‘Help!’: Overlook the Plot, Stay for the Music

There are some films you really have to take in the spirit of their times, and Richard Lester’s 1965 Help! is one of them. Shot in haste, with no small amount of marijuana enjoyed by the four principal cast members during shooting, it’s an obvious attempt to cash in on the success of Lester’s 1964 A Hard Day’s Night and, of course, on the popularity of The Beatles themselves.

Help! is really two films in one: a silly framing story about a murderous Indian cult trying to get back a ring that found its way to Ringo’s finger, and a series of music-video-like clips of the Beatles performing their music in both realistic and strictly fantastical locations. The first seems distinctly unfunny, even racist, today, while the second remains as fresh as the day the tracks were laid down.

This dichotomy is established in the first 90 seconds. Help! opens with an elaborate scene of an impending sacrifice, with mostly European actors in dark makeup pretending to be Indians—the kind of thing you’d expect to see in a Roger Corman movie the day after he discovered some “Oriental” costumes and paraphernalia discarded in an alley. Then, a cut to The Beatles singing “Help!” in what appears to be a studio television appearance—it’s in black and white, with no jokey props or other distractions, and immediately reminds you why they are one of the greatest bands of all time. And also why teenage girls screamed their heads off at the mere mention of their name—besides being great performers and songwriters, in their young years especially these guys were just too cute for words.

The frame story is really one long chase sequence, beginning with an Indian cult (reportedly modeled on the Thuggees) led by Clang (Leo McKern), who are interrupted in their intent to sacrifice a young woman when a female cult member, Ahme (Eleanor Bron, in her first film) stops the show because the intended victim is not wearing a ring that forms part of the ritual. That very ring is now on Ringo’s finger, and the cult will spare no expense to get it back, pursuing The Beatles from London to, among other places, the Swiss Alps, Salisbury Plain, and the Bahamas.

Help! was not lacking in terms of a budget for location shooting, in other words, and the Bahamian location in particular pays off in a series of James Bond parodies (United Artists also shot Thunderball in Jamaica in 1965). A mad scientist (Victor Spinetti) also joins the chase, thinking that with the ring, he could rule the world. And why not? It’s that kind of movie.

This part of Help! is like a series of comedy set-pieces strung together, an approach which makes it easy to shoehorn in the songs that form the real appeal of the film today. Clearly, the plot was never meant to make much sense, and the anarchic spirit of “The Goon Show” (Richard Lester was involved in translating “The Goon Show” to television, and his short film “The Running Jumping and Standing Still Film” was a Beatles’ favorite) is a clear influence.

The individual set pieces are hit and miss, but one of the best comes near the beginning. Our four heroes are seen entering what appears to be four consecutive Twickenham terrace flats, as two archetypal British women of a certain age comment on what nice boys they are, and how they haven’t let success go to their heads. Inside the “flats” it’s a different story—it’s one huge house, Big Love style, with mod furnishings, a sunken sleeping area, and a theatre organ rising out of the floor. More importantly, in a touch of genius aimed directly at the desires of young people everywhere, there’s a wall of vending machines for their personal convenience.

The real appeal is the music, of course, and it sounds great, whether ostensibly performed on a ski slope in top hats and capes, in the aforementioned bachelor pad, or in the studio. Besides “Help!” the soundtrack includes “You’re Going to Lose That Girl”, “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”, “Ticket to Ride”, “The Night Before”, “I Need You”, and “Another Girl”.

The chief argument in favor of purchasing this Blu-Ray is the excellent restoration—the film looks as good as new, sharp and clear and with vibrant colors, and the sound is also great. You need only compare the restored film with some of the clips included in the featurette on the restoration process, included as an extra on the disc, to see how badly the film had aged and how good the restored product looks by comparison.

Otherwise, the extras are adequate but not outstanding, and several were also included with the 2007 DVD release. What you get with the Blu-Ray are a 30-minute making-of featurette (fun, but takes the whole project a little too seriously), an informative 11-minute featurette on the restoration process, a six-minute featurette in which those involved with the film reminisce about it, a collection of trailers, and something billed as “A Missing Scene”. The latter is a bit of false advertising, as it’s four minutes of Wendy Richard and others talking about a scene that was filmed but not included in the final film, but the scene itself is nowhere to be found. The DVD case includes a 12-page illustrated booklet including an essay by Martin Scorsese and a brief note from Richard Lester.

RATING 6 / 10
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