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‘Yellow Submarine’ at 50: Why the Psychedelic Animated Beatles Movie Is Timeless

The adventures of John, Paul, George and Ringo stands as a pop-art animated masterpiece – and a new rerelease reminds us of why it still feels ahead of its time

beatles yellow submarine 50 years

The Beatles in Pepperland

Subafilms Ltd.

They aren’t sprinting through a narrow street, laughing and tumbling over one another as they’re trailed by what appear to be hundreds of rabid teenyboppers. Nor are they charming Ed Sullivan and the American press corps, or comically falling down together in the snow while locked arm in arm, or walking to the armored car that will take them out of Candlestick Park after their last public performance – we’re way past all of that now. And they aren’t bickering in a studio or playing the single most bittersweet rooftop gig ever – that’s still in the near-future. No, these Fab Four are currently locked in a battle between good and evil. Specifically, between themselves and detonating clowns, apple-bonking henchmen, a giant killer glove and your run-of-the-mill Blue Meanies. Meet the Beatles (sort of) that star in Yellow Submarine, the psychedelic caricatures that graced the 1968 animated feature which, 50 years ago today, made it’s premiere on U.K. screens. (You can, and should, catch it on U.S. screens in a new restored version right now.) It doesn’t matter whether it’s been decades or merely days since you’ve seen it last. It’s still a hell of a lot weirder than you remember it being.

Having to make good on a three-picture deal that John, Paul, George and Ringo had with United Artists, their manager Brian Epstein had been looking for one last project to tie up that particular loose business end. The group had no interest in making another movie, however. They weren’t fans of Help! (1965). Plus they had this new album, a collection of songs that fit together as a loose conceptual statement on nostalgia, which was taking up a lot of their bandwidth. So Epstein went to Al Brodax, a producer who had been involved with the animated TV adventures of the Beatles, wondering if a feature-length cartoon might do the trick. This alienated the foursome even more, as they’d hated the series (just listen to their animated counterparts’ accents!), but at least they didn’t have to be involved.  If this fulfilled their contract with the production company, so be it. Just don’t do another moptop misadventure. That felt like several lifetimes ago.

So Brodax began gathering together a team of creative collaborators, including Canadian animator George Dunning, visual effects director Charles Jenkins, The Beatles cartoon vets Jack Stokes and Mike Stuart and several screenwriters, including Latin professor and future Love Story novelist Erich Segal. (Liverpudlian poet Roger McGough would be brought on later to scouse things up; his lack of proper credit for giving the film a regional sense of cheekiness is still a point of contention.) It was Jenkins who suggested adding Heinz Edelmann, a Czech-German graphic artist best known for his work on the magazine Twen and who’d be the person most associated with the movie’s fluid, lysergic look. (He was also the one who suggested that they construct the narrative as a series of shorts, “so the style should vary every five minutes or so, to keep the interest going.”) The story goes that the group was having trouble deciding on a direction when Sir George Martin gathered them together in 1967 and played them the Beatles’ unreleased new album: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Suddenly, there was a focal point to rally around. Those Summer of Love dandies in their marching band regalia? That everything-including-the-kitschin’-sink methodology? The pomo boho references piled upon references? They could start to set sail now.

The end result would eventually win the Beatles over (though Paul, ever sentimentalist, still wished it been more “of a classic cartoon … the greatest Disney movie ever – only with our music”); they liked it so much that they consented to film a live-action section as a coda before they went to India to study Transcendental Meditation. It would also feature a lot of new orchestral music from Martin – see Side Two of the soundtrack album – and four new songs, recorded somewhat under duress and with no small amount of resentment. In classic we-can’t-be-bothered form, the Beatles decided to “gift” the film with some mod odds-and-sods leftovers and tunes rejected as being not up to snuff. It’s no coincidence that George Harrison’s “It’s Only a Northern Song” sounds like either a dry run or a dead-end experiment regarding sonic notions they’d explored more fully on Sgt. Pepper. Or that “All Together Now,” while building to a rousing pub-friendly finish, is not McCartney’s most lyrically impressive achievement (though kudos for that “can I take my friend to bed” bit in ’68 – more on this song later). Or that “It’s All Too Much” is, well, not enough. Only John Lennon’s contribution, “Hey Bulldog,” stands out, a dense screamer that essentially points the way to the White Album, which would point the way to disillusion and dissolution. And that would be cut from American prints altogether.

All that, combined with 10 older songs and a free-form storyline involving the town of Pepperland under siege from blue-skinned naysayers, turned Yellow Submarine into a singular synergistic achievement – a proto-jukebox musical that literally turned pop stars into pop art. (There would be another attempt to duplicate this formula … and it would not be as successful, to put it mildly.) But watching it now, as an artifact of both the band circa the late Sixties and the tripped-out times that produced it, what sticks with you is how how telling it all is. Yes, it’s a visual wonder, the kind that rewards endless viewings and can still blow your mind; the “Eleanor Rigby” sequence alone, a symphony of gray skies and bleak Britainnia done in an animation style suggesting a depressed Terry Gilliam, remains a showstopper. And despite the fact that their involvement was minimal – actors voiced their avatars – it’s a total distillation of the band’s espirt de corps and shared sensibilities, from the Carnaby Street color blasts to the fact that there’s enough hippie wordplay to fuel a half-dozen Firesign Theatre long-players.

But watch how the Fab Four are introduced. Ringo is Ringo, an extension of his Hard Day’s Night persona of a hapless schlub perpetually getting the short end of the stick. You never sense that he’s “just happy to be here.” He’s introduced being followed by a yellow submarine, apparently a middle-of-the-night suggestion offered by an undoubtedly stoned John; as for Lennon, he shows up at the 18-minute mark as Frankenstein’s monster, and you don’t need to be a Freudian analyst to view this as a manifestation of his ambiguity of being a creature “created” by celebrity. (Fame – it’s not your brain, it’s just the flame, and FIRE! BAD!!!) George Harrison is a cosmic mystic/seeker, his hair blowing in the wind as he stands astride a purple something-or-other, Eastern music playing because, per Ringo, it’s “Sitarday.” Paul comes last. The lads open a door, a blast of fanfare and “the cute Beatle” enters to the sound of raucous cheering. He straightens his tie, catches a bouquet of flowers and blithely asks, “What’s a matter, fellas? Blue Meanies?” Some group leader. Plus did we mention that the bad guys drop the logo of the group’s record company on people’s heads and knock them out? Even without the boys providing input, there’s the sneaking feeling that, even in this fairy tale, things feel a tad fractured.

And for all of the hallucinogenic, fried-frontal-lobe imagery on hand, Yellow Submarine feels less like an invitation to tune in, turn on and drop out than a gateway drug for the pop narcotic of the Beatles themselves. For a generation who caught this animated feature on oodles of Sunday-afternoon TV matinees, it was often their first exposure to the Fab Four, as superheroes in crazy costumes, fighting vacuum beasts and riding multicolored dinosaurs and saving the day. (Mojo writer Mat Snow astutely notes that, given the weird proportions of their bodies, they actually resemble how adults are seen by children.) I remember hearing “Nowhere Man” and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “When I’m 64” – complete with its Sesame Street countdown of a minute and four seconds – before hearing “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” I can remember seeing these animated Beatles before the irreverent moptops of A Hard Day’s Night and the moody goofballs of Help! They even turn into toddlers at one point. “That film works for every generation,” no less than George Harrison declared. “Every baby, three or four years old, goes through Yellow Submarine.”

That initial blast of Beatles on display here, filtered through elaborate cartoon facial hair and surreal visuals you might describe as Peter Max-imalist, has offered a point of entry for  so many late-blooming Beatlemaniacs that’s it’s amazing to think that, at its core, this was just designed to fulfill a contractual obligation. It is, of course, something far greater than that, and by the time you get to that final eye-popping scene of the quartet frolicking in a rainbow-colored wonderland, you feel like gone through the looking glass several times over. Speaking of which: There’s one final treat. This is when the real Beatles show up. They’re dressed in comparatively drab brown shirts, nothing like the Swinging London Edwardian hipsters from earlier, but they’re onscreen, in the flesh. They gamely exchange corny jokes with each other; John is preoccupied with an old-school looking glass.

Then they lead a singalong reprise of “All Together Now,” and sitting in a theater, listening to an audience join in – “One two three four/Can I have a little more?” – what seemed like a second-rate McCartney joint now feels like a mantra, a 50-year-old transmission for 2018. “All together now” is, for a lot of us, the last phrase we think of when we think of our current cultural predicament. Listening to people joyously repeat the phrase, faster and faster, as the history of the group and what happens to them next scrolls through your head, as well as the history of what’s happened since the film was released during the single most tumultuous year of our nation and the moment we find ourselves in … brings tears to your eyes. They’ve given us one more chance for catharsis. All. Together. Now.

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