Toon In, Turn On

Thirty years later, the Beatles' animated Yellow Submarine is still an excellent way to get high

Okay, so the Pepperland-vs.-Blue Meanies plot is lame: The script was co-penned by Erich Segal (Love Story), after all. Instead, the movie's charm comes in its brave new world of postmodern image deconstruction, much influenced by graphic artists like Andy Warhol and Peter Max. In the "Sea of Time" segment, white beards pour from the Beatles' chins like shaving cream from a can, to the strains of "When I'm Sixty-Four"; the movie's "Sea of Holes" is a Stephen Hawking-esque realm of black holes, through which other dimensions are entered. But the best sections are those in which the animated characters are absent and the film's designers, led by German artist Heinz Edelman, are free to riff on the Beatles' songs. For "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," live-action footage of ballroom dancers is tweaked, colorized, stuttered, and otherwise fucked with, resulting in a rosy, tripped-out ode to femininity. "Eleanor Rigby," the film's finest moment, uses still photographs of a wasted industrial town (Liverpool?) to expand the song's scope. It's an important reminder, especially for younger Beatles fans, of the context into which the Beatles were born: working-class families stuck in a depressed city under relentless aerial bombardment. All that talk of peace and love didn't come from nowhere, man.

For this Beatles fan, Yellow Submarine has a melancholy atmosphere throughout. The band's absence is always palpable, not least at the very end, when they make a brief live appearance, looking strikingly older than expected (though they were all in their mid- to late 20s). The film's banter isn't half as funny as the off-the-cuff one-liners they recorded in their annual Christmas greetings to their fan club. The voices aren't quite right. The story line isn't nearly as clever as the visuals. The songs, culled from several albums, don't connect as they would on a Beatles studio album.

In the end, Yellow Submarine works as a grandiose example of the ways the Beatles became the psychic property of those who loved them--and the real property of those who wanted to turn a buck. That's not all bad; it's certainly inevitable. As someone whose sensibility and aesthetics were shaped by the Beatles from the get-go, I plead guilty to being part of the conspiracy. This is what happens to great art: At a certain point, it no longer belongs to the artist. Studios commission movies about it, sure, but the process happens on the most intimate level, too. Art becomes part of a person's daily life, and then part of her most important memories; it becomes part of her life story. If one can do something useful and beautiful with that, then the art has served its purpose. By some miracle, Yellow Submarine is both useful and beautiful, despite its cunning commercialism. It doesn't insult the music that inspired it. It stands on its own as a work of art. And if its feel-good gloss betrays the reality of the band's condition, at least it doesn't attempt to rewrite history à la Imagine or John and Yoko: A Love Story. And, lucky for us, it also happens to be an excellent way to get high.

With a little help from their animators: The Beatles in Yellow Submarine (1968)
With a little help from their animators: The Beatles in Yellow Submarine (1968)

 

Yellow Submarine starts Friday at the Uptown Theatre.

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