Toon In, Turn On

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

By the time the animated, acid-happy Yellow Submarine premiered in July of 1968, John Lennon was doing heroin and Paul McCartney had already been through both his LSD and cocaine phases. Acid was nearly passé for the lads. The rest of the world had no idea, of course; they themselves were just beginning to turn on, and to grasp the concept of getting stoned to watch a movie.

Neither did anyone realize that Yellow Submarine--in which the idyllic Pepperland is besieged by the Naziesque Blue Meanies, and then saved by the music of the Beatles--wasn't really a Beatles movie. That was also its salvation. The Beatles had almost nothing to do with the project, and the film reflects little of where the band was musically or personally at the time--not counting the scene in which Ringo ejects himself from the submarine and is temporarily lost at sea before the boys rescue him. The month after Yellow Submarine opened, Ringo, unbeknownst to the world, quit the band quite seriously, no doubt with good reason, and had to be coaxed back by the others. George would do the same only a few months later, during the making of Let It Be. The band had only about a year left.

In hindsight, the Beatles' lack of involvement with Yellow Submarine is one reason it turned out as well as it did. Currently awaiting rerelease on the art-house circuit with a newly mastered soundtrack, spiffed-up visuals, and previously deleted scenes (it opens Friday at the Uptown Theatre), Yellow Submarine isn't a great film, but it's a seminal work of animation and a significant document of its time. Among other things, Yellow Submarine bent the rules for children's entertainment: Children's art is really for grownups and can be as naughty as we like, since what the kiddies don't know won't hurt them.

If the movie says more about its zeitgeist than about the Beatles, that's fine. Paul would later complain that he didn't much care for it--on account of "those dreadful, bloody voices" and its lack of Disneyesque "magic"--but he had no right to, really. The band had abdicated control over the cinematic arm of its commercial machinery; they didn't even contribute voiceovers. The Beatles were lucky that director George Dunning (also responsible for the Beatles' TV cartoon) happened to grab the baton and run with it skillfully, and that London was crawling with hungry art students and animators to do the shit work. (And a lot of shit work it was: Without the benefit of computers, Yellow Submarine involved hundreds of thousands of hand-painted cells created by a team of some 40 animators and 140 artists.)

It wasn't that the Beatles were uninterested in film. Paul actually fancied himself the avant-garde auteur, making whacked-out home movies with elaborately synched soundtracks during his swingin' bachelor days. After Help! in 1965, several movie projects were pursued and dropped for various reasons: the ill-fated Western A Talent for Loving; Shades of a Personality, which was supposed to have been directed by Antonioni; and the Joe Orton-penned Up Against It. Even Fellini had plans for a Beatles film. John starred in Richard Lester's How I Won The War; Ringo appeared in Candy with Marlon Brando and Richard Burton. The first release on the Beatles' Apple Records was, in fact, George's soundtrack for the film Wonderwall. And then, of course, there was the mostly embarrassing Magical Mystery Tour, in which the band attempted to make their own TV movie with almost no script or game plan.

But film was always an awkward language for the Beatles, beginning with A Hard Day's Night (1964), which irrevocably established the-Beatles-as-commodity in a way that startled even the band. Besides almost singlehandedly establishing the music-video format, the film's brilliant image-construction would forever shape the way the fans saw their Beatles, and wanted to see them--a shtick the Beatles ultimately found onerous. In a typically cynical mood, John was quoted in the mid-Seventies saying, "As far as things went the Beatles were that band that gigged around Liverpool...[and] played in Hamburg. After A Hard Day's Night it was something entirely different. A Hard Day's Night was really the tail-end of things." Bigger budgets only heightened the pressure to make another great Beatles film; by 1968, the band realized that, whatever their cinematic potential, their priority was the music. Thus, to the Beatles, Yellow Submarine represented an easy way out of United Artists' three-picture contract (which had included A Hard Day's Night and Help!, both directed by Richard Lester).

But what's poignant about Yellow Submarine is that it stands mostly as a tribute to the world's cherished fantasy of the Beatles in 1968: still the quipping Northern lads, with subtly variegated versions of a single persona, but as futuristic, fashionable, and surprising as ever. This was only 1968, mind you: Woodstock was still a year away and psychedelia remained in full freakout. Ironically, the fans had no idea how far behind their idols they really were; psychedelia was no longer novel to the Beatles but a comfortably assimilated aesthetic dialect. While Yellow Submarine was in production, the band was recording the White Album--a blues-studded work more chiaroscuro than Technicolor, with caustic jabs at spiritual and political cultism, not to mention the hardest-rocking music they ever recorded. In fact, the fractured plot line of Yellow Submarine isn't far from the kind of story that John said they wanted to avoid with A Hard Day's Night--"one of those typical nobody-understands-our-music plots where the local dignitaries are trying to ban something as terrible as the Saturday night hop...and at the end the local mayor has been convinced we're all not axe murderers."

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.


Yellow Submarine starts Friday at the Uptown Theatre.

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