillan recalled that she persuaded Heinz Edelmann against making them purple as it wouldn’t look right).
Jeremy: Ad hoc, ad loc and quid pro quo.
So little time, so much to know.
The return of life to Pepperland, flooded by music, grey turning to Technicolor, flowers sprouting as The Beatles play, is worth comparing to similar scenarios in Return to Oz and Raya and the Last Dragon. Meanies are equipped with searchlight eyes and machine guns. A random set of Bagpipes parps its way down a hill. Jeremy lyricises his way to victory over the Chief Meanie. It’s all too much. Or just enough.
Meanie: Are you, er bluish? You don’t look bluish.
As for the integration of the songs, the constraints of time mean some are rather obviously on the rudimentary side (the picture was completed in a gruelling eleven months). Eleanor Rigby gets complaints from some, but I’m fine with it at that point in the proceedings (it contrasts with Pepperland). I’m entirely unpersuaded by Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, though, rotoscoping fan Dunning’s main contribution. Tony Rayns in Time Out reckoned it was “terrific”: “swirling colour-washed couples counterpointing the song in a totally unexpected way”. Totally banal way, more like. But I may be in the minority, as Pauline Kael agreed with him (“a stunning use of stylised human figures”) It’s mundane and derivative to me, lacking a distinctive or quirky flavour.
Ringo: It must have been one of them Unidentified Flying Cupcakes.
Rayns suggested the “love conquers all” theme might be less Lennon than Erich Segal, later of Love Story. Also credited were Jack Mendelsohn, Al Brodax (of The Beatles cartoon) Lee Minoff (a former publicist and given “Story by”), but uncredited Roger McGough is surely responsible for the lion’s share of the most memorable lines, puns, witticisms, associations and rhymes.
Max: Here, your Blueness, have some nasty medicine!
It’s true Lennon sings All You Need is Love, but it’s the music itself that’s working magic. Kael disputed any notion of an overextended theme: “If the movie tried to be significant, if it ‘had something to say’, it might be a disaster”. She appreciated the good-natured and unpretentious “giddy flower-childness of it all”. Kael also, very cannily, given how manufactured the movement really was, recognised even at the time that “The movie is a nostalgic fantasy – already nostalgic for the happy anarchism of ‘love’”. It didn’t need Zemeckis’ (boshed-on-the-head) remake to emphasise that. It was the case at the time.
Jeremy: You mean, you’d take a nowhere man?
Ringo: Yeah, come on. We’ll take you somewhere.
Kael also cited the animated feature as “one of the handful of palatable ones” and made a persuasive case that its willingness to experiment with the form was something largely lacking ever since Disney had gone to full features; “children love animation for the illogic that is a visual equivalent of their nursery rhymes and jingles and word games. Recent American commercial cartoons have been so undistinguished visually and so limited so much of the time… that Yellow Submarine… restores the pleasure of constant surprise, which has always been the fun of good animation”. Eat that, John Lasseter and your homogenous whole (Lasseter provides a foreword to the booklet accompanying the Blu-ray release, citing its influence, yet Pixar is most responsible for both popularising and killing animation’s creativity in style and content).
Chief Blue Meanie: Oh, I haven’t laughed so much since Pompeii!
As to its era credentials, Edelmann’s was the most unifying stylistic influence in terms of designs, yet “I had never taken drugs. I’m a conservative and working-class person who’d stick to booze all his life. And so I just knew about the psychedelic experience by hearsay. And I guessed what it was”. Which is much the way these things tend to work, by osmosis (you don’t explicitly need to make media predictive programming if they’ve already been programmed). The picture isn’t chock full of sly drugs references, then; it’s simply surreal in the manner any creative children’s work is, be it The Magic Faraway Tree or The Phantom Tollbooth, or anything in the animated field where the creatives are actually enabled to be creative.
Chief Blue Meanie: Oblue-terate them!
It’s undoubtedly a case of “more’s the pity” that Yellow Submarine is such a rare example of such flights. Chiefly because anything off the beaten track is a risk. Audiences might not respond to the style, and it’s not exactly as if there have been throngs of potential bands with personalities who might fit the irreverent approach of an animated musical (The Wall most certainly wasn’t irreverent). Can you imagine a bubble-puncturing U2 picture? No, because they’re no fun (besides which, vri’d Bono would be all too much).
Chief Blue Meanie: Who is responsible for this?
On that level, it’s no wonder Zemeckis, running on empty for two decades, was considering stirring and repeating. It seems a Strawberry Fields Forever semi-CG sequel was also planned, with 10 minutes unseen footage produced (this was prior to Toy Story…) It was abandoned when it was discovered rights to The Beatles’ songs weren’t held (like, duh) The designs seen are very much in the Disney tradition (or Don Bluth, if you like), so exactly the opposite of the approach Kael praised in Yellow Submarine. We’ll likely never see the like again. It’s no longer a blue world, Max.