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It’s not without merit that A Hard Day’s Night, the feature film debut of a certain Liverpudlian combo, gets all the praise when The Beatles’ film offerings are discussed. It’s a pop masterpiece. It was the first time a rock film had been considered with any critical seriousness, and is a fun, cheeky bit of subversive genius from the first crash of the title song’s guitars signaling their first flight from packs of rabid fans. The alleged Day in the Life of the Beatles was the first rockumentary (- and mockumentary), and the inspiration for an entire generation of filmmakers who would create mini-movies set to groovy soundtracks back when MTV actually played music videos. 

In the heartfelt glow of such an auspicious (- and Oscar nominated!) opening salvo, often overlooked is their second feature, 1965’s Help! Directed once again by Brooklyn’s own Richard Lester (- Who would later helm the eternally wonderful The Three Musketeers, and its sequel, cleverly titled, The Four Musketeers). Lester took the road less traveled and opted not to make A Hard Day’s Night 2. The Beatles’ second cinematic opus would bear a vague semblance of a plot; in this case a take-off of the rampantly popular James Bond spy films. In one of many nods to preserving the “cuteness” of the four fellows’ public personas, Ringo is unfortunate enough to actually open up his own fan mail and try on a ring given to him by an admirer who’s also a worshipper in an Eastern cult. As is tradition, the ring-bearer has one day to wear the ring before becoming ritually sacrificed to the many-armed Goddess Kali (- She used to babysit our mascot Ganesha, y’know). The boys are forced to hide in Buckingham Palace, the Austrian Alps, Stonehenge, and even as far as the sunny Bahamas in order to escape the Kali crew and their wish to dissect the drummer.    

Citizen Kane this ain’t, but what Help! is is an absolutely magical set of vignettes threaded together by some fabulous cinematography, an ingenious script full of the dry wit of the North and some of the cleverest non-sequiturs and sight gags ever delivered with a straight face. Also, having the four kings of 1960’s England in full bloom at the height of their charm and beauty helps a bit. Oh yeah, there’s a middling song or two thrown in just to keep things amusing, y’understand.  

Help! was the first live action Beatles anything I ever saw as a young’un and my affection for it makes a lot of sense considering that (- As I may have mentioned once or twice before) Yellow Submarine is my favourite film, bar none. Help! is a lot like a live action cartoon. We’re not looking at the Beatles as people or actors as opposed to the outlines or characters based on the personalities that were so much promoted in their heyday ( - Which was every day, really). At that point, all they needed was to be placed in front of nice looking scenery and let them be themselves. “Just so natural, and still the same as they was before they was,” remark a couple of old ladies on the street where the boys enter their surreal, interconnected terrace house through four separate doors. Inside, each Beatle has their own set up, John with a library (- Vigorously featuring his then-current book of poems, A Spaniard in the Works) and a sunken pit for a bed and Paul rising up from the basement playing a pipe organ festooned with Superman comics. Documentary or not, I was convinced as a young pachyderm that surely they lived like that.  Once Clang (- Played by the amazing Leo McKern) and his cult followers (- Including Eleanor Bron in increasingly Modtacular outfits) figure out which “Be-A-tle” is which; “They all look the same in their similitude”, their efforts to retrieve the ring snowball to involve a mad scientist, attempted protection by “The famous Scotland Yard”, an opera-loving Tiger, a chaotic Ski trip across the Alps complete with deadly curling stones, the British Army guarding the boys during a recording session on Salisbury Plain and George playing action hero in the Caribbean to save Ringo from a red-painted fate. 

The music sequences are a step forward from those of A Hard Day’s Night, where the majority of Beatles’ songs were either used as incidental accompaniment to whatever was going on in a scene, or were performed in a studio setting or the concert finale (Can’t Buy Me Love being a standout exception). In Help!, most of the songs have their own scenes; like music videos plonked down in the middle of the film. Another Girl’s Bahamian performance clip is punctuated with lovely young Jean Shrimpton look-a-likes (- One of whom gets to double as Paul’s Hofner - grrr...). (You’ve Got To) Hide Your Love Away is shot inside the Beatles’ funhouse as a tense serenade to Eleanor Bron between rivals Paul and George. Ticket to Ride is filmed in the Alps on the boys’ first time on skis. Each of their personalities is perfectly captured; John, in his famous newsboy cap throwing his hands up in frustration after what looks like his 99th fall, Paul urging a carriage horse up a hilltop, Ringo’s argument with a pugnacious snowball and George elegantly gliding down a slope, every bit the English gentleman in top hat and shawl-shouldered overcoat. They frolic around a slow moving locomotive, play in the snow and sing the song all gathered around an auspiciously placed piano. It’s exhilarating and fresh; the boys look more peaceful and happy than they’d ever be on film again.  If, as a Beatles fan, I could choose one moment to represent them always, it would be this one. Simply one of the most glorious moments I’ve ever seen on any film (- Including Richard Lester’s inspired musical notes superimposed in time on the telegraph wires). I’m so glad I got to see it on this remarkable restored and remastered release by Capitol. 

Whenever I’d ever seen old pan & scan copies of Help! on television, it was always on a faded print full of scratches and a substandard audio track. Having watched this latest version, my enjoyment of the film was intensified as the sparkling clean negative revealed the lush colours of the blooming pop art canvas that Lester and his cinematographer, David Watkin devised. As beautiful an example A Hard Day’s Night is for iconic British black and white filmmaking, Help! is a celebration of full-blown technicolour, as bright and vivid as any of the comic book art panels of Roy Lichtenstein. The scenes in the Bahamas are blinding in their saturated hues, as are Eleanor Bron’s fabulous pink leather suit and the carefully tended emerald green lawn in front of George’s bed.  I can only imagine that the crispness of the DVD picture is as close as anyone will get to experiencing what a new print in its original 1965 release would have looked like ( - If it isn't actually an improvement.). I reckon the sound may be far superior, as well, but then, in 1965, with the screaming teenagers in the audience, who could tell? With the lovely DTS 5.1 Surround Sound audio, I never realised how many of the cracking jokes I’d missed simply due to inferior sound:  

After finding some interesting ingredients in a soup cooked by the bad guys, John pulls a laminated piece of paper out of his bowl:

John: What’s this?

Ringo: A season ticket, what'd ya think it is?

John: Oh, I like a lot of seasoning in my soup {dips ticket back in

Clang in discussion with an elderly English vicar over High Tea:

Clang: Oh, goodness me. Sex is creeping in. It’s being thrown at youth. They see it everywhere, in the bazaars, in the market places, in the temple, even. Can you wonder they turn up their noses at a mystical impulse? We are taking up fox hunting so the young people can be involved in their own sacrifices, and will understand the deep significance of blood well shed. Of course, I don’t expect you to see eye to eye with me, but I’m sure we can agree to differ.

On their visit with the skeptical superintendent of Scotland Yard:

Superintendent: Red … Red?

Ringo: They have to paint me red before they chop me. It’s a different religion from ours … I think.

Superintendent: So this is the famous Beatles?

John: So this is the famous Scotland Yard, eh?

Superintendent: How long do you think you'll last?

John: Can't say fairer than that, Great Train Robbery, eh? How's that going?

On their decision to stop running from Clang’s cult:

Paul: A man’s got to do what he’s got to do

George: I don’t reckon all this runnin’ away

John: Let’s go back and get 'em, eh?

Ringo: Hey no, they’ll disembowel us

John: Not if I get the boot in first! Let’s go back and get ‘em.

George: They won’t disembowel us, y’see. That’s all gab – disemboweling…

The absurdist, surrealist, proto-psychedelic nature of Help! shows its influence in the audacious stylings of the Monty Python troupe and probably more evidently on the American Monkees TV series, which premiered a year after Help!’s release.  

The DVD release has a 2nd disc of extras which are a Be-A-tle lover’s dream. I would have been hysterical for a full audio commentary by Lester himself (- I can’t even fathom input from the remaining two lads), but the making-of documentary is the next best thing. Possibly even better with newsreel footage and behind the scenes photos I’ve never seen of the boys getting on the plane to the Bahamas and having to dress out in the open beach for lack of changing rooms.

The doc also features adorable insight from Eleanor Bron, costume designer Julie Harris and hairdresser Betty Glasgow (- Who’s still got a lock of John’s mop pressed in one of his books, which he inscribed, “To Betty, With Hair”). The experimentalism of the colour techniques is explained by David Watkin and Lester gives praise to Charles Wood for injecting the dry wit of the script’s inimitable bon mots. EastEnders' formidable Pauline Fowler makes an appearance, as well: Wendy Richard takes us through Help!’s missing scene where she played an acting student opposite Paul and British comedy legend Frankie Howerd. Lester tells us the different approaches of Howerd and the moptops just didn’t gel and so all we have are stills of the missing sequence. There is an educational segment on the restoration of the film and the exhaustive processes that went into what seemed to clearly be a labour of love to those involved. Top it off with two US trailers (- One in Español, cos that’s how they roll) and liner notes by Martin Scorsese and it’s truly a fantastic piece not just for Beatles fans (- Who should fly to this release) for any film lover. 

Ich liebte es, ja, ja, ja.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva/Mighty Ganesha

January 4th, 2008

 

PS: To make it easier to grab this Must-Have DVD, here’s a direct link to Amazon:

Stop Worrying!! Click here to buy Help! now!

 

 

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Photos

(Courtesy of Capitol Records, Apple Corps Ltd, Subafilms Ltd.)

 

 

 

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