The Beatles in ‘Help!’

[12 November 2007]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

1965 was a transitional year for international icons The Beatles. It would see the release of their artistic “breakthrough” album, the pot-inspired mostly acoustic gem Rubber Soul. It marked their turn from pop music phenoms into actual artists, dispensing with the cover songs and collective cutesy routine that made up the majority of their marketability. In its place was a growing sense of self, a realization that the mania began on their little British Isle was spreading, unabated, across every aspect of popular culture. And it was the year they reluctantly starred in their second feature film, Help!   Hoping to capitalize on the success of A Hard Day’s Night, director Richard Lester kept the eccentric English humor intact. Gone, however, was the carefree innocence that seemed to spark their first foray into film. In its place was a workmanship and ethic that, while winning, provided portents of careering things to come.

After receiving a ring from an adoring fan, Beatles drummer Ringo finds himself locked in a life or death struggle with the notorious Kaili worshipping cult. Seems the piece of jewelry is one of their sacred ornaments, and whoever wears it will end up a human sacrifice to their god. Trying to avoid the murderous motives of High Priest Clang and his henchman, the boys seek help from a jeweler, the employees of an Indian Restaurant, and a crazed scientist named Foot and his bumbling assistant Algernon. Unfortunately, the only person able to help is fellow cult member Ahme. She seems sweet on Paul, and wants to return the ring to its rightful owner. With the help of Scotland Yard, the band records under heavy military guard, travels to Switzerland to avoid the thugs, and winds up confronting the perplexingly persistent fanatics on the shores of the Bahamas.

It’s a shame that Help! is constantly saddled with the “second best Beatles film” moniker. When compared to the rest of their output—the maddening Magical Mystery Tour, the next to no involvement in the decent Yellow Submarine, the dark and bitter aura of Let It Be - it’s faint praise indeed. Certainly A Hard Day’s Night set a cinematic bar so high that not even the most important band in the history of modern music could compete with it, and compared to other rock and roll film showcases of the time, it’s an unbridled masterwork. But for some reason, when placed along an equally fictional version of a ‘day in their life’, The Beatles’ East Indian romp gets some substantial short shrift. Frankly, it doesn’t deserve it. Fault it all you want for being a refashioned farce (the script was originally meant for someone else) or a marijuana soaked semi-spectacle, but the film contains some of the best onscreen work the band ever accomplished. It also features some of their most astounding songs of the pre-psychedelia/Sgt. Pepper period.

Help! is actually a hard movie to hate. The Beatles may be a tad dispirited here, less hyper and more humbled by what was rapidly becoming a cultural cocoon trapping them within their own fame (the next year—1966—would mark their decision to stop touring and concentrate on writing and recording only), but they make a perfect proto-punk Marx Brothers. While Ringo is the supposed star, perhaps because of the glowing notices he received from Night, it’s actually the entire foursome that truly shines. The reconfigured screenplay gives every member a standout sequence, from Paul’s amazing adventure ‘on the floor’ to John’s constant taunting of every authority figure in the film. The main narrative still centers on the emblematic drummer with the tendency toward ostentaceous jewelry and a large neb, but the other three turn in delightfully deadpan performances as well. It helps sell the rather clumsy, crackpot concept.

Equally endearing is the superb supporting cast. Made up of many then UK luminaries, Leo McKern and Eleanor Brom are excellent as opposing sides of the killer cult. Handling the pigeon English elements of his role with class and creativity, the future Rumpole of the Bailey never registers a single false note. Brom, on the other hand, is a strange choice for a romantic lead. Dark, imposing and very focused, she is a million miles from the hippy dippy flower children that were coming to mark the midpoint of the ‘60s. Returning to the Beatles camp for a second cinematic go round, Victor Spinetti is the perfect nonsense spewing mad scientist. Along with soon to be inseparable sidekick Roy Kinnear (the two became synonymous because of their brilliant chemistry here) they literally light up the screen. The sequence where they put Ringo into a metal expanding machine is a classic of screwball science shtick. In fact, there is a wonderful balance between physical and intellectual comedy here, something that definitely differentiates Help! from Night’s more normative approach.

And then there’s the music. While different entities love to claim the title of “Originator of the Music Video”, the Beatles will always remain the format’s grandest champions. Unlike Night, which used a performance based paradigm almost exclusively to showcase the songs, Help! creates little mini musical montages that form the foundation for everything MTV would do two decades later. While the title track purposely recalls the previous film, the next number, the fabulous pop tone “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl” sets the new standard for such presentations. Playing in a dimly lit studio, their silhouettes barely visible through the fog of cigarette (?) smoke, the boys bang out one of Lennon’s best, a catchy little number with a tantalizingly tough lyrical line. Indeed, most of the songs in Help! would avoid the June/Moon/Spoon musings of their Tin Pan Alley take on rock and roll to enter into realms that are dark, confrontational, and dismissive.

With titles like “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” (a nice nod to new buddy Bob Dylan), “The Night Before” and “Another Girl”, The Beatles were proving that they’d matured, and indeed, one of the main reasons some fans don’t like this glorified goofball lark is that it posits grown men, ready to explore the mysteries both inside and outside their insular world as juvenile jokesters. Many of the gags are aimed at the lowest levels of wit, and even some of the smarter material is offset by a clear cut cartoonish ideal. Still, there are incredibly clever moments (the opening sequence where we see the boys’ fictional living quarters, the police inspector’s spot-on Ringo impression) when the group’s inherent intelligence shines through. In fact, aside from the standard action film finish which finds the gang involved in car chases and foot races, the verbal humor is on par with anything Night had to offer.

As part of the long awaited DVD presentation from Capital Records and Apple Corps, we learn about the difficulty director Richard Lester had in coming up with another Beatles project. Popularity was demanding the boys’ return to the big screen, but since another mock documentary about their career was out of the question, something slightly more surreal had to be created. On the second disc of added content (sadly, sans current input of the remaining band members) we hear stories about the infamous amount of ganja on set, the description of a disastrous sequence that didn’t make the final cut, and confirm what many at the time were already quite aware of—the Beatles were chaffing at their continued closed-off existence. It was almost impossible for them to travel anywhere—even on set—without crowds of screaming fans isolating them. It’s clear that what seemed exciting in A Hard Day’s Night was becoming more and more unbearable by Help!

This is perhaps why the film feels strained to some. The madcap mop tops who captured everyone’s hearts a year before had become slightly dampened slaves to their incalculable success. The notion that they were now international trend setters, mocked and mimicked by every group looking to ride the cresting British Invasion must have manifested itself in ways that, subconsciously, snuck onto the celluloid. It is clear that the fun loving blokes we see cascading down the Alps to the glorious sounds of John Lennon’s classic “Ticket To Ride” would soon become introspective—and independent—parts of an unique whole. They would go on to make albums that transcended the medium, offering timeless examples of composition as art. But Help! remains a wonderful testament to a time when being a Beatle was still satisfying—at least, on the cinematic surface.   

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