Which is more incredible: that Help! is actually a semi-coherent film, or that its director, Richard Lester, didn’t drown his misbehaving stars in the Atlantic before shooting had wrapped? The Beatles’ second feature-length film, Help! (1965) seemed doomed from the start, but everyone involved was perhaps too caught up in the giddy thrust of Beatlemania to recognize the warning signs of impending doom.
Lester and the Beatles were hot off A Hard Day’s Night, the band’s 1964 cinematic debut, a calculated yet opportune crossover into matinee idol-dom that succeeded from a confluence of Marx Brothers humor, Liverpudlian wit, and effervescent iconography. Help!, a quick attempt to recapture that past glory, would not be so auspiciously born.
First, the production team was working from a hand-me-down script hastily retooled for the Beatles’ involvement. It was originally intended as a madcap chase comedy for Peter Sellers, but when he passed in favor of What’s New Pussycat?, his role was splintered into four. Secondly, the Beatles used the film as an excuse to plan a world-tripping vacation (it was shot in England, Austria, and Bahamas, the latter by decree of the band’s manager, Brian Epstein) and spent more time basking in celebratory time-wasting than they did actually learning their lines, made all the more evident by how many times they lost their scripts.
To make matters of concentration worse, the boys, still in the head-over-heels phase of their love affair with pot, spent the entire shoot higher than Jeff Lebowski after a hard night’s bowling (“smoking marijuana for breakfast”, is how John Lennon remembered it) and therefore could barely make it through a scene without descending into convulsive laughter. “All the best stuff is on the cutting-room floor,” Lennon later said, “with us breaking up and falling about all over the place, lying on the floor, incapable of saying a word.”
Surprisingly, Help! turned out alright — it’s not as irrepressibly fantastic as A Hard Day’s Night, but neither is it as inferior as many fans make it out to be. It remains a worthy manifestation of the Beatles’ burgeoning creative consciousness, and serves to mirror the formal escalations of the band’s music, which, in 1965, was growing in peerless leaps and bounds. Lester packs each frame with an elegant overload of illogical knick-knackery, sight gags, and nods, winks, and glances (delivered in smirking druggish aplomb by the band), all of it rendered in eye-popping color — a visual manifesto of sorts that provoked film critic Pauline Kael to declare the Beatles “part of a comic-strip world”.
These cross-channels of visual information essentially disguised the fact that Help! had a plot so thin and neglected that it was virtually nonexistent. Instead of creating another fictitious day-in-the-life of the band, à la A Hard Day’s Night, Help! attempted to place the Beatles at the center of an implausible Bond-esque caper: An Indian cult (though, interestingly enough, it’s never referred to as Indian, but rather “Eastern”) requires a gaudy sacrificial ring in order to complete its latest human sacrifice, a ring that Ringo Starr just happens to be wearing. The cult pursues the band all over the world, through snow and sand and the streets of London, making numerous goofy attempts on Starr’s life. Eventually, a mad scientist (played by Victor Spinetti, a regular of Beatles cinema) and his assistant give chase, hoping to rule the world with the seemingly indestructible piece of shiny red jewelry. Once again, the Beatles are on the run, though this time the quotient of screaming and fainting fans has been usurped by a different breed of stark-raving crazies.
Despite its obvious weaknesses, Help! succeeds on a number of levels. As a comedy, it’s a terrific piece of absurdist theatre made by a group of superstars who weren’t afraid of looking ridiculous, more a proto-Monty Python romp through silly non-sequiturs than a litany of Marx Brothers verbal quips. The absurdities are far-reaching, relentless, and frequently recurring, and include a channel swimmer searching for the White Cliffs of Dover, a tiger who can only be controlled by singing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a truly nutty “intermission” that interrupts a tense moment, and (my personal favorite) a scene in the band’s shared house in which Lennon phones up the other Beatles only to play the morning alarm clock into the receiver. A Hard Day’s Night may boast better dialogue and a more rapid pace, but Help!, with its fearless scatterbraining of pop culture, has an idiosyncratic charm all its own.
Lester, too, ups the ante for the arrangement of the film’s musical performances — in later years, many would credit his work on A Hard Day’s Night and Help! as the genesis of the modern music video. Each song in Help! is shot in its own environment with a different color palette: “You’re Going to Lose That Girl”, perhaps the most visually striking, takes place in a recording studio with soft blue-grey lighting and the expressive haze of Starr’s cigarette smoke; “Ticket to Ride”, a sea of white, tracks the boys as they embark on their maiden skiing trip; and “The Night Before” and “I Need You” are staged amid a military outfit in an open field in olive green hues. Perhaps most ingenious is the opening title track itself, a simple reel of black-and-white footage that the cult watches on a projection screen and attacks with colored darts — an image of color infringing upon the monochrome template of the previous film. (Incredibly, this was the first color film for David Watkin, the director of photography who would go on to win an Oscar for his work on Out of Africa.)
Apple’s new two-DVD edition of Help! restores the bright, bold color of the original print that was so lacking in previous DVD editions (all of which have since been removed from the market or gone out of print). In one of the new edition’s extras, the painstaking restoration process is demonstrated and the A/V techies explain how they were careful to adhere to the standards of ’60s technology. The same can’t be said for the film’s soundtrack, which is given a modern-day 5.1-channel mix (you know, just as the Beatles intended!). The only other major feature on the second disc is a making-of documentary consisting of memories and testimonies by the cast and crew (minus the Beatles themselves). This includes interviews with Lester, actress Eleanor Bron, the Beatles’ personal assistant Neil Aspinall, and crew members from the hair and makeup, costume, and stunt departments. Lester and Aspinall, naturally, provide the more insightful commentary, but there’s nothing revelatory here that hasn’t already been discussed in numerous books, documentaries, and articles.
And Help! needs no new revelations, only its ridiculousness duly upheld. Where A Hard Day’s Night toiled exhaustively to give its audience definitive proof of the Beatles’ appeal, Help! assumes its audience is already a believer. The Beatles, likewise, let their much-touted collective charisma do the hard work. In one of the film’s early scenes, two neighborhood ladies wave at the Beatles as they return home and enter four separate doors leading into what appears to be separate houses. “Just the same as they was before they was,” one lady remarks to the other, unaware that the four doors lead into one giant house equipped with a vending machine, retractable Wurlitzer, a sunken-floor bed, and, um, a gardener who cuts grass with wind-up chattering teeth. Of course they’re the same, only this time their celebrity meets a microscope of irreverence. Why? Because it makes no sense, and because it is funny. Or: why not?