Episode #98 of The Swampflix Podcast: Head (1968) & Psychedelic Musicals

Welcome to Episode #98 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our ninety-eighth episode, Brandon is joined by Aaron Armstrong of the We Love to Watch podcast to discuss the stoney-baloney world of psychedelic musicals, with a particular focus on The Monkees’ irreverent war protest freak-out Head (1968). Enjoy!

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-Brandon Ledet & Aaron Armstrong

Yellow Submarine (1968)

The last time I watched the animated “Beatles” film Yellow Submarine I was . . . chemically impaired in Memphis, TN and a VHS copy of the movie was playing on a broken, color-distorted television. I can’t claim I was quite as enthused about the picture in its recent theatrical run as I was that nonsensical afternoon, but it wasn’t for lack of effort. For its 50th anniversary, the psychedelic animation classic has been restored frame-by-frame for a new 4k digital presentation, a modern spit shine that’s sharpened its line work, brightened its colors, and afforded its musical numbers an immersive surround sound mix worthy of the film’s overwhelming visuals. This modern cleanup effort affords Yellow Submarine an even playing field with recent works it’s obviously had an influence on (even if an indirect one), recalling titles like Adventure Time & My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea in the way it builds otherworldly fantasy-scapes out of complexly-arranged collages of hands-on, rudimentary illustration. What struck me most in this recent viewing, however, was how influential Yellow Submarine must have been in its own time, a whopping half-century ago. Predating werido animated classics of its ilk like Fantastic Planet & Terry Gilliam’s Flying Circus shorts by years, Yellow Submarine is an impressively substantial artistic achievement for a “Beatles” film that barely has any Beatles. That historical significance is something I didn’t appreciate as much in my contextless viewing of it as recreational, visual fodder on a color-distorted VHS tape, so it was wonderful to see it get its full due in a proper, legitimized form.

Frustrated with the finished product of 1965’s Help!, but contractually obligated to appear in a third feature for Apple Films, The Beatles almost fully weaseled their way out of participating in Yellow Submarine. They appear in live action at the film’s conclusion for a brief PSA about peace & love, and their music is interspersed throughout the runtime, but for the most part this is a movie inspired by The Beatles more than it is A Beatles Film. The Fab Four have animated avatars that “star” in the movie as a magical, traveling rock band, but those characters are voiced by barely-acceptable Beatles impersonators (two of whom were required for George, as the first was arrested halfway into production for deserting The British Army). Even without The Beatles’ direct involvement, though, the movie captures the irreverence of their young rock n’ roll spirit, packing its runtime with visual non-sequiturs, nonsensical puns, winking sex jokes, and anti-fascist sentiment. The film’s most significant accomplishment, however, is in reaching beyond aping The Beatles’ already established pop culture personae to carve out its own psychedelic visual language & laidback surrealism, something that eventually defined Beatles-inspired visual art (and hippie era animation at large) on its own, original terms. Adopting some of the pop art sensibilities of Warhol’s portrait work and the cover art for the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP, Yellow Submarine creates a postmodern backdrop for its anything-goes psych fantasy adventure, which explores the physical corners of space & time to discover its own, new corner of the universe (to surprising success).

There isn’t much of a plot here, at least not one that matters. The musical fantasy realm of Pepperland is turned to joyless stone by music-hating, weirdo perverts called Blue Meanies, who long for a uniform, quiet existence. “The Beatles” are recruited from across the universe to put a stop to this blue menace through the power of love & song, traveling to Pepperland in the titular yellow submarine. There’s a clear dichotomy between fascism & art established in that setup, but the Beatles’ clash with the Blue Meanies isn’t detailed much beyond that ideological divide. Most of the film is a psychedelic travel diary through various fantasy spaces seemingly lifted from a child’s nightmare (or a stoner’s sketchbook). Seussian animals with human faces & yellowed teeth gallop & glide through their psychedelic fiefdoms while a tiny yellow submarine carrying the world’s favorite rock band barely slips past their self-generated mayhem. Pop culture figures like King Kong, Frankenstein’s monster, The Phantom, and Marilyn Monroe complicate the storybook illustrations that provide these non-worlds a sense of structure. Collages of silkscreen-style photographs often loop in .gif repetitions, layering the screen with an incredible depth of rich, varied imagery. Yellow Submarine barely pretends to be a story about a rock group’s fight against music-hating fascists. It’s more a shamelessly aesthetic-driven string of hand-illustrated music videos, more than a decade before “music video” was household term. Its plot is only a convenient glue that binds its true purpose as a curated collection of rich images & sounds.

The only thing really preventing Yellow Submarine from being a flat-out masterpiece is its laidback, stony-baloney sense of pacing. Even in their music I’ve come to prefer The Beatles when they were young & brimming with energy, which is partly what makes A Hard Day’s Night such a perfect document of the band as culture-significant artists. Yellow Submarine is more a snapshot of exhausted, spaced-out, daytripping Beatles, the band that was so laidback & detached from this planet that they couldn’t be bothered to put in a few hours in a recording booth to voice their own avatars. More importantly, though, it’s a visual feat in hand-constructed, psychedelic animation, one that deserves recognition for its cultural impact beyond the bounds of Beatlemania. This recent restoration is a great start.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 20: Help! (1965)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Help! (1965) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 152 of the first-edition hardback, Ebert praises a Chicagoan revival house cinema called The Clark Theater. He wrote, “It was there one Sunday, while sitting in the balcony watching Help! with The Beatles, that I saw a fan run down the aisle, cry out ‘I’m coming, John!’ and throw himself over the rail. Strangely, there were no serious injuries.”

What Ebert had to say in his review:  Unfortunately, if he ever officially reviewed the film, it’s not currently available on his website.

Richard Lester’s first collaboration with The Beatles, the classic 1964 boyband comedy pioneer A Hard Day’s Night, has a flippantly absurdist edge to it, but mostly remains grounded in reality as the Fab Four navigate a world where fans & the press are ravenous for more, more, more. Help! trades in that absurdist tinge for all-out surreality & psychedelia, mostly to the film’s detriment. It’s as if A Hard Day’s Night captured their boozy, pill-popping rock band phase & Help! happened to catch them just a year later after they had just smoked pot for the first time. Every half-baked highdea Lester & the boys had made it to the screen without filter and the results can include some great gags & striking imagery in the film’s long string of throwaway moments. However, as a whole Help! is messy in a druggy, pot-addled way that a lot of comedies would come to be in the decade that followed. Still, you could do much worse that watching the greatest band of all time get stoned off their asses & act like goofballs in-between tour dates for two hours & Help! remains consistently entertaining, even in its blasé, ramshackle state of dazed giddiness.

For the entirety of Help!’s opening scene, I thought for sure I had popped in the wrong DVD. A Hindu-adjacent Indian cult (ostensibly modeled after the Thugee) prepare a human sacrifice to their in the flesh god-king only to discover that *gasp* she’s not wearing the sacrificial ring necessary to complete the act. Smash cut to The Beatles performing a proto music video rendition of the song “Help!” where it’s revealed that, duh, Ringo is wearing the ring. Somehow catching that detail on their era’s version of MTV (a reel-to-reel projector), a group of higher-ups in the cult go on a mission to steal the ring back from the goofball drummer. The quest to reclaim Ringo’s ring (which seems to be magically stuck to his finger) beings in London, but follows his band all over Europe (presumably between a hectic schedule of tour dates). Magic, science, and high concept hijinks all fail to remove the ring from Ringo’s finger. The espionage-themed antics that ensue recall James Bond by way of Benny Hill and the movie constantly shifts gears as it sees fit, occasionally dropping the storyline in favor of allowing The Beatles to perform music video renditions of songs like “Lose that Girl” & “Ticket to Ride”, as well as to be cute & cheeky in their downtime. It’s in some ways more of the same after A Hard Day’s Night, except with a bigger budget & a more obvious attempt to shoehorn a plot into its very loose structure.

If I had to liken Help!’s comedy style to anything more specific, I guess I could see how it would’ve had an influence on its ZAZ-style comedies like Airplane! & Naked Gun that would follow over a decade after its premiere. In true ZAZ fashion the film throws so many gags at the wall that it doesn’t at all matter that they don’t all stick. If the film’s flamethrower umbrella doesn’t elicit a chuckle then maybe you’ll laugh at its killer hand drier or its ludicrous undercover espionage costumes (of which Ringo’s gradually would become true to life over time) or whatever else flies at the screen from moment to moment. Also true to ZAZ comedies, Help! has an obvious problem with cultural . . . insensitivity when it comes to othering its neighbors from the East for their kooky religious ways. The Beatles likely included the Indian cult in their film to acknowledge their growing interest in incorporating Eastern sounds into their music, but it’s hard to watch Help! & believe this was the most ethical way of going about that. The problem is especially noticeable in a repeated gag where John Lennon chides an Indian woman for her “filthy Eastern ways,” a running joke that only gets increasingly uncomfortable with each occurrence.

According to Richard Lester, Duck Soup was a huge inspiration for the making of Help!, but I can just barely see the connection myself. I guess The Beatles have always had a Marx Brothers style of rapid-fire banter & the film does devolve into the chaos of warfare in its final act the way Duck Soup does, but Help! is done no favors by being compared to, in my opinion, one of the greatest comedies of all time. Personally, I think the film is much more reminiscent of the down-the-line ZAZ comedy Top Secret!, except that it was pulling form contemporary James Bond titles like From Russia with Love (including that film’s cultural gawking) instead of Bond films of the 80s. There are some inspired moments in the whimsical set designs, especially in The Beatles’s color-coded flat & a scene where Paul McCartney is shrunken down to thumbsize among towering, oversized props. For the most part, though, Help! is a nonstop assault of Looney Tunes goofery run amok, a dedication to irreverence that can vary from moment to moment in terms of entertainment or annoyance.

According to my extensive online research (a quick Google search), The Beatles had indeed been introduced to the dysfunctional joys of marijuana by Bob Dylan in the year prior to writing & performing Help!. If anyone can get away with dicking around while stoned on camera & still make it charming, however, it might as well be The Beatles. Help! probably could’ve used a second draft & a editor, but it’s still a joy to watch due to the inherent charm of its blitzed moptops.

EPSON MFP image

Roger’s Rating: (N/A)

Brandon’s Rating: (3/5, 60%)

three star

Next Lesson: Bonnie & Clyde (1967)

-Brandon Ledet