It wasn’t the biggest stretch for a suddenly successful rock band. Heck, Elvis had been doing it since 1956, and throughout Hollywood, DJ Alan Freed and his burgeoning rock and roll revues were getting some warranted big screen spit and polish. Yet for all their onstage savoir faire, the off the cuff cleverness and seemingly endless energy, the Beatles were not a motion picture given. They had funny accents. They played a progressive pop music that still scared most “adult” listeners. They were nonconformist in their look (“that long hair”) and their mannerism (“cheeky!”). And still, when the offer came to feature them in a film, manager Brian Epstein thought it a sound business idea.
Thus did the Fab Four flirt with mainstream movie acceptance. Technically, they only made two theatrical features (Magical Mystery Tour is a TV film, they played no part in the production of Yellow Submarine, and Let It Be is a documentary) and yet in that short span of time, they managed to completely redefine their public persona — and then do it all over again. From the start, their first effort was always going to be a mock look at the band circa Beatlemania. It was going to present the boys as fresh faced and enthusiastic, loaded with witty batter without overdoing it on the sarcasm. In less than a year, however, the guys would be grinding out a frothy, fictional farce that spoke as much about their growing resentment toward success as it did their newfound sense of individual maturity.
In Chinese philosophy, it is known as yin and yang — the balancing of opposites toward the achievement of equilibrium — and enlightenment. For John, Paul, George, and Ringo it was a chance to jumpstart and quash their international superstardom in one 12-month celluloid step. To this day, fans prefer A Hard Day’s Night to the more complicated and dour Help! . The former finds the band wide-eyed and optimistic, more than happy to play for the screaming, shouting throngs. In less than a year, the latter would reveal a group growing weary of their public persona, desperate to do almost anything to avoid the prying eyes of their adoring public. Indeed, it’s interesting to look at both films as quasi-creative bookends. A Hard Day’s Night is all joy and optimism. Help! turns said sentiments inward, celebrating the suspicious and sometimes sinister nature of celebrity.
From a wholly structural standpoint, only one has anything remotely resembling a plot. A Hard Day’s Night is really nothing more than a scrapbook come to life, a young man’s memories of being the king of the world accented with several sensational songs. Help!, on the other hand, involves a missing ring, a scheduled human sacrifice, a murderous Hindi cult, an obsessed leader, a turncoat member, standard Beatle business, and band’s import to both Queen and country. Almost all the songs in A Hard Day’s Night are part of a performance, either in rehearsal or seen in a last act live televised concert (the only major exception — “Can’t Buy Me Love”, which gets a rollicking proto-music video treatment). By way of contrast, Help! divides up the tune so that some are part of a day in the studio (“You’re Gonna Lose That Girl”), a well guarded outdoor recording session (“The Night Before”, “I Need You”), or various madcap montages.
Aside from such obvious aspects — including the difference between black and white and color film stock — the back and forth between the films was also reflective of their burgeoning creative output. A Hard Day’s Night is laced with the band’s by now perfected three minute pop masterworks, tracks that use both sentiment (“If I Feel”) and standard teen travails (“I Should Have Known Better”) to explore the very top of the record charts. Help! has more introspective numbers, including the Bob Dylan influenced “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” and the incredibly progressive “Ticket To Ride”. If A Hard Day’s Night was Paul McCartney’s chance to shine (or at least seemed to be), Help! was all Lennon. His growing frustration and disenchantment with the British invasion sound would soon lead to more in-studio experimentation and an eventual halt to touring.
Even the logistical set-up for each story gets skewed from ’64 to ’65. Ringo was the “accidental” star of Night, given the third act thread of feeling unwanted (he leaves the rehearsal, resulting in a frantic search to find him). In Help! , the natty drummer was the main focus, his fondness for rings and one particularly ostentatious babble leading to the boys’ run-in with a murderous religious sect. While each member got their own individual moments in Night, Help! is almost all Ringo, with just a few jutting asides from the others. For those familiar with both films, here’s a little test: name one memorable INDIVIDUAL highlight from Help! Pretty tough. When taken back to A Hard Day’s Night, you’ve got John’s case of misidentification, Paul’s confrontation with his fictional grandfather, and George’s scene stealing putdown of a teen TV show producer. Classic.
In many ways, it was the music that was more important in the second film than in the first. Returning director Richard Lester (who technically invented the post-modern musical with both titles) used every song that Lennon and McCartney crafted for the film as a backdrop for some manner of visual experimentation. “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl” is shot in smoky studio shadows, while “Ticket to Ride” takes the boys on a jaunt through the Alps. “Another Girl” uses a Caribbean setting to get its kiss-off sentiments across, while only “The Night Before” and “I Need You” seem to mimic the previous movie’s band practice paradigms. If “Can’t Buy Me Love” started the whole pre-MTV take on presenting popular music, Help! certainly solidified it. More so, the second film tried to build the songs into the narrative, using them as linking material between certain particular plotpoints. A Hard Day’s Night was just the guys getting ready for a show
But it’s attitude that again marks the biggest distinction between the two films. A Hard Day’s Night purposefully shows the Beatles as good natured, fun loving, and undeniably wholesome. Even during the nightclub sequences (scored to the rollicking “I Wanna Be Your Man”), it’s all hard sell the guys seemingly appears oblivious to the obvious temptations around them. By Help!, they’d stopped caring, growing surly and stepping into a pub to have a pint. In A Hard Day’s Night, there is a sense of communal oneness — same hotel room, same clothing style, same smart aleck personalities. But by Help!, rifts were already starting to form. The soundtrack album would feature Paul’s first “solo” outing (the acoustic guitar driven “Yesterday”), and John was already looking into different ways of expanding his tireless muse. While both movies are remarkably entertaining and quintessential examples of the genre, A Hard Day’s Night feels like the start of something big. Help!, sadly, is the sound of said promise slowly dissipating before complete fading away.
If you place the final fiction work by the band — Magical Mystery Tour – alongside these clearly superior examples of their onscreen abilities, we get a telling triptych, a sequence of statements that argued against their continued marketing and marginalization and for the furthering of their own individual artistic goals. Help! would come out in mid-year ’65, followed almost immediately by the breakthrough album Rubber Soul in December. Like a lover parting ways with a paramour, these sonic statements made it very clear that the days of British Invasion bullshit were long gone. In their place was a seriousness about their musical future, a desire to forge new aural frontiers instead of filling stadiums with screaming, seemingly unappreciative fans.
So maybe it was the band growing tired of the grind. Perhaps Richard Lester is right when he remembers the “massive” amount of pot being smoked by the band during Help! It could be that, like lightning, it’s hard to twice capture the Beatle magic in a cinematic bottle. Whatever the case, like almost everything else they did during their time as certified cultural phenoms, the guys managed to find a way to make movies work for them, and then seemingly get out while the getting’s good. The result is a pair of proven entertainments that showcase the best, and the most beleaguered, that the boys had to offer. Whether on purpose or via fate, accident or actuality, A Hard Day’s Night and Help! illustrate how four guys from a working class British town translated their creative genius into visual illustrations of same. Happy or hollow, excited or exhausted, this was the face of the new musical frontier — and both its brilliance, and balance, remain unquestioned.