YELLOW SUBMARINE (1968, animation) revisited

July 7, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. “It was 50 years ago, Sgt Pepper taught the band to play”. OK, I know that’s not the lyric, but 50 fits better than 20 when we are talking about the latest re-mastered 4K version of the classic animated YELLOW SUBMARINE from The Beatles. Originally released in 1968, the story is by Lee Minoff and is based on the Lennon-McCartney song of the title. Additional dialogue and story elements were contributed by (at least) four other writers, including Erich Segal of LOVE STORY fame, and after all these years, the film not only remains quite entertaining, it has attained a certain legendary status.

Directed by George Dunning (animation producer), also instrumental in The Beatles “unaffiliated” animated TV series of the same era, the film requires a bit of historical perspective to bring the full picture into focus. This was the year before Woodstock, and the Beatles were no longer the four fresh faced lads from Liverpool. Their songs had not only changed the music world, it had changed them as individuals. Much of their charm had turned to cynicism, and drug use was prevalent. The band reluctantly agreed to allow production of this animated movie for the sole purpose of fulfilling their 3 film contract with United Artist (A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, HELP!). Other than the songs and a closing segment, they were barely involved … not even voicing their own characters.

The true legacy is what we see on screen, and after 50 years, it remains magical. The psychedelic pop art visuals were unlike anything most of us had ever seen. The colors and images seemed to explode in vibrancy and come alive before our eyes. Some have mistakenly credited pop artist Peter Max as the man behind the colorful images, and fans of Monty Python (especially Terry Gilliam) will easily recognize the stylistic influence. Sharp ears will pick up references to Beatles lyrics not included on the soundtrack, and much of the dialogue captures the droll tone of Lennon or the whimsy of McCartney. However, we never stop thinking about how much more effective this could have been with John, Paul, George and Ringo providing the voices.

An extended opening sequence provides the basics of the story – The Blue Meanies are coming (!) and they intend to expunge all music and color from Pepperland. The only way to stop them is with Beatles music. Once we ‘understand’ the story, we hear Ringo’s vocals kick off the title song over the opening credits. Through the adventure we meet some fascinating and creative characters, see an abundance of green apples (the logo for Apple Records), play spot the icon (with actual photographs), laugh along with Ringo and his “hole” in the pocket, and catch the essence of Beatles wit, though the dialogue is sometimes a bit muddled.

Of course, beyond the animation, it’s the music that matters. Two songs that stand out because of the corresponding animation are “Eleanor Rigby” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”.  Some of the 11 Beatles songs mish-mashed from various albums include:  “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, “All You Need is Love”, “All Together Now”, and “When I’m Sixty-Four”. There are also a couple of George Harrison songs that aren’t otherwise available, and a personal favorite, “Hey Bulldog”, which has its own sequence, and was originally only included in the UK movie version. We also notice the beautiful orchestra music composed by long-time Beatles producer George Martin.

At the time it was released, hippies would claim the movie looks better when you’re stoned, and it’s likely for those folks, that sentiment held true for most things in life. The message of the day and one present in much of the Beatles’ work, is that of Love. It’s a message that rings true today, and also part of why the film works so well for both kids and adults. Although we may be a bit disappointed that the fab four don’t provide the voices of their characters, the stunning visuals and classic songs make this a film for everyone. The short live action sequence at the end where we see the real John, Paul, George and Ringo is simply the cherry on top … or is that an Apple?

watch the (U.S.) trailer:

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A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (1964) revisited

July 16, 2014

a hard days night Greetings again from the darkness. It’s the 50th anniversary and what a treat to see the re-mastered, restored film in a crowded theatre – many wearing their Beatles shirts. The quasi-documentary, cinema verite’ approach from director Richard Lester may not fit the traditional idea of a great movie, but at a minimum, it’s a fantastic pop culture artifact showing a world on the verge of change (and four of those partially responsible).

The Beatles first film shows them at the most innocent and fresh-faced we ever see them … it’s just a few months after their appearance on “the Ed Sullivan Show”. John Lennon is the most guarded, but his quick wit and distrust of the establishment are obvious. Paul McCartney is at his cutest and least arrogant, but still managing to pose on cue. George Harrison comes across most open and full of joy – before he became the most publicly withdrawn. Ringo Starr is self-deprecating and in full hang-dog mode.

For a stark contrast, watch the four lads a year later in HELP!, also directed by Mr. Lester. The luster of fame is clearly tarnished and they are quite aware of the power they wield. In contrast, during this shoot, we are almost “on set” as the boys are first experiencing Beatlemania! In addition to the Fab Four, British actor Wilfrid Brambill plays Paul’s Grandfather. The recurring gag of him being “very clean” is a play on Brambill’s long-running role as Albert Steptoe in “Steptoe & Son” where he is referred to as “a dirty old man“. Victor Spinetti plays the very anxious TV director wearing the infamous sweater. Mr. Spinetti also appeared in HELP! (1965) and The Magical Mystery Tour (1967). Richard Vernon played the grumpy old man sharing the train car with the boys. Mr. Vernon also appeared in Goldfinger that same year. Another James Bond link occurs when Ringo is invited to the Le Cercle Club … the same club James Bond first appears in Dr. No (1962). Lastly, Pattie Boyd is one of the giggly schoolgirls on the train and appears in 3 different scenes. 18 months later, she was married to George Harrison … and a few years later, she reiterated her attraction to lead guitarists by marrying Eric Clapton.

I was caught off guard by the frenetic pace of the film … it has been 3 decades since I last watched it. But mostly, I was stunned at the clean look of this restored version and was awed by the terrific sound, especially of the song restorations completed by Giles Martin, the son of Beatles record producer Sir George Martin … who was nominated for an Academy Award for his film score.

The film inspired the 1960’s TV show “The Monkees“, and of course, the soundtrack was a massive best seller and chart topper. “If I Fell” is one of my favorite Beatles songs and it’s a nice segment in the film, but the real climax is the performance of “She Loves You”, replete with terrific crowd shots. The impact and lasting impression of the film is every bit as recognizable as that stunning opening chord to the title track that opens the film.

watch the (new) trailer: