The Phantom Tollbooth

Yellow Submarine
Directed by George Dunning
Time: 90 Minutes

Stop Making Sense
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Time: 87 Minutes

The rock-and-roll film is largely a thing of the past. While movies like Woodstock, The Last Dance, and The Wall helped define the post-'68, pre-Reagan world, the rise of cable and particularly MTv has pretty much killed off the concert film. In fact, there hasn't been a major rock movie since U2's Rattle and Hum a full ten years ago. And yet, if you judged by Chicago's current movie listings, you'd think the genre was alive and well, if a little dated.

A couple weeks ago, a local theater began showing a restored version of the classic 1968 Beatles animated film Yellow Submarine. As my friend Garth pointed out to me, it's somewhat of a misnomer to call it a Beatles film, as the Beatles' only contributions were the songs and some brief footage at the end. The story was written by Al Brodax and Jack Mendelsohn, and the  animation was done by a group of artists. The Beatles didn't even provide their own voices.

Even still, it's certainly a Beatles film. Their songs dominate the story, and the overall feel, with its emphasis on psychedelia and simple(istic) love, perfectly resembles the Beatles' later albums. The story is, if you think about it in a sober frame of mind, a strange one. The Blue Meanies, a  voracious group of authoritarians, have conquered the land and driven music out. The sole survivor escapes in a yellow submarine. He's waylaid in a huge mansion, which is lucky for him as there he meets the Beatles. After a series of strange encounters with animated creatures, including the Nowhere  Man, they return to confront the Blue Meanies and restore the land of No to the land of Now.

The animation in Yellow Submarine is enjoyable at first. Though it's very reflective of its time, what with the wild colors and psychedelic segues,  there's enough variety in the beginning to hold an audience's attention.  Unfortunately, as with most animated work, I got bored after an hour and my thoughts turned to how influential this type of animation has been. Any fan of Sesame Street will recognize the counting sequence that occurs in the middle of Yellow Submarine, and the cut-out animation of Terry Gilliam in Monte Python's work rises directly out of this movie's obsession with photographs of heads and animals. My knowledge of animation precludes me from saying whether Yellow Submarine started this whole thing or merely carried on an earlier development, but there's no denying its legacy. Of course, neither the story nor the animation is the point of the movie. Rather, it's an excuse to play some great Beatles songs, including the title cut, "Sergeant Pepper," "Nowhere Man," "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," and many more. For this reviewer, the songs were the best part of the film. To hear them in a big theater with a great sound system was genuinely enjoyable.

The Talking Heads--David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, and Jerry Harrison--were one of the progenitors of the New Wave music that flowered  in the '80s. While their hits are much less recognizable than the Beatles', songs like "Psycho Killer" and "Once in a Lifetime" are staples of many classic hits stations around the country; and their creative approach to concerts and videos have influenced bands from U2 to Nine Inch Nails. Stop Making Sense came out not long after MTv's inception and, yet, feels more traditional than the earlier Yellow Submarine. Much of this is due to director Jonathan Demme--who would to go on to direct Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, and Beloved--and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth (Blade Runner). The technically flawless yet simple direction and camerawork allows the band to take and hold center stage.

The movie opens with lead singer Byrne walking on with a boom box to sing "Psycho Killer." It's just him and a rhythm track, yet the performance is  spellbinding. As the next few songs are played, the other musicians slowly come on stage and take their places. Meanwhile, we see the technicians and   crew setting up for the concert. Though I found their presence somewhat distracting, the effect contributes to the stripped-down simplicity of the  movie. There are no irritating quick cuts, no tedious behind-the-scenes  interviews, no fancy lighting, not even the obligatory crowd scenes until the end. Just a band performing their songs.

On paper, it sounds boring, even monotonous. But on film, it's mesmerizing. Byrne in particular is simply captivating as he sings to a lamp, dresses in a big suit, and bounces around the stage. When the film was initially released in 1984, there were stories of people dancing in the isles. I'm not sure that'll happen here in 1999, but you can certainly see why it would. So, if the rock-and-roll film is dead, why do we suddenly have not one but two theatrical re-releases? The first reason is the late-summer blahs.

Given that studios rarely release strong movies at the end of the summer, August and September are prime months for trotting out restored versions of older films. But secondly, and more significantly, is the rise of DVD. Digital video disc is a new format that's destined (at least in the hopes of the big media companies) to eventually replace the videocassette, in the same way that CDs have largely supplanted the audio cassette. To make this option more attractive, studios are releasing older movies on DVD, but first they have to be cleaned up for the newer format. Given that they have to be restored anyway, it doesn't cost much to release them in the theater for a couple weeks. The movies not only make a little money but, more importantly, they're free advertising for the DVD. Yellow Submarine and Stop Making Sense will certainly not be the last rock-and-roll movies to return to Chicago theaters. Not exactly a rebirth but a nice diversion for the VH-1 crowd.

J. Robert Parks  9/21/99

Stop Making Sense: 

Yellow Submarine: