Why The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine is a trippy cult classic

Published in BBC Culture on July 25, 2018

In 1968, The Beatles got in a yellow submarine and sailed away to the sea of green – on screen at least – in an animated caper designed to fulfil their three-picture contract for United Artists, without much effort on their part.

It could have sunk without a trace, a cinematic curio of the flower power age. Yet Yellow Submarine has become an enduring cult classic. The yellow sub can be found on all sorts of merchandise, from socks and tea infusers to Lego sets and Monopoly boards. Rumour has it, it’s even one of the Queen’s favourite films.

It may boast almost absurdly of-its-era psychedelic visuals and a tripped-out narrative, but its appeal isn’t as the stoner’s background movie of choice: Yellow Submarine has also become a children’s favourite. “That film works for every generation,” George Harrison himself decreed.

The Beatles’ music, which naturally soundtracks this British film, has always had inter-generational appeal – but the whimsical, pun-filled script also works on various levels too. Long before Pixar, this funny little film directed by George Dunning pulled off the trick of simultaneously appealing to both kids and their parents.

I should know: I was raised on it, courtesy of hippie parents and a beloved grainy VHS I must have watched hundreds of times. I also had a DVD of it as a student, and – having just watched the new, beautifully restored version in the cinema, with a resplendently loud, crisp soundtrack – can confirm that, at 50, it’s aging remarkably well.

For the uninitiated, the movie tells the story – such as it is – of Pepperland, a peaceful place full of gardens and bandstands, 80,000 leagues beneath the sea. But it is invaded by the Blue Meanies, who can’t bear music, or beauty, or happiness and turn its inhabitants to stone. One Pepperland inhabitant, named Old Fred, manages to flee in a yellow submarine, and winds up in Liverpool, where he enlists The Beatles to help; they voyage through various surreal, metaphysical ‘seas’ (the sea of time, the sea of holes) until they make it to Pepperland. There, dressing up as – yes – Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, they unfreeze the people and melt even the Blue Meanies’ cold hearts by singing All You Need is Love.

Deep waters

It’s about the most 60s thing imaginable. The animation, led by Heinz Edelmann, is in the vein of psychedelic artists Martin Sharp and Alan Aldridge, or graphic design outfits of the era such as The Fool and Hapshash and the Coloured Coat. Flowers and foliage curl and multiply in eye-popping hues. Flat outlined figures look like Aubrey Beardsley drawings on acid. Watercolour shading on landscapes and plants lends an unsettling beauty. Seas of monsters seem drawn straight from the animator’s subconscious. It’s a trip.

But it’s not all rainbows. And it certainly isn’t Disney – the only other feature-length animation studio that was really a success at the time. While most of Yellow Submarine is in teeth-achingly bright hues, there’s also a rather sooty mixed media montage early on, to the mournful strains of Eleanor Rigby, that offers a haunting evocation of a Liverpool that’s far from the Swinging 60s of Carnaby Street. And there are also suitably mind-blowing op-art style sequences – the seemingly infinite black-and-white sea of holes still freaks me out.

Animation, in general, does possess an almost unique power to be, well, strange: you can create anything you can imagine, play wildly with scale and colour, even collapse space and time. Yellow Submarine realises the full potential of all that. I love the moment where a monstrous sucking beast hoovers up first other creatures, then the background, then his own body. The animation eats itself, and there’s something deliciously meta about the filmmakers’ approach; they play with the cartoon form.

It was boldly innovative at the time – the Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds sequence featured some pioneering rotoscoping work, gleaming colours traced over live action footage of dancers – and the film, in technical terms, still seems fresh and bold in 2018.

Indeed, John Lassester, the director of Toy Story and former chief creative officer of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation, has called Yellow Submarine a “revolutionary work” that helped “pave the way for the fantastically diverse world of animation that we all enjoy today.” Josh Weinstein, writer for The Simpsons, has claimed the film “gave birth to modern animation”, and that without it – and its subversive humour – we’d have no South Park, Toy Story or Shrek.

Still, Yellow Submarine never gets too dark: yes, there’s a drug-haze logic to it, and the graphics that bloom and billow are hallucinogenic. But kids, too, are drawn to its kaleidoscopic nature, and easily follow the dreamy, free-associative approach to storytelling. It’s perfectly surreal – but then, all cartoons are, with their fake danger, and squash-and-stretch exaggeration.

‘Aye, sir, aye!’

The story of Yellow Submarine may be paper-thin, but it’s funny. Amazingly, the poet Roger McGough was brought in to brush the script up, and to give the humour a home-grown Liverpudlian character.

It’s duly full of non-sequiturs, groanworthy/brilliant puns, and Beatles in-jokes, drily delivered in a deadpan Scouse tone, and often easy to miss (I certainly didn’t get a lot of them as a child). When we meet Frankenstein, Ringo comments that he used to “go out with his sister, Phyllis”. John Lennon announces that they’ve got caught up in Einstein’s space time continuum theory: “relatively speaking, that is.” When Old Fred bellows “won’t you please, please help me?” Ringo drolly charges him to “be specific”.

We’re used to the idea that jokes and wordplay might be deliberately designed to go over young viewers’ heads now; the most successful kids’ films these days often have one eye on an adult audience. But Yellow Submarine arguably the first to explicitly do this.

The Beatles movies – and this was their third, after A Hard Day’s Night and Help! – were also early examples of jukebox musicals. The music is a key part of Yellow Submarine, although its pertinence to the plot is often airy at best. But it did give a chance for fans to hear new tracks, alongside classics like When I’m 64, Nowhere Man, and the title track, of course

Not that there was much new music: just four songs, as well as George Martin’s orchestral scoring. They’re a mixed bag, frankly. The relentlessly chirpy All Together Now may be an earworm, but it’s little more. Hey Bulldog is a banged-out bit of fun from John Lennon, although it nods towards the harsher direction of the White Album.

But there’s also fuel here for those who suggest George Harrison’s writing chops long went underappreciated, featuring two of his tracks ditched from Sgt Pepper. Only a Northern Song is drenched in weird, woozy chords “going wrong” (as the lyrics acknowledge), and if not his best, does have a certain droning, trippy appeal.

Then there’s It’s All Too Much – a vastly underrated track, that ends the film in a joyous sonic sunburst of Hammond organ and beaming brass. It’s the perfect fit for Yellow Submarine’s all-out psychedelic utopian optimism, hymning the hippie dream of inner peace and inter-connectedness (and apparently inspired by the summer of love and Harrison’s experiments with LSD): “When I look into your eyes, your love is there for me/And the more I go inside, the more there is to see,” he sings.

Cheesy? Shut up. I love it. It’s properly euphoric, and wonder-filled, and deserves to be more famous. I have Rolling Stone columnist Rob Sheffield on my side; he’s written in his book Dreaming the Beatles that It’s All Too Much is “the Great Lost Beatles song”. Then again, I’m probably more influenced by another childhood experience: hearing my parents talk about their wedding day. They got the organist at a church in Birkenhead to blast out that Hammond riff after they’d said “I do…” How many other band’s album rejects are good enough to get married to?

The fact that The Beatles stuck cast-offs on the soundtrack is indicative of how casually they took the movie. They didn’t even lend their voices, the Fab Four being played by actors instead. The band were concerned, apparently, that an animated film would be too childish and naff – there was a Beatles cartoon series in the US they loathed – but instantly came round when they saw the final film. They liked it so much, they even recorded a larky little live cameo to go at the end (certainly the worst bit of acting in the film).

The film’s appeal to children proved useful to The Beatles too. The story goes that Sean Lennon didn’t know his dad was a Beatle until he saw the film at a friend’s house; John had to explain why there was a version of himself running around in a cartoon. Even for their own kids, Yellow Submarine was the perfect introduction to The Beatles.

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