A Mellow Submarine

If you are a fan of the tiny, little, obscure British band, The Beatles (occasionally you hear them mentioned today), or are a fan of bizarro animation—or even if you just like puns—then it is absolutely imperative that you view The Yellow Submarine (1968). With director Charles Dunning’s team’s incredibly lucid and inventive animation (inspired by the artistic styles of Heinz Edelmann) and some great songs from the legendary Beatles this super-mellow psychedelic trip of a film was brought to glorious, acid-dropping life.

Picture yourself in a boat on a river...

Picture yourself in a boat on a river…

The film follows Richard Lester‘s two previous live-action films, The Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965). Like these films, Yellow Submarine would be a wild comedy with loads of silly Beatle antics, but this time it would be animated, rendering complete free range over the psychedelic tone and tundra. The Beatles themselves were not terribly keen initially with the idea of the film, so their speaking voices in the film were cast to other actors doing Beatles impressions (John Clive, Geoffrey Hughes, and Paul Angelis). Evidently, when the film was nearing completion the real Beatles saw the footage and loved it and thus agreed to appear as live action cameos at the finale. If the ringing endorsement from John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr isn’t enough, then I don’t know what would be. The film features several fantastic songs including “It’s Only a Northern Song,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds,” “Nowhere Man,” “All Together Now,” “When I’m Sixty-Four,” “Yellow Submarine,” and more.

Pepperland.

Pepperland.

Like many band-centric musicals, the plot takes a comfortable backseat to much of the music and mayhem, but the plot is still enjoyable enough on its own.

Peaceful Pepperland is under attack by the nasty Blue Meanies who have zero tolerance for anything but rampant negativity. They set strange monsters out into Pepperland and bean all of the citizens with big, green apples, transforming them into silent, blue statues. Fortunately, Old Fred, the sailor, gets away in the Yellow Submarine. Advised by the Mayor to get help, he sails through land, air, and sea until he discovers Ringo.

Ringo takes Old Fred to the Beatle house where he meets George, John, and Paul. Old Fred is struck by the foursome’s uncanny resemblance to the former protector’s of Pepperland: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Together they go on a quest to find Pepperland again and free it from the Blue Meanies. Naturally some singing is required for the trek as they sojourn across the Sea of Time to the Sea of Science to the Sea of Monsters to the Sea of Nothing to the Sea of Heads to the Sea of Holes to the Sea of Green. After “Eleanor Rigby” I’d say that some of my favorite songs are featured on their path through the seven seas. Once they arrive in Pepperland the Beatles must use the power of music and love to set the Pepperlanders free and bring happiness to the oh-so-blue Blue Meanies. If all you need is love then certainly we can all get along, right?

Sea of Monsters

Sea of Monsters

In a time when all violence, hate, and wars can be solved by flowers, long hair, and drugs, Yellow Submarine proved to be another megaphone expounding on the subject. It heralds a message that can be enjoyed by young and old alike. The bad guys are never really bad, they just need to see what they’re missing in order to come around. Yellow Submarine proves you don’t need rigorous conflict to tell a fun story (just like David Byrne’s True Stories). Indeed, the ‘battle’ between The Beatles and the Blue Meanies’ minions is the least interesting part of the movie. The exciting bits come from their mind-altering explorations through the Seas and the songs they sing along the way. The film achieves a sort of ultra-relaxed mellow. The world is fantastical enough on its own so why fight? The film voices the generation’s creed better than most. This movie is what the hippie ideology was all about. Make love, not war…because war is unnecessary and evil and love permeates every aspect of peace, kindness, and understanding.

Sea of Heads

Sea of Heads

It’s a tough toss up as to who the real star of the movie is. Is it the music or the pictures? The animation morphs and contorts with such lushness and playful abandon that it dazzles the eye and tickles the funny bone and remains completely in step with the songs. Some of the songs are so wonderfully hypnotic, delirious, and playful that, perhaps, without them the pictures would feel incomplete. The perfect marriage of music to picture is nothing short of amazing. Yellow Submarine is like a pop version of Disney’s Fantasia. The colors and shapes are completely free and wild and it might prove difficult to refrain from joining in and singing some of the classic tunes. “It’s all in the mind,” so the recurring line goes.

Stand off.

Stand off.

People have said that this movie is just about drugs, specifically LSD. I think this is unfair, for although there is logic behind the assumption considering the era and source of much of the material, I submit that it is more a celebration of the imagination and creativity (which some might argue is the purpose of LSD, but it would still merely be the train rather than the destination). You don’t need drugs to see the magic. It’s already there. Lewis Carroll, M. C. Escher, and Terry Gilliam didn’t need it. Perhaps the filmmakers of Yellow Submarine were simply reveling in the fact that animation could do anything. The movie is more about the magic of a perfect world where everything is peaceful, musical, and mellow.

Yellow Submarine is brisk, funny, and full of wonder. A good movie takes you places and Yellow Submarine definitely does that. It’s a highly imaginative and enjoyable experience. It’s weird, wild stuff and it won’t be for everybody, but if you like the message, the incredible artwork, or great Beatles songs then check it out. (On a personal note, I do wish “Strawberry Fields” was in this movie). Perhaps the hippie lifestyle isn’t as prevalent as it was in the 1960s when this film came out, but then perhaps there are certain messages that we can all get behind no matter what part of the century we’re from.

Heroes.

Heroes.

Make love, not war. All you need is love. It’s all in the mind.

Thank goodness the CG motion-capture Disney-Zemeckis remake was cancelled.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May, 18, 2010

Talking Head Tells the Truth

Awhile back I re-watched two movies that I was initially very perplexed by. When I first watched these films I found myself at once curious and fascinated, but I ultimately didn’t know what to make of them. This time around I have new-found respect and admiration for them.  The films were   Stalker (1973) directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (brilliant Russian auteur) and  True Stories (1986) directed by David Byrne (of the The Talking Heads). Guess which one I’ve decided to write about.

"I am not an alien."

“I am not an alien.”

I like The Talking Heads and I like unusual movies, but even I was unprepared for the ultra-mellow of True Stories and the ineffable affability of tour guide David Byrne (who always seems like an alien trying to pass for human). As the tagline insists, True Stories is “a completely cool, multi-purpose  movie.” This uber-light foray into the realm of film by Byrne is peculiar in a very 80′s music video kind of a way. In the tradition of the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night (1964), The Who’s Tommy (1975), Oingo Boingo’s Forbidden Zone (1980), and Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1982), True Stories is a musical featuring many familiar contemporary tunes (this time by The Talking Heads).

The fictitious town of Virgil, Texas is getting ready for their Sesquicentennial Celebration of Special-ness and ten-gallon hat wearing David Byrne can’t help but investigate and share the town and townsfolk with the audience.

TrueStories-WifeWanted

Writer-director David Byrne escorts us through the excitement and weird drama amidst the mounting anticipation for celebration all with the utmost of nonthreatening nonchalance. As he pulls into a parking lot in his red convertible, Byrne tells the audience that what’s going on inside the building behind him “might be part of Virgil’s Celebration of Special-ness. . . or it might not be.”

Byrne introduces us to many odd characters, including the lovable bachelor Louis (John Goodman); homespun voodoo doctor Mr. Tucker (Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples); idiosyncratic but passionate town leader—who is not beyond incorporating a lobster dinner into a visual balletic illustration of how everything works—Earl Culver (Spalding Gray) and his pageant-running wife—whom he never speaks to—Kay Culver (Annie McEnroe); a compulsive liar (Jo Harvey Allen); a conspiracy-theory espousing preacher (John Ingle); and Miss Rollings (Swoosie Kurtz) who is so rich she never has to leave her bed. The movie winds up following all these characters, but perhaps centers mostly around Louis and his quest to find a wife. Byrne wanders in and out of scenes, interacting with characters as old friends or new acquaintances, and then returns to speaking directly to the audience to prepare us for the Celebration to come.

Spalding Gray's economy lesson at dinner.

Spalding Gray’s economy lesson at dinner.

Byrne seems genuinely fascinated by these strange people and their habits as the film unfolds like some sort of peculiar musical experiment in anthropology. David Byrne claimed that most of the characters of True Stories were inspired by “true stories” in local newspapers. The movie features several songs from The Talking Heads including “Wild, Wild Life,” “Dream Operator” (one of my personal favorites from the film, sung by Annie McEnroe as a parade of unusual garments advance along a local fashion runway), “Puzzling Evidence,” “Papa Legba,” “People Like Us,” and others. The film is charming and extremely off-beat in its comedy style.

So what is the film about? Is it about the town of Virgil? Is it about the music? I think more likely it is about the people that make a town. Byrne displays a weird affection for each and everyone of these people. It’s a calming feeling to simply sit back and watch people with all their quirks and foibles live happily and peacefully without real conflict. Everyone has things on their mind, but everyone also shares the anticipation for the Sesquicentennial Celebration of Special-ness. Amidst it all they are united by one thing. Some have labeled this film a satirical parody of American small-town life that’s really having fun at the characters’ expense. I disagree. It’s not like Christopher Guest’s playful jab at small-town America in Waiting for Guffman (1996). True Stories, to me, feels like a tribute and wistful longing for the American small-town in all its idiosyncratic splendor. David Byrne (a Scotsman or possibly space alien) is celebrating the Special-ness of the American small-town, but he’s not afraid to make it an amusing or enjoyable excursion.

"It's a wild, wild life."

“It’s a wild, wild life.”

I like what Byrne says as he drives past several average suburban homes at the edge of the town. He says, “Who can say it isn’t beautiful? Sky. . . bricks. Who do you think lives there? Four-car garage. Hope, fear, excitement, satisfaction.” Some might argue that the simplistic approach comes from a place of mean-spirited irony, but I am not convinced. David Byrne makes this place a place to love. The moments where he just drives along in his red convertible with the obviously rear-projected background rolling passed are priceless, humorous, simple, and gentle. That’s the word for this movie! Gentle. It’s a quiet, funny, and gentle ride into an American small-town and we know that life will be just as fine after we leave as when we were there and before we came.

truestoriescar

True Stories is a very pleasurable cult film with much humor and warmth. It captures the attitudes of pure-hearted small-town Americans and sets it to the tempo and sentiment of many a Talking Heads tune. Fans of The Talking Heads, David Byrne, John Goodman, quirky characters, off-beat comedy, or the 80′s really ought to take the time to revisit this gentle, little film. But pay attention. Underneath much of David Byrne’s humorous deadpan narration resonates a sobering echo of tranquility; of how magical even a place as seemingly mundane as Virgil can be. To quote Bill Watterson’s cartoon creation, Calvin, “it’s a magical world, Hobbes.” I’m inclined to think David Byrne agrees.

"We're on a road to nowhere."

“We’re on a road to nowhere.”

picture references:

artoftheguillotine.com

filmfanatic.org

ytimg.com

creativebloom.co.uk

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 9, 2010.