Nothing is Real: One More Trip in the Yellow Submarine

Yellow Submarine (1968), the animated feature film based around the music of the Beatles, was a fixture on British TV when I was growing up in the 70s. I must have seen it half a dozen times before I became a fan of the Beatles’ music in my late teens. When my eldest niece was young, I thought it was something she might be interested in, so we sat down and watched it together. When it had finished, I asked her what she thought of it and I will never forget her reply: “It was good, but did it have to have all those songs in it?” Ah, the innocence of youth; for some of us all those songs are what makes the film special – still, I think we undervalue Yellow Submarine to view it as some kind of extended promotional film for the Beatles’ music, because at its heart, it really is a quite unique animated film and a product of its time that can never be repeated.

Viewed today, it’s hard to believe that Yellow Submarine was produced by King Features, the same studio that had earlier released The Beatles animated TV series, which was – to be generous – a bit rough around the edges. King Features Syndicate was founded in 1914 by newspaper magnate and real-life Citizen Kane William Randolph Hearst to supply syndicated columns and cartoons for papers in the US and abroad. They had pre-Disney animated success with adapting their cartoon strip characters such as Felix the Cat, Betty Boop and Popeye into movie theatre shorts in the late 20s, so they weren’t hacks – they had mountains of animation experience. The problem was that The Beatles was rushed into production to cash in on what was believed to be a passing fad… and boy, does it show!

With Yellow Submarine, they had much more time to develop the project. Unfortunately, the real life Beatles had seen the TV show and they weren’t impressed, so they declined to use their own voices on the soundtrack. Production was shifted from the USA to London and drafted in a host of hungry young British animators, including Dianne Jackson, director of 1982s The Snowman, Ron Campbell, who worked on Sesame Street in the 70s, Gerald Potterton, who worked on Heavy Metal (and also on Sesame Street – now there’s a contrast!) and Anne Joliffe, who worked on the Academy Award winning Great! for Bob Godfrey in 1975. Although not an animator on the film, Roobarb and Henry’s Cat creator Bob Godfrey (already an established film maker who had worked on cutaways for the Beatles’ Help!) was an uncredited animation advisor.

The voices of the Fab Four in the Beatles cartoon series were divvied up between American Paul Frees (the voice of many things including the supercomputer Colossus in Colossus: The Forbin Project) and British actor and That Was The Week That Was alumnus Lance Percival, but these were widely criticised for being broad, nasal caricatures of the Liverpudlian accent. Percival did appear in Yellow Submarine, but as the voice of Fred, the captain of the titular craft. The Beatles themselves were cast with more authentic Merseyside voices: John Clive, now better known as an author, was John Lennon and future Coronation Street regular Geoffrey Hughes was Paul McCartney; Paul Angelis was Ringo Starr, as well as being the narrator and the chief Blue Meanie and George Harrison was initially played by a young actor called Peter Batten, who was arrested by military police midway through the production for being AWOL from the British Army. Angelis stepped in to finish his lines. Finally, established British sketch comedian Dick Emery played a few characters, most significantly the nowhere man Mr. Boob.

The script of Yellow Submarine (given an uncredited polish by Liverpool Bard Roger McGough) is quite surreal, but in a much more coherent way than the stoned meanderings of other late 60s psychedelic pictures like Wonderwall or The Magic Christian; there’s actually a plot here if you care to look for it, albeit quite a thin one, but it mainly exists to carry the songs and the imagery, so it doesn’t need to be Hamlet. It’s also genuinely funny, though I suspect that some of the more earthy Scouse allusions might have gone completely over the head of the American audience. The four leads are painted broadly as people tended to perceive them: John is the thinker with a dark, caustic wit; Paul is the heroic, slightly pompous ladies man; George is the unfathomable mystic; and Ringo is the dour Eeyore-type character who nevertheless has all the best one-liners.

Yellow Submarine is not an art-house film, although the contemporary trailer (link at the bottom of this page) does its best to convince you it is; there’s a definite sense that what they were trying to do is create something that would appeal to children, but still be watchable by the Beatles’ core audience. People easily forget that children’s entertainment of the 60s was often deeply influenced by the psychedelic movement, from The Magic Roundabout to The Tyrant King, and that the surreal visuals of psychedelia became something completely divorced from the drugs that initially created them. As the 60s drew to a close, the music industry was falling under the thrall of more destructive recreational drugs that promoted lethargy rather than creativity – but the imagery of psychedelia in children’s media continued well into the 70s, with shows like Crystal Tips and Alistair (1972) and Ludwig (1977). Yellow Submarine is not a film for stoners (though they’d most likely enjoy it), it is the music of the Beatles repackaged for a family audience; an ambition which it achieves with aplomb.

The animation isn’t Disney, but then it doesn’t aim to be and lacked the budget to be anyway; still, it uses the process of limited animation to great effect. As well as the basic cell animation that makes up most of the running time, Yellow Submarine often experiments with other techniques such as film loops, photo-montage and rotoscoping, making it a much more creatively diverse film than it’s often given credit for. The use of an oscilloscope in the Only a Northern Song sequence could be arguably classed as the very first use of computer-generated imagery in a commercial animated film, so there’s a lot about Yellow Submarine that is well ahead of its time and it is known to have been an influence on a young John Lassetter, the founder of Pixar. The more experimental sequences are probably of less interest to children, but the film is trying its best to please everyone, which is an admirable (if sometimes foolhardy) pursuit.

There are a lot of visually impressive elements in Yellow Submarine that rarely get the recognition they deserve; critics tend to focus on the surreal elements and miss outstanding features like the wonderful perspective shot in the Nowhere Man sequence, where the fab four perform a horizontal rotation as if standing on the grooves of a record; then later towards the camera over a rainbow archway. It doesn’t sound like much, but these are wonderful 3-dimensional perspectives you wouldn’t have ever seen in an animated film in the 60s and which, although just a click of the mouse away with modern computer generated imaging, were very difficult to do achieve with simple cell animation.

There is no ‘new’ Beatles music in Yellow Submarine; All Together Now, Only a Northern Song, Hey Bulldog and It’s All Too Much were previously unreleased but recorded during sessions for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour, whereas all the other songs were either existing singles, B-sides or album tracks. There’s a beautiful new orchestral score by George Martin however, which riffs on Yellow Submarine and other tracks. Although cues from the film were included on the flipside of the original album, the 1999 Yellow Submarine Songtrack album ditched them for a more comprehensive list of Beatles songs featured in the film. It’s a shame because George Martin’s music really deserves a full soundtrack release in its own right.

The Beatles themselves did not expect much from Yellow Submarine and although it was the first cinematic release co-produced by their own Apple Films, they initially saw it chiefly as a way of hastening their departure from their three-film deal with United Artists, in which they had lost interest. But, according to legend, when they saw the rough cuts of the animation and understood that this was a different beast entirely from the Beatles TV cartoon, they put their full weight behind the project and agreed to put in a live action appearance at the end of the film. Filmed against a black backdrop, it’s often claimed that the sequence was supposed to have psychedelic backgrounds keyed in which were dropped for lack of budget, but given that John, Paul, George and Ringo are also wearing black, I’m not sure how credible that would have been given the technology of the time.

I’ve always loved Yellow Submarine as a film. Looking at it now, I think that some of its technical achievements are eclipsed by its status as ‘a Beatles film’. It’s unfair to compare it to A Hard Day’s Night or Help! because they are completely different entities; Magical Mystery Tour tried the same thing but was hamstrung by the limitations of the live action media at the time and a sort of drug-addled lack of direction. Yellow Submarine is a much more satisfying film than Magical Mystery Tour in my humble opinion. As with all things Beatles, Yellow Submarine will be over-analysed to the point where its original artistry drowns in a sea of pretentious academia, but to me it’s just a fun film with lots of great music, that can still be enjoyed 50+ years later by children and adults alike. And in answer to my niece’s question: yes, it really does need to have all those songs.

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