Beatlemaniacs will, of course, rush out to see Julie Taymor’s ‘60s fantasia “Across the Universe” when it opens in local theaters. Bono as Dr. Robert declaring “I Am the Walrus,” Joe Cocker demanding “Come Together,” a hallucinogenic Army induction sequence set to “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”—whether it works or not, what Beatles fan doesn’t want to savor those psychedelic bits and all manner of other trippy-transporting visual trickery in Taymor’s dream piece?
Yet, perfectly (and perhaps predictably) timed to capitalize on “Universe’s” “Moulin Rouge”-like appeal, another wildly inventive Beatles-related film—“Help!,” director Richard Lester’s oddly underrated 1965 follow-up to his first groundbreaking Fab Four flick, “A Hard Day’s Night”—will also be widely seen soon enough, and very likely for the first time by a whole new generation of “1”-toting and “Love”-adoring fans who’ve never had the opportunity.
Long available primarily in shoddy VHS copies from the ‘80s—I still have my Criterion laserdisc from the ‘90s, which was as good as it got until now—the gleefully nonsensical yet considerably influential movie finally arrives in a two-DVD set Oct. 30 (though I’m hearing that date may get pushed back into November).
I was able to take in a private screening of the restored print under ideal circumstances Wednesday night at POP Studios in Santa Monica, Calif., where many 5.1 mixes for films musical and otherwise are engineered. (The credits of Ted Hall, our guide this night, include the remastering of “The Last Waltz” and “U2: Rattle and Hum” and the insane mix for MGM’s rebuffed “Yellow Submarine.”)
The sound is, naturally, sharp as can be—the dialogue crisp, never muddy, the music rich like you always imagined it should have been, its tiniest details sparkling. The picture quality, too, is a marvel, its dirt and blemishes painstakingly removed, its color tone no longer washed-out, its brilliant colors vibrant like never before.
Much of this impressive achievement is addressed in the DVD’s bonus material. Also included is a 30-minute documentary loaded with rare archive and unseen outtake material, location footage, a discussion of a scene at a dramatics school that was cut “because it didn’t fly,” voice-over extractions from all four Beatles, and illuminating reminiscences from Lester, actress Eleanor Bron, Beatle business associate Neil Aspinall and more.
One cute aside involves Betty Glasow, hair and make-up artist for the film. She used to collect snips of the lads’ hair, seal them in envelopes and pass them on to production people. She still has a bit of John’s hair stuck in her copy of “A Spaniard in the Works.” He signed it, “To Betty, with hair.”
What struck me most about “Help!,” however, is just how strongly it holds up, as both rule-breaking cinema and sheer entertainment. Something of a James Bond spoof, in which Ringo is pursued by cultists, crazed scientists, Scotland Yard and the Nassau police force—all of whom either want to make him a sacrifice or save him from such a fate—it’s an immensely silly 90 minutes, loaded with hilarious Beatle wit, amusing sight gags (many of which must have inspired the Zucker-Abrams-Zucker team years later) and fantastically shot musical sequences, from the opening screen-within-screen play of “You’re Going to Lost That Girl” to the snow-bound “Ticket to Ride” to the Bahama fun of “Another Girl.”
But “Help!‘s” importance as a crucial stepping stone in the evolution of music video, for starters, is one thing this DVD reissue will hopefully put straight. Surely “A Hard Day’s Night” is given greater stature merely for coming first, for the canvas of “Help!” is far more expansive (not just in terms of locale), while its risk-taking, then-unorthodox editing and camera techniques, so many of which are fundamentals today, expand upon “A Hard Day’s Night’s” strides while coming at you in a blitz of startling ideas and happy coincidences.
“The whole film had a kind of mad quality to it,” Lester says in the bonus disc’s chief documentary, and for a specific reason, beyond the intentional zaniness of the script itself: “That was helped undoubtedly by the fact that—and I’ve never really alluded to this until now, when I think it doesn’t matter at all—but an awful lot of pot smoking was being done.”
The film, he adds, “came at a very, if you like, relaxed time in their lives, where there was a lot of laughter and a lot of merriment, and things didn’t seem to matter too much. Certainly they had a good time, and I hope that that was allowed to come out in the film.”
Clearly it was. “Help!” remains a wonderfully good time, cinematically subversive family fun. I took my mom along with me, seeing as my earliest Beatles memory is being 5 or so and watching “Help!” with her during an airing on “The 3:30 Movie,” when our ABC-TV affiliate had such a thing in the mid-‘70s. Neither of us had watched the flick in years—my mom probably not since that afternoon.
We both came out of the screening giddy, smiling, recounting all the visual nuttiness, retelling favorite lines in bad English accents as if we’d never heard them before. (It may not read funny here, but I can’t stop cracking up at the sardonic way John tells Ringo, while he’s facing an escaped tiger, not to worry—“we just have to sing famous Beethoven’s famous Ninth Symphony.”)
It remains a real gem, something that can be watched strictly for arid yuks or to be awed by its pop-art cinematography—or, better yet, both. Though it may look like 1965 through and through, it’s still remarkably fresh.