The Beatles still manage to remain vital and relevant fifty years after they broke up. On April 25, they pulled a surprise: a YouTube viewing of their 1968 animated film, Yellow Submarine, adding sing-along captioning in the style of the film’s graphics. In a prior blog, I wrote extensively about the Yellow Submarine soundtrack at tinyurl.com/zubmarine. The movie itself has a unique position in the Beatles’ canon.
By this point in their careers, The Beatles had soured on making movies, they were unhappy with the Help! project, and for the first time, were savaged in the press for the rudderless Magical Mystery Tour. So, the animated Yellow Submarine movie is a Beatles movie with almost zero Beatles involvement. They considered the soundtrack as a ‘dustbin’ for songs that weren’t up to snuff, especially George’s, and they had almost no input on the movie. Hell, they were even too apathetic about the project to do the voiceovers for themselves, the four Beatles characters. This was the very definition of a contractual obligation film, made to fulfill their three film deal with United Artists.
I must admit, it had been a LONG time since I had seen this movie. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen it all the way through. I remember it being hard to follow, lots of hard to process accents and squeaky dialog.
Watching the entire film again, I was really amazed at the animation. The print has been hand-and digitally-restored and is top notch. I was going to try to offer a synopsis, but the plot is pretty nonsensical. In that respect it is a series of vignettes, heavily hippie, pop art, and drug influenced, loosely retro fit around well-known Beatles’ lyrics.
Led by Canadian producer George Dunning, the film as I understand it, was given out in 12 to 13 minute parcels to various animators, such as Ron Campbell, who also worked on the Beatles Saturday morning cartoon show. The juxtaposition of the terrific music and the trippy animation just works. The stream I watched was horribly out of sync with the dialog and sound effects, but it didn’t really matter. The cut of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ with the ‘lonely people’ pictured reminded me an awful lot of Terry Gilliam’s animation with Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It’s a beautiful, tender vignette. Upon meeting Jeremey Hillary Booby, there’s a great scene where ‘Nowhere Man’ plays. ‘Lucy In The Sky’ uses amazing rotoscoped images that really work well with the song.
Of course, the highlight for me is the scene with ‘Hey Bulldog,’ one of Lennon’s great rockers, as the lads are being chased by Blue Meanie bulldogs, There’s also an earlier scene when the Yellow Submarine arrives in London, and there are quick cuts of city pictures that remind me very much of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I did not join the sing along, as I really wanted to experience the movie. The Beatles themselves finally do appear in person, in a (short, contractually obligated) live action farewell at the end.
Basically, the Beatles did it again. As weird and nonsensical as this film is I enjoyed it very much, and I smiled through most of it. There are a lot of clever Beatle puns in the dialog that I only understand now. From what I’ve read about the Yellow Submarine movie, it seems to be considered as a landmark project in ‘bringing back’ animated films. John Lassiter from Pixar lauded it as a very important film, and its influence can be seen on Schoolhouse Rock and PBS’s The Electric Company. Even when they weren't trying, The Beatles somehow brought everyone together again.
All you need is love, and hand washing!
This brings me to a very interesting Beatles book Adrienne sent me, called Inside The Yellow Submarine: The Making Of The Beatles Animated Classic by Dr. Robert R. Hieronimus. This book, published in 2002, chronicles the difficult birth and construction of the Yellow Submarine movie. Indeed the Beatles themselves were completely hands off, but United Artists had a three picture deal and they still owed one. Al Brodax, the New York American producer of The Beatles saturday morning cartoon, used TVC, or TV Cartoons, in London to make the series and had them work on the movie as well. He hired Canadian George Dunning as the director and Czech Heinz Edelman as the art director.
Working under a strict deadline and breaking almost every rule of animation movies, somehow Yellow Submarine was made. Behind the scenes, it’s a very interesting story, basically pitting the American ‘money-men’ versus the British and European ‘artists.’ They didn’t invent a new style, but greatly improved on old techniques.
Animation films are made to the soundtrack. This is a cardinal rule. The dialog is recorded and is used as the lead for the animation. This did not happen on Yellow Submarine, as there was never a clear script. An outline by Lee Minoff was later punched up by Erich Segal (who wrote Love Story!) and later writers were also involved, including uncredited Liverpool poet Roger McGeogh to add a real ‘Liverpool’ touch. The script changed until the film’s release.
This is the story of the whole making of the movie, which was basically controlled chaos, different teams working on different parts and the directors having to piece it together. There were a few things the ‘artists’ were united about. One, they were not going to make a ‘kiddie’ cartoon like The Beatles Saturday show. This was considered the lowest form of animation sausage making. Second, they had a universal disdain for the Disney style of animation. Remember, the Blue Meanies all wore Mickey Mouse ears!
Another thing the book makes clear is that acclaimed artist Peter Max had nothing to do with Yellow Submarine, although he seemed to take some credit for it later in his career. The amazing Heinz Edelman was the lead, drawing the Beatles figures and coming up with the Blue Meanie characters. He was a genius working in two dimensions.
There are many great stories in this book, especially who did what and who gets credit. There are many different versions of the same stories and it’s fun to try to figure out who to believe, an animators’ Rashomon. Hieronimus has done a great job of interviewing almost every person involved in the movie, and he lets them speak.
As the movie nears completion, The Beatles get wind of it and seeing the footage, get excited and want to be involved. They offer to provide the voices (way too late to be of any use), and John Lennon inexplicably starts to take credit for the story. The premier of the movie is a success, with the last look at Beatlemania with the crowds at the London premier, but the movie is not well distributed in Britain. The British press is still cool on The Beatles after Magical Mystery Tour. The film does much, much better in the USA.
There is a long period when the movie ownership is in dispute, and it only gets a limited release on VHS and shown on TV a few times. There is extensive talk of the ‘Hey Bulldog’ sequence, shown in the British version but removed from the US version. The scene (with the most rocking song in the movie) is put back in for the restoration. Things get settled and there is a full, fabulous restoration done for the 30th anniversary in 1998. The soundtrack is redone in 5.1 sound and the DVD and sound are amazing. Again, somehow, the actual movie release is not well rolled out in Britain or the US.
To a person, everyone that Hieronimus speaks to, especially serious artists like Heinz Edelman, realize that, no matter what else they’ve done, the only thing they’ll be known for is Yellow Submarine. The Beatles paint you a different color, and those who worked on the eleven month film shoot will always be remembered for it.
That being said, Yellow Submarine was the first animated feature to make a splash since the Disney pictures of the 1950’s. It was very influential on people such as Monty Python's Terry Gilliam, and Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (MTV era video makers), and especially the creators that would form Pixar, such as John Lassiter. Yellow Submarine had a positive message, and it still thrills young and old alike. Maybe John was right, when he sang “nothing is real.”
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