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Posts Tagged ‘Yellow Submarine’

A bit over ten years ago I had the great good fortune to spend a year or so living in Japan. Naturally, there are lots of unexpected things that arise out of this kind of experience, things you never would have expected: and one of the realisations which it brought to me was how rarely you hear the music of the Beatles in the course of everyday life in the UK. In Japan, if you sit down for a toasted sandwich in a cafe, there’s a very good chance you’ll be doing it to a soundtrack from Rubber Soul or The White Album – you hear their songs everywhere and anywhere. (John Lennon is virtually the only foreigner to be treated like an honorary Japanese person, for possibly-obvious reasons, while there is a chain of shops named Yellow Submarine.)

Over here, though, not so much, especially when you consider the extent to which the Beatles have written themselves into the fabric of our popular culture. Everyone knows a couple of dozen Beatles songs in some detail, but nobody under fifty can remember where that knowledge came from, I suspect: it’s a strange kind of cultural osmosis, to which each new generation is subjected. Judging from the number of parents bringing quite small kids to a 50th-anniversary revival of Yellow Submarine which I rolled up to the other day, I may have seen the process in action.

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Directed by George Dunning, Yellow Submarine, I probably don’t need to tell you, was the Fab Four’s third movie, and one with which they had fairly minimal involvement, not least because this is a full-length animation featuring a dozen or so songs from the lads. Things get underway with a vision of Pepperland, a paradise of freedom, enlightenment, and music, where all is peace and harmony – at least, until the place is heinously assaulted by the implacably negative Blue Meanies, a bunch of killjoys with a rather eccentric arsenal of apple-bonkers, anti-music missiles, snapping Turks and a terrible flying glove.

Pepperland seems certain to fall to the forces of glumness, and so the mayor packs off the crusty sailor Old Fred (voiced by Lance Percival) to fetch help, putting him in command of, well, a yellow submarine, which can fly. Of course. Old Fred’s quest winds up leading him to late-sixties Liverpool, where he encounters first Ringo (voiced by Paul Angelis), and then the other three Beatles – John (John Clive), Paul (Geoffrey Hughes), and George (mostly an uncredited Peter Batten, who departed the production quite rapidly when it was discovered he was wanted for desertion from the British army). With the lads on board, the yellow submarine sets course back to Pepperland, but a strange voyage it will prove to be…

I’m really in two minds when it comes to the plot of Yellow Submarine – on the one hand, there is something absolutely sound and perhaps even mythic about the basic structure of the quest for help against invaders. But on the other, I can’t help thinking that this isn’t a musical film in the conventional sense – by which I mean, it’s not a narrative in which the songs serve to establish or develop character, and comment on the plot. Rather, it seems like a collection of songs around which a very loose storyline has been written, with animated sequences used to illustrate the tunes. Comparisons with Fantasia (another non-narrative musical anthology) seem to me to be quite apt.

It is customary to praise the film for the ceaseless psychedelic invention of its visuals, but if you think about it, what else were they supposed to do? Given the job of animating an accompaniment to the song Yellow Submarine, what would you do? You’d look at the lyrics and try to discern some underlying metaphor or subtext to the song. And I suspect you’d find that this really is just a piece of oompah-oompah silliness about some people living in an ochre-hued submersible. The same seems to be true of a lot of the other songs here – I’m reminded of a John Lennon quote, about Hey Bulldog in particular, suggesting it is ‘a good-sounding record that means nothing.’ In a similar way you could probably argue that Yellow Submarine is a visually-striking film that has no particular depth to it.

Then again, the late 60s were littered with good-looking cultural artefacts that are a bit cryptic, to say the least, at first glance – you could probably add The Prisoner and 2001: A Space Odyssey to the same list. And the best sequences of animation in Yellow Submarine are certainly distinctive and reasonably inventive, even if the animators seem to be struggling with the fact that some of the songs don’t really have any particular meaning. (The film’s sequence accompanying Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds – and I have to say that while I like the Beatles’ rendition, it’s William Shatner’s which is truly definitive for me – shies away from actual visions of newspaper taxis and marshmallow pies in favour of rotoscoped ballroom dancing.) By the far the most effective segment of the film, if you ask me, is that accompanying Eleanor Rigby, a song which genuinely seems to be about something, and I think this is not a coincidence.

That said, the film’s producer Al Brodax was quite cynical about the creative process involved: the Beatles were under contract to produce four brand new songs for the film, and ended up only giving Brodax ones which they didn’t think were particularly good, saving the better ones for other projects (or so he suggested). I have to say this does remind me of the apparent modus operandi of the Monty Python collective, who would sell any sketches that didn’t pass their own quality control process to The Two Ronnies – but then comparing the Pythons and the Beatles is something of a cliché, for all that some of the animation here looks decidedly Gilliamesque, and the surreal humour of the film also not a million miles away. (Much of the puns and wordplay in the script were apparently courtesy of an uncredited Roger McGough.)

One is tempted to suggest the whole film could almost be seen as an exercise in the meeting of contractual obligations – the band themselves turning in some rather variable tunes (It’s Only A Northern Song is about as close to forgettable as the Beatles ever produced) and only turning up in person very briefly at the end. (It has to be said that the actors do a pretty decent job of presenting the Beatles as they are, or were, popularly received – John the sarky rebel, Ringo the clown, George the mystic, Paul the nice guy of ambiguous mortality.) For all of its inventiveness, there are still moments when the film is clearly being rather thrifty – seconds go by in front of static images, while the animation for the second half of the Nowhere Man sequence is plainly pretty much that of the first half, only run in reverse.

And yet, and yet, and yet. You sit there and think this film has not aged well, and its roots as a quaint piece of pop-art psychedelia are clearly showing, and the plot is not up to much – but then you listen to the string arrangement of Eleanor Rigby, or the guitar solo of Nowhere Man, or the piano part of Hey Bulldog, or the crescendo from A Day in the Life, and it lifts you up and makes you smile and reminds you of just why the music of the Beatles is woven into all of our lives so indelibly. No-one else in music has ever done so much, so quickly, so well. If ever a band was touched by genius, it was these boys, and for that I am more than happy to forgive them, and this movie, a lot.

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