August 25, 2020 The Beatles – Help! 55 Years Later
The Beatles were unavoidable in 1965. They were already big on both sides of the Atlantic at this point. So, why not release a new film? A Hard Day’s Night proved to be a hit in 1964, so a sequel was sure to do big numbers as well. Help! made its nationwide US debut on August 25th. It aimed to be bigger and bolder than its predecessor, but was it better?
In the past for one reason or another, black & white films were seen as being more serious and authentic than their color counterparts. Some people still feel this way today. A Hard Day’s Night played on this by presenting the Beatles’ wacky hijinks as another day in their life. Sure, they get bossed about by their roadies and directors. But they get to sneak off and run about a field! Chase down Paul’s scheming granddad! Teleport out of bathtubs and moving trains between cuts!
So, when Help! went technicolor, the shenanigans had to be turned up even more. Richard Lester (The Bed Sitting Room 1969, Superman III 1983) returned to the director’s chair with a screenplay written by Marc Behm (The Return of Dr Mabuse 1961, Charade 1963) and Charles Wood (The Knack 1965, Iris 2001).
In it, an Indian cult member called Ahme (Eleanor Bron: A Little Princess 1995, Wimbledon 2004) mails off the group’s sacrificial ring to save her sister from their leader Clang (Leo McKern: The Blue Lagoon 1980, Ladyhawke 1985). Unfortunately, it ends up stuck on the hand of Ringo Starr, and the cult has no qualms with making him their next victim. So, it is left up to John, Paul, George, Ahme, and a host of others to keep Ringo safe from the cult, curious scientists, and themselves.
So, yeah, that is pretty wild. Still, there had to be a bigger reason for the film being off-the-wall than just ‘it is in color now!,’ The answer to that turned out to be the Beatles themselves. Their input on the previous film helped contribute some of its more memorable quips. But for Help!, things were different. According to Paul McCartney, “we were taking it as a bit of a joke. I’m not sure anyone ever knew the script.”
This was likely because, by this point, they had discovered marijuana. In a 1980 interview, John Lennon said, “Nobody could communicate with us; it was all glazed eyes and giggling all the time.” For example, the knockout gas sequence at Buckingham Palace took days to shoot because the band kept cracking up during takes- pushing the otherwise easy-going Lester to his limits. One certainly feels the limits of the film in places as, once it reaches the Bahamas, the gag-a-minute pace from the first two acts slows to every other minute. It picks up for the nice, funny ending, yet the lull stands out.
However, the film’s biggest issue does not involve the Beatles at all. It is the cult members being played by white actors putting on Indian accents. They play their roles well enough, with McKern doing a nice comic turn as Clang in particular. Still, talent cannot save the rough, awkward feeling it leaves today. It may be a film of its time, but this ages Help! worse than A Hard Day’s Night’s monochrome or 1968’s Yellow Submarine’s psychedelia.
While these big white elephants in the room are a large hurdle to jump, the leap does yield rewards. Help! does have a better soundtrack. Tunes like “Ticket to Ride,” “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” and the title-track have aged better than the ones in its predecessor. The film’s accompanying scenes add to the charm of the tunes. Be it the skiing in the snow for “Ticket to Ride,” or the explosive countdown during “The Night Before.”
Plus, the film gets some genuine madcap laughs through its quips and sheer absurdity. Lester’s direction here is similar to the work he did with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan- off-the-wall, questionable scenarios mixed with arched dialogue. Like Paul McCartney getting shrunk by an experimental injection, Ringo Starr’s bravado getting foiled by a splash of red paint, or a tiger with a keen admiration for Beethoven. Silly as it is, it really works on screen.
Overall, Help! is a flawed film, with age exposing some particularly sore drawbacks. Yet the film still has merit for what it does right- showcasing some fine tunes, bringing out the band’s innate charm, and managing some good comedy here and there. However, its biggest legacy would come in the few actual Indians featured, who introduced the band to Indian music. So, thanks to Help!, heavily Indian-inspired tracks like “Norwegian Wood,” “Within You Without You,” along with “Tomorrow Never Knows” and more could take form. Fifty-five years later the film may have its clouds, yet it left a silver lining through the Beatles’ discography.