Watching Yellow Submarine with the boy on my Birthday.
This viewing had a ritual feel to it. I liked the idea of spending the occasion of my bedraggled carcass having survived another solar orbit watching a film made in the year I was born, next to my son, recalling the fact that when I as his age I regarded this film as the most hypnotically imaginative and deliciously strange film ever made.
There were other films made that year that were very strange, but as a boy I didn’t have the same relationship with them.
I did not watch Barbarella when I was ten.
Apparently my Dad took me to see 2001 A Space Odyssey when I was five years old or something and described my reaction to the film as “bemused” before concluding “well, son, I think you understood it as well as anyone”. But, to be honest, large stretches of 2001 actually bored me as a child, whereas no part of Yellow Submarine ever bored me.
Visually of course, it is astonishing. I’ve recently been alerted to a controversy about the possible input of Peter Max into its design. Stylistically the film is of course cognate with the animation of Terry Gilliam, and it’s perhaps even more akin to the eerie Crystal Tipps and Alistair cartoons made by Hilary Hayton just a few years later. When I was much older, I discovered that my art teacher at school had worked on the “Sea of Holes”, and was extra polite to him ever after.
The extent of the Beatles’ own involvement is, of course, contested. The traditional line to take is they permitted some old songs to be used, delivered a handful of new songs to be incorporated somehow and showed up for the very brief live action sequence at the end.
The new songs range from the guiltily infectious pleasure that is “All Together Now”, the freak out that is “It’s All Too Much”, the minor masterpiece that is “Hey Bulldog” (typically undervalued by its author John Lennon as lacking in authentic personal trauma), and the one deliberate dud, the bitter George Harrison contractual argument that is “Only a Northern Song”.
But others have suggested that John and Paul both made significant plot suggestions, and Lennon remainder rather bitter about accreditation for the rest of his life. Lennon’s memory, when it came to creative attributions, was not always to be relied upon, but some of the details he notes have been corroborated. But listening to the erudite and allusive script of Yellow Submarine, it’s clear that the writing been colored by the same imagination that composed In His Own Write and Spaniard in the Works. At the very least, people like Roger McGough (friend and partner of Macca’s brother) were composing Lennonian lines for this film. If you subscribe to the theory that the full and comprehensive membership of The Beatles consists of everybody who ever loved The Beatles, then this is definitely a Beatles movie. It is after all replete with melodic and lyrical references to their entire back catalogue (up to 1968).
And the message of this film is, after all, collaborative. Ringo does nothing without his friends. Love binds people together. Where do the Beatles stop and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band begin? One of the heroes of the movie, voiced by Dick Emery, is someone who is nobody and everybody at one and the same time. Eventually even the Blue Meanies are liberated by the opportunity to become part of something bigger than themselves.
If you watch Yellow Submarine and Dougal and the Blue Cat at a very formative age, you may (as I did) develop a long lasting aversion to the colour blue.
And the boy? How did he react? He was troubled in places. He was discombobulated. He was alert to the most sinister visual triggers. He liked the songs. He will see it again.