Yellow Submarine (1968)

31st March 2020

Peace, peace, supplant the doom and the gloom.
Turn off what is sour, turn into a flower and bloom, bloom.
Dr Jeremy Hillary Boob PhD.

Much like the frozen inhabitants of Pepperland drained of their music and vibrancy by the blue meanies at the beginning of Yellow Submarine, we are currently under global siege from the doom and gloom of COVID-19. Locked down with more free time, I have been ruminating on the relevance of this jukebox musical cult classic in 2020 and what we might learn from its timely message (52 years in the making) of escaping inside to look a little deeper.

Yellow Submarine is a film that trips with you, taking you from “here, now” to “THERE-WOW!” in 30-60 seconds. When first released in 1968, traditional animated motion-pictures typically had at least one scene rooted to reality or something to which the audience could relate (think of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland or Fantasia). I could imagine that those who enjoyed Disney animated films may have had trouble comprehending Yellow Submarine’s raucous storyline, where content and form free flow for much of its runtime, grooving from one far-out set piece to another.

Much like the experience of watching the film itself, the yellow submarine swiftly navigates a primordial soup of modern art, dry wordplay and whimsy. The eponymous submersible becomes a protagonist, helping the audience navigate the murky seas of unfettered creative expression and intertextual references to modern art, pop art and op-art are displayed (as Old Fred asks Ringo: “Displaying what?” “Displaying around”). Passing through tableaux of halls, museums and seas full of fantastical characters and monsters, the fractal-like nature of the yellow submarine gives the impression of an ever-expanding sea of meaning where the currents could take us anywhere. The ultimate intentions behind the surrealism of the movie are difficult to comprehend; it is worthwhile considering that the film is an intersubjective collaboration with your own imagination as you watch it – as George Harrison’s character says: “It’s all in the mind, y’know!”

In this sense, Yellow Submarine becomes a documentary of the psychedelic era, a mirror of the context that produced it. Take for example ‘Eleanor Rigby’ where the cartoonists have incorporated themselves into the animation. The variety in art styles is a strength to the film. George Dunning was the overall director but Heinz Edelmann was the art director, bringing together more than 200 artists over the course of a year. Limited animation techniques employed in the film suggest that certain aspects of this process were rushed – movement is somewhat limited from frame to frame and there are moments when objects seem to disappear and reappear from the frame.

From Old Fred’s call to adventure to save Pepperland to crossing the threshold during the crescendo in ‘A Day in the Life’, Yellow Submarine is a play on the archetypal Hero’s Journey. The narrative hangs loosely on the threads of this story structure although it is arguably the power of the soundtrack that truly brings the fantasy musical to life. 

During the third act of the film, The Beatles reach Pepperland and are able to fend off the blue meanies through the power of their songs. ‘All You Need Is Love’ becomes a hippy rally cry for love over violence, ‘Hey Bulldog’ is a peace offering to the enemy (“You can talk to me, if you’re lonely you can talk to me”) and the film is brought to a satisfying (yet bizarre) conclusion with the previously unreleased track, ‘It’s All Too Much’. This song perfectly embodies the message of Yellow Submarine (“The more I go inside, the more there is to see”) whilst equally creating new relevance today during a time of global pandemic and paranoia.

With the blue meanies ultimately representing all the ‘bad’ people of the world, the fight back against the blue meanies clearly captures the spirit of the 1960s in terms of making (non)sense of the notion of rigidity and takes on a new meaning of fighting for the power of love, connectivity and creative expression in the 21st century. If you are feeling frustrated during this lockdown, you might just need to lose yourself in the yellow submarine, you never know what you might find inside.

José Sherwood