The Beatles: Yellow Submarine – Will you still need me when I’m 50?

With its fusion of vibrant colours, surreal forms, Beatles songs and a chaotic storyline, Yellow Submarine (1968) can come across as a rather weird, 87-minute cartoon. But the film is so much more than this superficial representation. Granted, it can seem wacky, but 50 years after its release it still carries an important moral message.

Yellow Submarine takes John, Paul, George and Ringo as its heroes, and revolves around a soundtrack of their already venerated hits, plus four original songs. It was nonetheless not initiated by the band themselves, whose acclaimed album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) had positioned them at the vanguard of popular psychedelic culture. Yellow Submarine instead emerged from less exciting territory: a contract with United Artists. This agreement, which had already produced two cinematic triumphs at the height of Beatlemania – A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965) – required a third Beatles motion picture.

This time, however, the group took a back seat while manager Brian Epstein settled with producer Al Brodax the concept for an animated film requiring minimal involvement from its real-life protagonists. Even their voiceovers were entrusted to actors, complete with their attempts at a Liverpudlian accent. For its animation, designer Heinz Edelmann strove to be pioneering, making a film that was ‘… miles from the average concept of cartoon characters, with large heads and little legs. These are Picasso-ish, of course, in their use of space as well as line to achieve movement.’

The Beatles © United Press International (UPI Telephoto)
The Beatles © United Press International (UPI Telephoto)

Yellow Submarine was inspired by the band’s ground-breaking album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released only a year earlier. In the film, the cartoons of their alter-egos live in an ‘unearthly paradise’ called Pepperland. Yet the film’s psychedelic angle, which rebelled against Disney’s mainstream animations, was much to Paul McCartney’s dismay. He wanted the film ‘to be more of a classic cartoon … I love the Disney films, so I thought this could be the greatest Disney movie ever – only with our music … They didn’t want that, though … They felt they ought to pick up on where we had been up to, which was Sgt. Pepper– but a Bambi would have been better for me at the time.’

Despite McCartney’s initial aversion, Yellow Submarine is considered monumental to the era’s art and culture. Not only were the animated versions of the band members inspired by Picasso-like forms, but more recent art styles also appear. The influence of op art (a 1960s movement that included the artist Bridget Riley and drew on theories of colour, perception and optical illusion through painted geometric forms) is undeniable in the ‘Sea of Science’ and ‘Sea of Holes’ – two futuristic regions through which The Beatles pass on their voyage to Pepperland.

Besides modernist art, Yellow Submarine draws on a literature tradition stretching back to Homer’s Odyssey.The tale of mortal heroes undertaking long and eventful journeys through fantastical lands is firmly embedded in our reading imaginations: from Gulliver’s Travels toThe Chronicles of Narnia; The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; The Time Machine to A Wrinkle in Time; and The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings. (Incidentally, United Artists acquired the film rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in 1969 and they planned to create a live-action version starring The Beatles. Sadly, Tolkien turned down the project. He rejected the idea of Paul, Ringo, George and John taking on the respective roles of Frodo, Sam, Gandalf and Gollum, which would have probably resembled the fast-paced and facetious style characteristic of their earlier films).

Yellow Submarine falls within this genre of odyssey-inspired stories that tell a story of paradise lost and regained. When Pepperland, a world of music, happiness and love, is imprisoned in greyscale by the film’s antagonists, the Blue Meanies, its Lord Mayor calls for a rescue mission. The Beatles answer their call, departing the earthly realm of Liverpool to embark on an adventure aboard a yellow submarine. The triumphant protagonists restore colour, life and love in Pepperland through the power of music. Music is nevertheless a peaceful weapon. It refrains from annihilating the Blue Meanies, instead overcoming their hate, tyranny and negativity.

Yellow Submarine is also reminiscent of more recent literature. The film is so nonsensical and possibly drug-fuelled that the impact of Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderlandis undeniable, especially in light of Jonathan Miller’s psychedelic TV play of the novel. Broadcasted in Christmas 1966, and accompanied by a Ravi Shankar soundtrack, it looked forward to the following year’s Summer of Love. Although not stated explicitly, youcan also catch sight of several drug references. For instance, ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ (a song that according to popular legend refers to the band’s experimentation with LSD) accompanies the brightly-coloured psychological realm of the ‘Foothills of the Headlands’. Even the film’staglines – ‘It’s all in the mind, y’know’ and ‘Nothing is real’ – suggests the film conveys a trip in more ways than one.

The plot constructs itself around already well-known and loved songs in The Beatles’ repertoire, inserting witty puns on lyrics and references to then common Beatle knowledge. The Apple Bonkers, tall blue men who dropped green apples on to their victims, may be an allusion to the band’s recently-conceived Apple Corps Ltd, for which the logo is a green apple. George Harrison’s ‘Only a Northern Song’, an original for the film, was copyrighted Northern Songs Ltd, so the lyrics ‘it doesn’t really matter what chords I play / What words I say / Or time of day it is / As it’s only a Northern Song’ are a somewhat bitter declaration by Harrison that he does not own the songs he writes.

Possibly the strongest myth at play in Yellow Submarine are its caricatures of The Beatles themselves. The physical appearance and public personalities of each band member were well-known to their audiences, and this shaped their animated representation. Paul is the suave, baby-faced “mod Mozart”; John, the self-assured, roguish entertainer; George, cool and spiritual, emerging from transcendental meditation, flares blowing in the wind; and the loveable Ringo, the clumsy, unlikely hero, presented just so in A Hard Day’s Night and Help!.

Yellow Submarine has been described as a ‘Mod Odyssey’ and a ‘Fable for our Time’, a tale with potency in the modern world. The film bore an important lesson when it was released 50 years ago, and continues to do so today. The Blue Meanies, though associated with the Nazis, are more likely a broad symbol of oppression and narrow-mindedness. They rob the world of feeling, colour and song through their rallying cry of “No”. The Beatles return Pepperland to its former utopia through cries of “Yes” and the universal weapons that no Blue Meanie can overpower: music and love. The idea of liberation and salvation through music is no doubt an old one, but received heightened attention during the 1960s, particularly through the enduring classic The Sound of Music (1965). Meanwhile, the anti-war movement called for peace in Vietnam through protest songs including Buffalo Springfield’s ‘For What It’s Worth’ (1967) and The Doors’ ‘Unknown Soldier’ (1968).

The songs by The Beatles that form the backbone to Yellow Submarine echo this idea of music as a uniting force against hate and conflict. Their songs aim for ‘universality’ by overcoming generational and cultural boundaries, hybridising past and present, highbrow and pop, Merseybeat and world music. The title song, ‘Yellow Submarine’, alongside the film original ‘All Together Now’, are childlike, nonsense songs, yet were well received by their teenage and adult fans. ‘Eleanor Rigby’ is a double string quartet-backed pop song that accompanies the film’s bleak, monochrome images of Liverpool and speaks poignantly of the fates faced by the lonely and elderly. In contrast, ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ is a clarinet-heavy and vaudeville-inspired song that foresees a blissful relationship in old age. ‘Love You To’, draws heavily upon non-Western music through its use of sitar. Its message is anti-establishment and speaks of finding consolation in sexual pleasure.

These are just five songs on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack played within the first half an hour of the film, but similar descriptions of ‘universality’ also apply to the remaining tracks. The central message of these songs is companionship, reaching its pinnacle with the timeless anthem ‘All You Need is Love’. The music speaks of friendship and contentment in one’s situation, of coming together, of the dangers of loneliness, of the joyfulness of lifelong partnership, and of the power of sex and intimacy over the oppressive, materialistic establishment.

This latter message sounds familiar, proving that the spirit of The Beatles and Yellow Submarine is still very present in our cultural consciousness. This year’s winner of Best Motion Picture at the Oscars, The Shape of Water,has much in common with Yellow Submarine. Besides their watery themes, both offer a moral lesson of being accepting and open-minded, to embrace all beings, human or otherwise, and – above all – that love for one another is more powerful, more profound, than the authority of any leader or organisation. As predictable and sentimental as it sounds, 2018 clearly still needs to reminded that ‘it’s easy, all you need is love’.