When our titular submersible sails away from the under-siege Pepperland in search of help and comes to the gray husk of Liverpool, where a depressed Ringo wanders the streets, there's a level of intimacy, of looking in on someone else's life, that you get in the best Beatles songs. Think "Strawberry Fields Forever." But that personal element has universal ramifications at the same time, like we're all wandering around those Liverpool streets, looking for meaning. To underscore that duality, "Eleanor Rigby" starts playing on the soundtrack, and we get the complete song. (You always get the complete song in Yellow Submarine. No fade outs.) Against those dolorous, washed out grays—that look grayer than ever in high-def—"Eleanor Rigby" becomes more than a cut on what may well be the best album ever made. It becomes something imagistic and harrowing, and makes you want sail away in the next available floating sub just like cartoon Ringo does.
The music, of course, is what makes it a Beatles film in the most obvious sense. But while the title song might have seemed tailor-made for a movie adaptation, an adaptation apparently wasn't what Lennon and McCartney had in mind when they penned it. So it fell to screenwriter Lee Minoff to do what the Beatles themselves were so good at: taking someone else's nascent idea and blowing it up into something sublime. That level of remove between band and film, ironically, allowed the band's ethos to be rendered in a truer sense than it might otherwise have been. Fans had certain expectations when the Beatles themselves were in their own films. They were supposed to be cheeky but not too cheeky, coming across like this fun-loving gang who was more family than rock band. Four parts of the same organism. But by 1968 the Beatles had become four madcap, sonic renegades, who loved quoting their earlier songs and generally frying minds.
There's a lot of mind-frying in Yellow Submarine. You might think of it as the cinematic version of the White Album—with all of its in-jokes and lyrical cross-references—but in Day-Glo, no shades of pale allowed. Sight gags riff on old Beatles songs, while the jokes tend to be more Joycean than jocular. John Lennon emerges from the form of Frankenstein's monster, given that he was the literary Beatle. The "boob"—who is less mammary than his name suggests—the band encounters is an autodidact, just like, in some ways, the Beatles themselves were. And he even has a gig writing for The New Statesman, despite being a "nowhere man," as Lennon himself had been back on 1965's Rubber Soul.
1964's A Hard Day's Night does remain the Beatles' best film, in large part because it was so raw and alive with the belief that there were no capstones in life, or at least there didn't have to be. You could do anything your talent and imagination could abet you in doing, it said. Which isn't strictly true, of course, but that was the spirit of their first film. That spirit is writ even larger in Yellow Submarine, but in a more grown-up, nuanced fashion. Some of the jokes go absolutely nowhere, which allows three Beatles to make fun of the fourth's lame pun. But that's life for you. Sure enough, there's no dissuading the punner from punning again. You get this sense of being in on something—a joke, a world, a sector of the imagination—which you and you alone are lucky to be traveling, though, naturally, you're but one of millions.