It was fifty years ago today…
On Sunday 8th July, cinemas up and down the land screened the Beatles animated musical fantasy Yellow Submarine to mark the 50th anniversary of its release in July, 1968. Remastered and restored for the celebration (for the first time since the thirtieth anniversary in 1998) it’s perhaps fair to say that Yellow Submarine has never looked better, with every image an eye-popping delight.
I’ll be honest with you, when I first saw Yellow Submarine as a kid on TV sometime in the 1980s, I didn’t like it and it actually rather scared me. I could just about get on board with the Edwardian fantasy of Pepperland; an Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll inspired utopia under threat from the Blue Meanies. But it was the eerie, fading and derelict Victorian grandeur of late ’60s Liverpool, the city up the road from my St Helens home, presented to the strains of the equally eerie Beatles classic, Eleanor Rigby, with those staring, trapped faces (‘Eleanor Rigby…waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door’) and the jerky Gilliam-esque red shirted Liverpool players facing off to their blue-shirted Everton rivals with no ball in sight, that really gave me the jitters. “Liverpool can be a lonely place on a Saturday night,” a suitably melancholic Ringo informs us, before adding with that dry and quirky wit that no one is ever sure originated from Liverpool or the Beatles first, “and this is only Thursday morning”. It is therefore somewhat ironic that this is now my favourite sequence in the whole film, but at the time it was the litmus test that decided this film was not for me. The Liverpool sequence was swiftly followed up by the stately, TARDIS-like mausoleum of pop art that appears to be the home of the Fab Four, followed by the increasing dark surrealism of the seas of time, science, monsters, holes and nothing that the Beatles had to traverse in their titular submarine. It was a little too much for my infant brain and I guess back then I expected something more cheery, something a little more Disney, than the dark-tinged, eccentric and peculiar fantasy the Beatles ultimately offered up. It was probably the same for me with the fear-inducing Watership Down. Yellow Submarine may be a ‘cartoon’ but it wasn’t necessarily for children. First and foremost the film is a musical; it is a vehicle for arguably the world’s greatest rock band and, the minute the Fab Four appear on the soundtrack, the film invariably becomes a little more adult and a little more trippy, with the important message of loving one another remaining as relevant now to mature minds as it was in ’68 . What Yellow Submarine proved is that animation could be grown up too… if you let it grow on you.
The Beatles provided some new tracks for the film, but their input to the film itself was rather minimal because they had little interest in making another movie after the disappointment they felt with Help!. As a result, the Fab Four were voiced by actors (Paul Angelis, John Clive and Geoff Hughes – with some dialogue for George Harrison being provided by an uncredited Peter Batten who was arrested halfway through recording when it was revealed he was a deserter from the British army!) who each nail the public persona of the band; John is prone to deliver witty ripostes and pontificate, exploring a world of his own; Paul is depicted as a rather cool customer who is never happier than when he’s surrounded by instruments; George is heavily into mysticism and seems unfazed by the events that play out around him (“It’s all in the mind” he says several times during the increasingly bizarre narrative); and Ringo is, as he was in A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, the centrepoint to the narrative and a rather doleful and hapless figure. It could be argued that it’s a shame that the Beatles didn’t see the possibilities inherent in Yellow Submarine; animation did not have the same restraints that even Dick Lester found himself butting against to get the Beatles distinctive talents and imagination to the screen, and the film received a kind of widespread critical acclaim that their other film ventures failed to reach. The casting of Lance Percival and Dick Emery, as Old Fred the sailor and Max/The Lord Mayor and Jeremy Hilary Boob respectively, showcase the Beatles affection for British comedy of the seaside postcard and music hall tradition, just as much as the charabanc nature of singalong tracks such as When I’m Sixty-Four, All Together Now and the eponymous Yellow Submarine do.
Watching it again in 2018 – perhaps for the first time in over a decade – I can appreciate the film a whole lot more. It’s incredible to consider how influential the film actually is, predating the rise of music videos and MTV by a good fifteen years, by partnering impressive visuals with the soundtrack. The aforementioned Eleanor Rigby is a standout, along with the striking and inventive rotoscope artwork for Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. The animation itself is also influential, paving the way not only for Terry Gilliam’s work on Do Not Adjust Your Set and Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but also stuff like Sesame Street too. Despite its obviously nostalgic appeal and a psychedelic nature that firmly fixes the film in the time period of the late 1960s, I don’t actually feel that Yellow Submarine has dated all that much, thanks in no small part to the timeless nature of the Beatles music.
Fifty years may have passed but there’s nothing else quite like Yellow Submarine.