Only a true cultural milestone could inspire licensed toys from Legos and Hot Wheels, as well as a reference in a taunting letter from the Zodiac Killer. As their movies go, the Beatles were relatively okay with it. It was fifty years ago today, or rather July 17th that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the original Fab Four saved Pepperland from the Blue Meanies in The Beatles: Yellow Submarine (trailer here), directed by George Dunning, which opens today at the IFC Center in a fresh new 4K restoration, commemorating it 50th anniversary.
For Millennials out there, the Beatles were sort of like the Monkees, but they were British. They were extremely popular while they were together, but its not like they were Rutles, mind you. Their first film, A Hard Day’s Night, might be the greatest rock & roll movie ever, but it was a tough act to follow-up. At the time, they had rather mixed feelings regarding Help! and Magical Mystery Tour, so they reportedly agreed to an animated film as an easy way to fulfill their contract. However, the look of the picture, designed by Heinz Edelmann (and not Peter Max, as is commonly assumed), perfectly fit the band’s growing allegiance to the counter-culture.
The story is loose and not especially concerned with logic or continuity, but it is really just a clothesline on which to hang the trippy visuals and some eternally catchy Beatles tunes. Idyllic Pepperland has been invaded by the music-hating Blue Meanies, so the Lord Mayor dispatches Old Fred, a salty old mariner, to find help in the Yellow Submarine. Coming up in Liverpool, Fred chances upon a brooding Ringo [Starr], who volunteers himself and his three mates. Presumably, they will chase out the Blue Meanies using music, but they never really discus a plan, per se.
Along the way, the Beatles sing “All Together Now,” pick up Jeremy Hillary Boob, Ph.D., the “Nowhere Man,” and get separated from Fred and the yellow sub, before inevitably coming together once more, naturally. There are also plenty of quotes from previous Beatles songs, in addition to the proper musical numbers, which include greatest hits from Revolver (the title tune and “Eleanor Rigby”) and Sgt. Pepper (the albums’ title track and “When I’m Sixty-Four”), as well as a few originals.
As an animated film, Yellow Submarine looks very much like a product of its time—in fact its flying glove and sparkling rainbows truly helped establish the visual vocabulary of the era. The patchwork screenplay, including contributions from future Love Story scribe Erich Segal (who was a former classmate of Jeremy DuQuesnay Adams, the acknowledged inspiration for the Nowhere Man), is all over the place, but it shrewdly took a page from Hard Day’s Night by showcasing the playful goofiness of the Beatles personalities.