A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 161 – Yellow Submarine (1968)

Yellow Submarine (1968) – August 8th, 2010

I’ve got to go back to work in the morning and I’ve had a lovely day full of beach and swimming and relaxation, so I wanted something I could just sit back and enjoy tonight. I’ll go back to thinking thinky thoughts later. For tonight I needed music I love and a plot that’s not too hard to follow and silly jokes and nostalgia. Not that I watched this as a kid. My parents loved The Beatles and I have subsequently swiped all of their vinyl, their copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with the sheet of paper punch-outs still intact. But we didn’t watch the movies. We listened to the music incessantly, but I don’t think I saw any of the movies until I met Andy. But since the music is the whole purpose and thrust of this movie it still gets the nostalgia engine running.

In a way, it’s similar to Across the Universe, with a Beatles flavored plot serving as an excuse to put the music to visuals. It’s full of in-jokes and Beatles references, like the green apples used by the Blue Meanies. Unlike Across the Universe, however, this was made while the group was still active and recording new material. And it takes its story not from the time period it was made in, but from the music and the albums. And, you know, it’s animated. And it’s very much a product of its time.

The plot focuses on the power of music and love and the importance of defeating those who would stand in the way. We begin in the magical realm of Pepperland, which seems like a nice little society full of garden clubs and musical afternoons until the Blue Meanies, dead set against all things good and positive – especially music – attack. One man, Old Fred, escapes in a yellow submarine that is to Pepperland what the Mayflower is to Plymouth, MA. Fred is tasked with finding some musicians to fill in for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and bring music back to Pepperland and defeat the Blue Meanies. So off Fred goes, finding Ringo, John, George and Paul, in that order. They’re all introduced in suitably psychedelic and bizarre ways, except Ringo, who’s just walking around. And then they head off in the submarine, their voyage taking them through a variety of strange places and concepts and concepts presented as places. It’s a quest story, full of mishaps and adventures as they muck with time, encounter odd-looking monsters (in one of my favorite sections, the Sea of Monsters, featuring a pair of Kinky Boot Beasts), pick up a passenger named Jeremy, get stranded in the foothills of the headlands and have to get through a sea of holes to find Pepperland and find a way to defeat the Blue Meanies.

By the time the band gets to Pepperland we’ve seen several different animation styles and heard more than a few songs. The Pepperland scenes are more of a kind with each other than any of the previous ones were, and the story changes from a voyage to a sort of stealth mission/secret concert set-up. The band has to get a hold of instruments and awaken everyone with their music without alerting too many of the Meanies. And of course they do it, and everyone loves everyone else and there’s plenty of singing and dancing and pop art and horrible puns for all.

Now, while the heart of the movie is the music, which was obviously the point, the visuals are what make it so memorable apart from the music. Some of the animation is very stylized, like the sea of monsters, some is abstract, like the sea of holes. During the voyage to Pepperland there’s a slightly different style and look to each song scene (which I’ll get to), and then there are the Blue Meanies. There are the Bonkers, who are tall dudes with apples that they drop on people’s heads. There’s a giant animated glove that pounds things. There’s men wearing Fezes whose heads seem to be hats for the giant mouthed bellies they have. There are clowns with push-button noses and spinning heads. The head Meanie himself is a giant ball of blue fur with long black ears and a huge nose. They are at the same time hilarious and creepy. And they contrast wonderfully with Pepperland itself, which is all fine lines and more classically drawn. The look of Pepperland puts me in mind of a pared down Trina Schart Hyman book, as if the backgrounds got started, then abandoned before they were fully colored and filled in. Maybe it’s the walls of thorns, maybe it’s the watercolor-looking colors. Whatever it is, it’s a very interesting combination.

Now, as I mentioned, each of the songs on the voyage gets its own little animated music video, each with a different set of visuals and slightly different stylistic choices. Yellow Submarine plays over the trippy opening credits. Eleanor Rigby is a real departure from the rest of the film’s visuals, and while I love it, ultimately it feels oddly out of place with all its heavily filtered magazine cut-out and film still animation. It feels very Gilliam-like, but more serious in tone. All Together Now and When I’m Sixty-Four show the band working the submarine and dancing around, messing things up and fixing them. Some of the bits during the latter song are all informational, with counting animations that remind me of Sesame Street and vintage Electric Company. Only a Northern Song incorporates what looks like visuals from an oscilloscope vibrating to the beats of the song with some very Warhol-esque portraits of the actual Beatles (not their cartoon selves). Nowhere Man and Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds go back to psychedelia as they fill up the nowhere with brightly colored flowers in Nowhere Man and see abstract dancing women in Lucy. Even once they get to Pepperland and the backgrounds are all similar there are some differences, like the text used in All You Need is Love and the still frames full of flashing colors during It’s All Too Much.

Still, even with so many different techniques used, and so many different songs from different albums, the movie feels like a cohesive whole (though I still feel that Eleanor Rigby doesn’t quite fit). The plot, while full of ridiculous creatures and places, is a simple quest and voyage story. The characters we spend the most time with are The Beatles, and we all know The Beatles, right? Right! So what if they didn’t do their own voices? I still know who they all are and then there’s so much singing that was really the band. So who cares? It’s just good fun, if a little dated. And I have to say I don’t mind the datedness. It’s nice to see a movie where the answer to everything is love and music. It’s a sixties fairy tale, with a sixties fairy tale ending.

August 8, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Yellow Submarine (1968)

August 8, 2010

Yellow Submarine

I was raised on Beatles music. My parents had a fairly large collection of LPs when I was growing up, about three quarters of which were various classical music performances and one quarter of which were music from the sixties. We had some Joan Baez, some Arlo Guthrie, some Country Joe and the Fish, some Crosby Stills and Nash… and about every Beatles album ever. I’d sit for hours by the old stereo record player they had in a cabinet in the living room wearing the enormous pair of Koss headphones they had and losing myself in the music. I’d only eventually stop when the headphones would pinch my little head so much that I started to get a headache. So I was already intimately familiar with the music of this movie when I eventually first saw it.

I can remember twice seeing Yellow Submarine in a theater setting. Once was at the old Pi Alley theater I think. I would have been about six or seven at the time, so it was around 1978 or ‘79. Probably ‘78 for a tenth anniversary re-release. Later on I remember seeing it as part of a film series at the Boston Public Library. At the time I clearly wouldn’t have gotten any of the many psychedelic references in the movie, much less puns like “What day is it?” “Sitarday.” for the introduction of George. For me it was just a grand animated adventure film set to Beatles music.

You have to remember that this was in the days before cable television and long before MTV. This was, in a way, an introduction to the concept of music videos. Only with an overarching plot. Thinking about it now I realize that since only one song in the movie was really written for it (Northern Song, since Hey Bulldog is only on this extended special edition and was not in the movie when it first came out) this film has a lot in common with Across the Universe, which we have already reviewed. It takes a bunch of Beatles songs and re-purposes them to fit the movie. In most cases the songs are only tangentially related to the movie – as with Eleanor Rigby and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. In other cases they make an effort to explain in the plot how the song is related such as with When I’m Sixty-Four and Nowhere Man. It doesn’t even have any real Beatles in it until the closing credits – it’s all Beatles impersonators.

None of this, however, keeps the movie from being a wonderful thing. The tale of a magical legendary utopia deep under the sea that is besieged by evil Blue Meanies that can only be conquered through the power of music is so unique, so evocative, and so compelling that it never ceases to lighten my heart. The animation is quirky, with a load of strangely proportioned cartoon characters and plenty of rotoscoping, black and white photographs and cycled animation. But the Beatles are recognizably themselves, and I love the Blue Meanies themselves and their odd collection of armaments. The bonkers who clobber people with the Apple Corps logo. The creepy armless clowns whose noses, when pressed, cause things to explode. And of course the leering animated blue glove. All of them are so strange, like nothing you’d see in any other film.

I love the mythology of Pepperland and the strange cosmology of the many seas that the Beatles must traverse to reach it. The sea of time, the sea of science, the sea of monsters, the sea of holes and the sea of green. I’ve always loved Jeremy (or Hillary or Boob or P.H.d.) the nowhere man… he’s such a strange and tragic figure.

Of course what makes the movie more than anything else is the music. Throughout tonight’s viewing I found myself quoting the horrible puns, grinning and humming along to the catchy Beatles tunes. It’s easy to believe that music like this really could defeat the Blue Meanies of the world, and that in the end all you really need is love.

August 8, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment