18 September 2010

SKY OF BLUE, AND SEA OF GREEN

After Magical Mystery Tour imploded with critics and fans, the Beatles were mightily disinclined to make another feature film; for had not the shooting of Help! been a massive nightmare for all involved? and now their labor of love had been widely, even universally derided as an indulgent, impossible mess. But there was a single problem: they had signed a three-picture deal with United Artists. So a third film was a rather disagreeable necessity (the self-produced Magical Mystery Tour didn't count, remember).

The possibility cropped up that their third feature could be an animated film, which was pleasing to the band; then the possibility further cropped up that they didn't even have to provide the voices, but just poke their heads in for a one-shot cameo at the very end. This ended up being entirely unsatisfactory to UA (which is altogether fair), and the third film in the deal finally came out in 1970; but meanwhile, we are still in 1968, when the fourth feature to star the Beatles as characters, if not as actors, was released to great acclaim both artistic and financial, a watershed moment in the aesthetics of psychedelia done up cinematically; a film that even the Beatles themselves, battle-scarred and doubtlessly quite sick of movies altogether, thought was pretty much great. This is as it should be: for Yellow Submarine is a marvel altogether.

Inspired - damn loosely - by the song from 1966's Revolver album, the film is the first of the three jukebox musicals based upon the Beatles' work, and the only one of those to use the Beatles' original recordings (a note on terminology, for those unfamiliar with the phrase: a "jukebox musical" yokes pre-existing pop songs to an original plot. The other such films taken from the Beatles are the villainous Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band from 1978, and Julie Taymor's 2007 Across the Universe, which may or may not be a brilliant, beautiful experiment, depending on your perspective. This blog is a firmly pro-Taymor zone).* Seven songs from the 1965-'67 period showed up on the soundtrack, along with four "new" numbers, though it is a clear sign of how little investment the actual Beatles had in the project that these four tracks were basically cast-offs, songs the band had recorded and decided weren't good enough for commercial release during the sessions that (if I am not mistaken) led to the Magical Mystery Tour EP and the singles such as "Penny Lane"/"Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Lady Madonna" released in the aftermath of that EP, but before the daunting, monolithic sessions for The Beatles, which history has come to know as The White Album.

Really, though, there's not a blessed thing wrong with "All Together Now", "Only a Northern Song", "Hey Bulldog", or "It's All Too Much"; they fit in perfectly comfortable with their mates on the soundtrack (that is, the film's soundtrack - the official soundtrack album contains those four along with only "Yellow Submarine" and "All You Need Is Love", with seven poky instrumentals composed by music producer extraordinaire George Martin). They are every bit as remarkable as everything else this most incredible of rock groups was churning out in the immensely revolutionary period begun with Rubber Soul and concluded by the "Hey Jude" single. And since Yellow Submarine, like the movie version of Magical Mystery Tour before it, consists of very little beside psychedelic interstitials connecting what amount to early music videos all in row, it is really a good thing that its songs are so fine: arguably the finest collection of songs ever used as the backbone for a motion picture - that is to say, I would make the argument. Forgive me for being redundant, but how can anyone say a word against this playlist?

-"Yellow Submarine", a goofy, sweet bit of warmhearted juvenilia, with one of Ringo's warmest vocals;
-"Eleanor Rigby", one of the most concise & haunting descriptions of misery ever put to music;
-"All Together Now", a cheerful march, one of the easiest songs to sing-along to in their career;
-"When I'm Sixty-Four", often dismissed as a block of McCartney cheese, but bouncy and melodious and unashamedly nostalgic;
-"Only a Northern Song", a thrillingly un-melodious attempt to consider the value of pop music;
-"Nowhere Man", one of the few times the nasal, atonal Lennon indulged himself with soaring vocals;
-"Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds", which of course speaks for itself;
-"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", the boldest opening track in rock album history;
-"All You Need Is Love", a musically bittersweet but deeply sincere anthem to all the things Lennon held most dear;
-"Hey Bulldog", one of the sassiest & most sarcastic tracks the Beatles ever laid down;
-"It's All Too Much", Harrison's counterpoint to "All You Need Is Love", a musical landscape of sweeping grandeur.

Like I said, the plot behind all of those songs is pretty much just a pretext, though it is complex enough that you can tell it is a plot. Somewhere under the sea ("Once upon a time... or maybe twice" as the drowsy-voiced narrator puts it) is a place called Pepperland, where all is music and love and bright colors. In come the Blue Meanies an army of indiscriminately nasty folk, whose armies consist of tall men throwing deadly apples, Turks with snapping turtle bellies, and a huge, malevolent Glove. Only one Pepperland citizen, Old Fred (Lance Percival) is able to escape, in the yellow submarine that his ancestors used to arrive in the land in the first place.

Fred's journey to the world above takes him to Liverpool, where he accidentally falls upon Ringo (Paul Angelis), moping about in true A Hard Day's Night fashion because nobody in the whole world loves him. For a reason that makes exactly no sense, Ringo and Fred go back to the Beatles' palatial estate, a veritable museum of psychedelia, where John (John Clive) putters about engaged in mad science, George (Peter Batten, an army deserter, who was arrested before production ended; his part was completed by Angelis) spends his time deep in transcendental thought, and Paul (Geoff Hughes) apparently performs concerts for the massive sell-out crowds he keeps in a spare room. The four Beatles readily agree that Fred deserves whatever help they can give, and so they journey through a number of impossible landscapes, the Sea of Monsters, the Sea of Holes, the Sea of Science, and so forth, eventually arriving in Pepperland, where they revive the frozen bodies of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and teach the Blue Meanies that love is all you need.

With eleven full songs (and a number of snatches) piled into 90 minutes, though, we could more accurately call the plot "animated representations of the Beatles travel through awe-inspiring landscapes in the graphic styles of the late 1960s, stopping to perform some of their songs in stunning mixed-media experimental short films". Which is all the film needs to be - it is really better not to think of it as a "movie", so much as a marriage of visual art and music, in service to the beatific ideals of the hippie movement. Not, frankly, a movement that I have real particular respect for, nowadays (the hippies would be a hell of a lot easier to take seriously if so many of them hadn't grown up to become Reaganites), but you'd have to pretty much be an asshole to find fault with the message that it is better to treat everybody with love and respect, to wage peace, to find the value even in a nowhere sort of man who would just as soon spend time locked away in his own mind. Naïve, oh yes. But it is nevertheless an appealing idea.

Coming at this point in the Beatles' career, the film no longer smacks of such overt image control as A Hard Day's Night had only four years earlier - and by the way, how insane is it that only four years separates songs like "I Should Have Known Better" from "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and "Helter Skelter"? - though Yellow Submarine still finds the idea of the Beatles trumping the reality of the Beatles. Hell, the Beatles per se are only barely in Yellow Submarine!

By this point, at any rate "The Beatles" was a signifier far outstripping the four young men from Liverpool who made rock music. "The Beatles" described a way of looking at the world, a mentality of harmony through music and harmony through spirit and harmony through pharmaceuticals. It's almost a sick joke that this film depicts the four boys living in one giant house all warm and friendly, right at the same time that they were busy fragmenting into predominately self-contained units for the White Album recording sessions. Even the fairy tale world of Yellow Submarine can't ignore that - as friendly as their life together seems to be, each of the four is introduced separately, and apparently pursuing their own interests far apart from one another.

But the message and the messenger should never be confused, and if the Beatles were starting to collapse under the weight of being "The Beatles", none of that has anything to do with Yellow Submarine, a gorgeous, funny, moving time capsule from an era when people really did think that love and harmony could change the world. And heck, if everyone who saw the movie had really taken it to heart, maybe that is the world we'd be living in today. Whatever the case, the film is a wonderful gesture of boundless optimism and creativity, a grand pop culture relic of a bygone era; truly one of the finest animated films and one of the finest cinematic musicals of all time.

* * * * *

Words cannot do justice to the surreal, otherworldly visuals of designer Heinz Edelmann, director George Dunning, sequence director Charles Jenkins, and their team of animators - therefore,in lieu of words, may I present a Yellow Submarine gallery:

Our friends are all aboard, many more of them live next door

All the lonely people, where do they all come from?

Pink, brown, yellow, orange and blue, I love you

Yours sincerely, wasting away

You may think the band are not quite right, but they are, they just play it like that

Doesn't have a point of view, knows not where he's going to

Suddenly someone appears at the turnstiles, the girl with kaleidoscope eyes

They're guaranteed to raise a smile

There's nowhere you can be that isn't where you're meant to be

Some kind of innocence is measured out in years

A love that's shining all around here

5 comments:

Ryan said...

Hey Tim,

I hesitate to mention this, but is there a reason you did not bring up Robert Zemeckis' impending remake of this film?

JD said...

A bit of trivia: I've heard that the bit immediately before "Elanor Rigby" (wherein day breaks over a gloomy English city, the camera slides down, and smoke erupts from every smokestack and chimney) was done with a technique that modern animators can't deduce and even the original crew didn't know how to recreate it. It sounds implausible, but I can't say I've ever seen that exact effect elsewhere.

Tim said...

Ryan- Because SHUTUPSHUTUPSHUTUP IT'S NOT HAPPENING IF I DON'T ACKNOWLEDGE IT.

JD- I know, it's a totally weird moment, right? Akin to the Disney multiplane camera, but clearl something totally different, and there's a weird dimensionality to it that should be impossible.

JD said...

Good (belated) news! Disney has apparently squashed the idea of a Disney/Zemeckis mo-cap Uncanny Valley Yellow Submarine horror fest after his "Mars Needs Moms" flopped.

zimnomel said...

I'd like to ask for some advice, if you can spare the time. I write for a movie magazine (nothing fancy, just regular stuff for regular readers), and we're currently doing an issue for Children's Day, in which the reviewers are required to write about their favourite childhood films. The thing is - this was my favourite childhood film. (No kidding - between the ages of three and ten, I watched this a million times, and I loved the hell out of it, even though I didn't understand the dialogue.) I'm not really sure about recommending it to a parent though, which is kind of the goal of the issue. This is not really a kid's movie, and rather bizarre on top of that, especially if compared to the average Disney flick. I have no idea if a (non English-speaking) child could enjoy it. Any thoughts?