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Dennis Perkins

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his lovely wife, the writer Emily L. Stephens, and their cat, Cooper. When not watching all the movies ever made or digging up stories about the Maine film scene, he can be found writing for the AV Club and elsewhere. The rest of the time, he's worrying about the Red Sox.

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Posted: August 6, 2018

At 50th anniversary screening, a look at the unlikely success of ‘Yellow Submarine’

Written by: Dennis Perkins

Illustration by vector_brothers/Shutterstock.com

There’s no reason why “Yellow Submarine” should be getting a big, splashy 50th anniversary theatrical re-release. Hear me out.

The Beatles were over their movie career by the time of the animated musical’s 1968 release. In fact, The Beatles were over a lot of things by that point, having shed their lingering mop-top media image entirely with the deepening sophistication of their musical ambitions. The world-changing “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” had come out the year before, and 1968 saw the band deep into recording the double-disc opus that became known as “The White Album.” Add to that the fact that the four Beatles were getting older, more cynical about their manufactured loveable personas and experimenting seriously with expanding their consciousness, through both spiritual and chemical means, and the looming obligation of a third, contractually obligated Beatles film was the last thing John, Paul, George and Ringo wanted to spend time on.

An animated adventure heavily featuring some of their sillier songs (like the title track) and/or a few also-ran non-album tracks (“Only a Northern Song,” “All Together Now,” “All You Need Is Love,” “It’s All Too Much,” “Hey Bulldog”) would fit the bill perfectly, especially since the Beatles themselves wouldn’t have to provide the voices. (They wound up doing a brief live-action stinger at the very end of the film.) Add to that, the film would be directed by the guy responsible for the ultra-cheap Beatles Saturday morning cartoon series (that the group despised), and the whole thing was poised to be nothing but a lazy and lucrative cash-grab.

That “Yellow Submarine” turned out to be one of the most ambitiously weird and wonderful animated films of all time is like some sort of movie miracle.

Playing Thursday through Sunday at the Portland Museum of Art’s ever-rewarding PMA Films series, this 50th anniversary revival is poised to refresh filmgoers’ memories of just how great the Beatles (and the Beatles’ films) were, and to introduce them to a whole new generation. (Even if, technically, two generations have grown up since the film’s release).

The story of The Beatles getting shanghaied into a flying submarine-borne adventure to rescue the music-loving realm of Pepperland from the fascistic, music-loathing Blue Meanies, the film plays out as a picaresque series of encounters with every weirdo creature and peril the animators could come up with. Heavily inspired by the psychedelic art style of the day (which was influenced by the Beatles “Sgt. Pepper”-era turn), the film is a bright, bursting, kaleidoscopic, feel-good fable whose contrasting, ever-changing animation blends into an improbably coherent – if loopy – whole. From the photo-collage somberness of the “Eleanor Rigby” sequence (clearly an influence on Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python work) to the Ralph Bakshi-esque impressionistically rotoscoped “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” segment, “Yellow Submarine’s” profligately extravagant mix of music and animation predicts the coming of the music video – and remains one of the most thrillingly original examples of it.

And even though the Beatles proper aren’t providing the jokes, the movie’s surrealist wordplay and silly quick-wittedness are so finely attuned to the group’s peerless comic interplay from “A Hard Day’s Night” and Help!” that “Yellow Submarine” simply feels like a true Beatles movie. Indeed, the band members later expressed some regret at their hands-off approach after seeing how the film turned out. (Sure, Paul is on record as saying the animated band’s Liverpool accents are on the level of Dick Van Dyke’s mocked Cockney in “Mary Poppins,” but what do we Americans know?)

In addition to the regular screenings of “Yellow Submarine,” PMA Films is also holding a sing-along showing on Sunday at 11:30 a.m., which sounds like the perfect outing for parents who want to show off a beloved classic cartoon that everyone can’t help but enjoy.

Screenings are $8, $6 for PMA members and students with ID. For details, check out the PMA website at: portlandmuseum.org.

Schedule: Thursday at 6 p.m., Friday at 2 and 6 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m., Sunday at 11:30 a.m. (sing-along) and 2 p.m.


COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS

NICKELODEON CINEMA
Starting Friday: “BlackkKlansman.” Spike Lee returns with this typically in-your-face and timely racial drama, this time about a true life and unsung civil rights hero. Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is a Colorado police detective who sets out to infiltrate and bring down the local KKK, alongside fellow cop Adam Driver.

BAYSIDE BOWL
Wednesday, Aug. 15: “The Florida Project.” The Bayside Summer Rooftop Film Series presents a free screening of this irreplaceably warm and winning low-budget indie about the hardscrabble residents (including some of the most realistically irrepressible kids ever on screen) of a run-down Orlando motel. With a career-topping performance from Willem Dafoe as the motel’s gruff but protective manager.

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