In first scene of Help!, The Beatles are seen on a black and white television as though they were still playing the final concert of A Hard Day’s Night. They play the title song with smiling faces as the leader of a sacrificial cult throws coloured darts at the screen, mad that Ringo wears the ring needed to complete the ritual. By that point we had abruptly transported to a world of golden statues and big production values, but here this shift and this action becomes a mission statement to be as high budget and as colourful as A Hard Day’s Night was low budget and monochromatic. Of course much of the joy of A Hard Day’s Night comes from its scrappy handheld quality,
Dick Lester spent much of his career as a director of The Goon Show, so the silly antics that take place throughout of this movie must have felt like home territory. Like his last movie with the Fab Four, Lester combines a number of genres and intent; there’s still the showcase for the pioneering music videos, but Help is also part abstract comedy, part epic adventure film in the vain of Gunga Din and of course ultimately, a Bond parody (and considering Dr No was only three years old there was a surprising amount of them).
In terms of visual style this must have been much more difficult to coalesce into one movie, but thankfully him and cinematographer David Watkin pull this with a colour visual palette ranging from neon purples to muted greens. Both them worked together on two movies in 1965, the other being The Knack…And How to Get It, so the fact they both turned out at least good is an impressive feat. The pop art colours just brighten up each scene and each location, everywhere from the Austrian Alps to the Indian restaurants to the Bahamas to that living Pad that has four front doors and modern furniture that we would all like to live in (let’s not kid ourselves). Even scientific laboratories fit the blend that the pair create (though that might be helped by the certain cheese factor). The colour episodes of I Dream of Jeanie take much of this movie’s aesthetic, and The Monkees TV show with its comedy, musical interludes and bizarre transitions resembles this far more than it resembles the previous one.
Unfortunately, there is much less cohesion when it comes to the actual narrative, a pity considering this is a Beatles movie with the temerity to at least have one. Actually, the fact it has a major MacGuffin kind of prevents the story from going into true abstraction territory, and because the movie is predominately an adventure story it makes the musical sequences stand out as much more tacked on (which is remarkable when you consider these movies only really existed to showcase the songs). Like in A Hard Day’s Night though it does successfully combine absurdism with a kind of unique British ethos. Partly because of the English terrace road that the movie spends much time in, and partly because of some well placed cameos and performance from British comedy mainstays like Roy Kinnear and Warren Mitchell, and lead villain Clang played with bravado by the great Leo McKern (famous Beatles roadie Mal Evans also makes a funny cameo as the swimmer who pops out of the icy water).
But then there’s the acting from the Beatles themselves, who after being such a joy in the last movie take a noticeable dip in quality. The key thing to remember about their performances in this film is that they were completely baked throughout the entire production. Despite what many stoners and a funny but flawed Bill Hicks routine will tell you, drugs don’t always have a net positive on The Beatles creativity. Even if I didn’t know that they hazier than a Chinese skyline, it definitely had an affect on their sense of comic timing, particularly notable in scenes when it just the four sitting in rooms talking. The one who seems to lead the pack in comedic possibilities is Ringo Starr, and although that’s because him being the bearer of the ring puts him into more comedic possibilities, he takes those possibilities with great aplomb (It’s only in this run through though that I notice he is essentially the protagonist of every Beatles film).
In this instance the most successful comedy and viscera comes from the filmmaking. This ranges from the meta cutaways and funny captions, which beyond being funny themselves feel like they would influence the Adam West Batman series, to action scenes like the entertaining skiing sequence. Then of course there’s the music sections, moving the music video aesthetic even further with the benefit of both colour and location shooting. The most beautiful of these sequence is that for “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl”, which is to this movie what the “And I Love Her” scene was in A Hard Day’s Night, with lighting that halos the band and cast empowering shadows over their faces. The “Ticket to Ride” sequence, whilst not as kinetic as the “Can’t Buy Me Love” scene, sees the band having the most overt amount of fun in the whole movie. Here the videos stand out as more superflous, but the movie even seems to poke fun at their own superfluousness with Ahme (Eleanor Born) awkward posture as the only audience member during the “You’ve Got to Hide Your love Away” performance. This means the film always feels light and fun, and never too serious to make the scene’s drag.
I suppose I should talk about the central plot revolving around sacrificial cults from a nondescript pan-Eastern location being a tad racially insensitive. Considering the time it was made and the plot being based on Gunga Din, I was quite surprised that this wasn’t more racist. Well, that was until a man in a Indian restaurant was sleeping on a bed of nails for no apparent reason, and they keep saying the phrase “their filthy ways”. It’s actually quite funny that being in this film would start the Beatles move into spirituality and incorporating Indian influences into their music, because this production doesn’t paint. Still, compared to its competition, I’ll grade to scale with a solid B!
Help!’s more overarching ambition had the net result of being less cohesive and overall strong as the band’s first movie. But most movies would look lesser in comparison to a game changer like A Hard Day’s Night, and taken in its own context this a light absurd piece of entertainment that, although as conflicted as The Beatles’ music in this period, still makes for fun viewing. And at the very least its understandable. Unlike the next movie. Goodbye narrative; I knew thee well…