Bob Hieronimus Takes on Blue Meanies and Mad Czechs in New Book About Yellow Submarine
When Yellow Submarine, the feature-length animated film based on music by the Beatles, arrived in the United States in November 1968, it was a difficult time: Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had just been assassinated; the Poor People's Campaign had marched on Washington; the Catonsville Nine had been busted for burning draft records; the LSD-fueled "Summer of Love" was a year in the past.
I was 13, a Beatles fan since the age of 8, and fond of cartoons. Nonetheless, I recall feeling scorn for Yellow Submarine when it surfaced in local theaters. The odd, self-consciously trippy cartoon feature violated my notions about both animation and the Beatles. Given the tenor of the time, the movie's "All You Need Is Love" theme rang hollow. The movie's main graphic style--a flat, decorative look descended from Art Nouveau--looked a little clichéd, too much like the supermarket-psychedelic designs of Peter Max.
So I was surprised when I saw the rereleased movie at the Senator Theatre in 1999 and enjoyed it hugely. I'd forgotten how much the film's animation veers from style to style, with imagery that owes as much to Hieronymus Bosch and Renée Magritte as it does to Timothy Leary. The unabashed psychedelia of Pepperland was, after 31 years, sweetly nostalgic. I even liked seeing the young, live-action Beatles in the silly, contractually obligated appearance tacked onto the end of the film.
One who loved the movie the first time out--who reveled in its design, its iconography, and its diaphanous message--is Robert Hieronimus, Owings Mills resident and author of the new book Inside the Yellow Submarine: The Making of the Beatles' Animated Classic. The new book resulted from 30 years of obsessive research by Hieronimus, who first saw the film--repeatedly--at the old Arcade Theatre on Harford Road. The final product contains extensive material from interviews with the films' many co-creators, painstakingly edited to flesh out Hieronimus' concise, almost breathless exposition.
The author is best known these days as "Dr. Bob," host of 21st Century Radio, a syndicated broadcast of heterodox ideas and phenomena (heard locally Sunday evenings on WCBM, 680 AM). He is also known in Baltimore as the painter of densely symbolic murals, most of which feature the image of the little yellow sub. When those pictures were painted in the 1970s, Hieronimus was already amassing the archives that would give rise to his book.
Be advised: Inside The Yellow Submarine is no work of sober crit-lit. To quote the author's preface, "For me, the most important aspect of the Beatles is how their music inspires all Earth people to think of themselves as global citizens. . . . Their everlasting anthem, 'All You Need Is Love,' expresses a cosmic truth repeated by the wisest of the masters and gurus from the beginning of time." The book also suffers from a stitched-together, fanzinelike format. As such, it will be most satisfying to sworn Beatles fans, especially collectors of memorabilia: The book includes a lengthy section on Yellow Sub trinkets, toys, and tchotchkes.
Nonetheless, it's an intriguing pop-cultural document and an engaging read in its own right, thanks to Hieronimus' insatiable accumulation of oral history and his infectious sense of amazement at the story that emerged from his interviews. The Beatles had little to do with the movie, although they were contractually bound to provide four new songs for the project. The resulting songs represented "the bottom of the barrel in terms of Beatles music," in the words of producer/"fifth Beatle" George Martin. (Hieronimus interviewed Martin extensively, and got him to write the book's introduction, but never got to the four Liverpudlians. Quoted from previously published material, they come off as somewhat petty, condescending personalities.)
The film was thus something of an abused orphan, an ugly duckling. Its crass American production company, King Features, gave it a million-dollar budget and an 11-month production schedule, at best half the time and money allotted to a Disney animated film at the time, according to Hieronimus. The production crew was a hastily arranged collaboration between an enthusiastic corps of British TV animators and a skeptical, brilliant Czech-born designer named Heinz Edelmann who had never worked in animation. Most significantly, there was never a complete script for the movie; according to Hieronimus, about 20 minutes of the film--mostly musical sequences--were created by artists while they waited for a plot to arrive. Throughout the development of the movie, the animators worked at cross purposes with King Features producer Al Brodax, who had previously masterminded the forgettable but very successful Beatles animated TV series. At one point, according to the co-creators' recollections, animation director George Dunning "kidnapped" about a third of the finished Yellow Submarine negatives, hiding them in a bank vault to keep them out of Brodax's hands. Throughout the book, Brodax and the artists differ radically in their memories of the movie's creation.
The final product, Hieronimus argues, was a film created under such extreme conditions that it was almost an "unconscious" work of art, driven by songs and images rather than deliberate themes and blissfully free of marketing considerations. As a scholar of mythology and symbolism, Hieronimus believes that the movie's creators stumbled onto a story that conforms closely to the archetypal hero myths that pervade human culture. In a recent interview, the author noted another remarkable feature of the movie, which includes a number of frantic, absurd battle scenes: "No one gets killed. . . . They're all transformed by music and love, and that's exactly what we were trying to do back in the '60s."
Oh well. It's still a fun movie to watch and, with Hieronimus' tome in hand, to see as a unique, triumphant work of collaborative art.