The trailer for the MCMLXVIII film, Yellow Submarine. A gripping, if not entirely coherent tale of the Yellow forces of Good in their battle to conquer the Blue forces of Evil. For its time, it was original. All these years later, it’s still fun and imaginative.
By 1968, the only notable animated films were from Disney. Comparisons with Disney’s Fantasia were inevitable. Yellow Submarine uses a simpler animation style than Disney’s films, at times minimalist. New, specialized film/animation techniques in Yellow Submarine influenced later animators like Ralph Bakshi in Fritz the Cat, and Wizards. It also influenced Terry Gilliam and Monty Python. (Python’s John Cleese has a hilarious scene with Beatle Ringo Starr and Peter Sellers in The Magic Christian.)
Many people at the time assumed that Peter Max created the artwork for the film, because the artwork is in the style of Peter Max. Many people still believe that today, though Max had nothing to do with the film. Just like the way that people today still think the Beatles recorded all those Badfinger songs. The art director was a German illustrator, Heinz Edelmann.
The Yellow Submarine album is as unusual as the film. First, it’s unusual to release a studio album by a major band as a film soundtrack. It’s unusual that the band plays on only the first side of an album with only four new songs. The second side is George Martin’s orchestral compositions for the film.
The orchestra on Yellow Submarine was recorded in a way that no one had heard before, by isolating and close-micing some instruments. From the opening measures, there is something different about the tone of the orchestra. Not like anything you’ve ever heard on Deutsche Grammophon, or from the film studios. It still sounds unique today.
Pantomiming live-action with music is usually a bad idea. In The Producers (1967) and Mad, Mad World (1963), for example, the music closely follows the action, and it becomes tiring quickly.
In cartoons, the rules are different. The music almost always follows the action. Martin’s musical pantomimes always enhance the action and the humor. With Yellow Submarine, Martin joins the ranks of great composers for animation like Carl Stalling for Warner Bros and Scott Bradley for Hanna-Barbera.
About the music itself. Side 2 opens with a musical depiction of Pepperland. It’s quaint, orderly, thoroughly boring, and a little at odds with the visual extravagance onscreen. It seems to set the musical rules, but it’s a sucker-punch.
Tracing the path from order to chaos is a common artistic motif, like the gradual destruction of Col. Ripper’s office in Dr. Strangelove, or the destruction of Pyramid Picture’s offices in Girl’s Night Out (season 2 Made In Canada).
Martin’s score descends into eerie disorder from the first few seconds after Pepperland. As you progress through the Sea of Time, the Sea of Holes, the Sea of Monsters, the March of the Meanies, the musical landscapes become steadily more ominous. This sequence culminates in the strangely beautiful Pepperland Laid Waste, before order is restored again in the final track, Yellow Submarine in Pepperland.
If you haven’t heard it before, I hope you’ll check out George Martin’s memorable score on Side 2 of Yellow Submarine.
A lot of Beatles fans deride this album, but in my opinion, those people are simply wrong.