Yellow Submarine: 50 Years Later

In 1966, the Beatles released the song, “Yellow Submarine,” as part of a double A-sided single (with Eleanor Rigby), on the same day as Revolver, the album both songs appeared on.  The song was primarily written by Paul McCartney, with lyrical help from John Lennon and Donovan, as a song for Ringo Starr to sing.

The song had no deep intended meaning, other than it described a “happy place.”  The song reached number one in England and number two in America.  After that, the Beatles moved on.  Or, they thought they had.

In 1968, the Yellow Submarine film was a huge event.  Anything by the Beatles was an event.  The Beatles owed one more feature film to United Artists, and none of the group wanted to undertake another project like A Hard Day’s Night or Help!  The story goes that manager Brian Epstein talked with the producers of the animated cartoon series starring the Beatles, and the idea was to develop an animated feature film.

Initially, the Beatles were unimpressed with the film idea, they hated the cartoon series, and wanted as little to do with the film as possible.  Paul McCartney was quoted as hoping the animated film would be someone along the lines of a Disney animated classic, and was against the Peter Max-inspired pop art style the animated film would look like.  The Beatles would allow 10 recent songs, along with four unreleased songs (odds and ends from their unreleased inventory), and would film a cameo at the end.  They wouldn’t even have to contribute their real voices, which George Harrison thought was better.  As part of the film writing team, Liverpudlian poet Roger McGough would punch-up the dialogue to make it more Beatles-like in humor.   And finally, the Beatles would own the rights to the film.

Yellow Submarine may be thought of as silly kids film, but it really is much more than that.  The film depicts a struggle going on between the peaceful, music-loving inhabitants of Pepperland, and the invasion of the music-hating Blue Meanies, apple-bonkers and flying gloves.

The Blue Meanies could be any aggressive military force, they represented evil. Their assault of Pepperland seems like a blitzkrieg, from the air and land.

The film’s story is drawn from parts of Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour and the “Yellow Submarine” song.  The writers drew characters and references from a variety of Beatle songs to create Pepperland, the Blue Meanies and the Yellow Submarine journey.

The film’s animation might look rather basic today, but it was ahead of its time.  It reflected the pop-art landscape of the time, colors popped, images flashed and the art included a combination of different image types embedded on screen.  This was pretty heady stuff, somewhat reminiscent of Monty Python, with odd shapes flying across the screen and mixed media coming in and out of view.  Mixing in a bit of psychedelic colorscape, blending of images and editing to the music, the film creates a passable “head experience.”

Josh Weinstein, a producer of the Simpsons noted that “artists and directors used techniques no one had ever used before, and haven’t since.  If you freeze-frame it, you can see some of the brilliant tricks they came up with.”

Film critic Roger Ebert reviewed the restored film in 1999 and noted, “It has a freedom of color and invention that never tires, and it takes a delight in visual paradoxes.”

The film’s middle sequence is the Beatles’ voyage to Pepperland on the Yellow Submarine.  The writers/directors construct a series of short sequences, each giving rise to a new visual theme and usually a Beatles song.  For example, there is a reference to Einstein’s space-time continuum, as the basis for the song “When I’m Sixty-Four.”  These sequences are visually charming and goofy at the same time.  Biting heads, giant stomping boots, various colorful creatures, the Beatles aging, and then Ringo is lost to his adventures on the sea bottom, until a cavalry from the submarine rescues him.

George Martin provided the musical direction and the song cues that serve to punctuate the background and link the scenes.

The unreleased songs from The Beatles: “Only A Northern Song,” “All Together Now,” Hey Bulldog” and “It’s All Too Much.”  The older Beatle songs are nicely incorporated into the film.  Another nice example is Jeremy, who they befriend on their journey, who fixes the motor of the Yellow Submarine. Jeremy is the “Nowhere Man.”

The film has been restored and is in rich 4K high definition, a frame by frame restoration by hand. Film preservationist Paul Rutan Jr. oversaw the restoration, supervising 40 artists in India.  Rutan was interviewed by Variety, about the ordeal of the project.  His team found, “Cans and cans of original material that were kind of a mess. We had a U.S. version of the original negative, but it wasn’t the same as the U.K. release, which had the ‘Hey Bulldog’ [musical] sequences. And some other scenes were shortened, so there was no original negative of the missing pieces in the U.S. version.”

The sound was cleaned up and the music and songs remastered in 5.1 sound, which is current audio technology for use in theater and high end home audio.  The songs sound different from the versions on the records. The new mixes sharpen the instruments and improve the clarity instead of the instruments being compressed on top of each other. The original sound wasn’t bad, this is just so much better.Yellow-Submarine-still-web-1000-optimised-e1522785057309

The concept of the Beatles saving the world is fanciful but it made a good story. Traveling through the various seas to get to Pepperland have the filmmakers a canvass to paint ideas from Beatle songs. The world of 1968 was one filled with much strife. The ideas of love and living in peace were familiar Beatle themes in a world of harsh realities.

Love and peace are buckets that continually need filled.


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