Help! (1965, Richard Lester)
Writing something about Help! is just about the most annoyingly difficult assignment I can imagine giving myself. My relationship to and affection for this movie is more long-running and difficult to articulate than my feelings about almost any other subject we’ll tackle in this blog. I’ve been a Beatles fan since I was about six years old, and it was a year later that I first saw Help!, checked out from the library. At the time the lower-key dialogue play of A Hard Day’s Night was slightly over my head and I preferred the weirder midperiod music, so it was all like a light bulb going off. I was a second-grade Get Smart fan and it’s no stretch to say that Help! strongly defined what would become my sense of humor, really for life. I watched it dozens upon dozens of times, checking it out again and again. It’s one of maybe four movies I at some point had essentially memorized. It had sufficient impact on me that when I first heard Yo La Tengo’s “Tom Courtenay” I felt overjoyed that someone else’s whole sense of life and joy was mapped out on the basis of this wonderful film that, among hardcore Beatles fanatics and at least one Beatle himself, is supposedly a complete failure.
It would be years later that I would be aware that Richard Lester was an important and fine director quite apart from his relationship to the Beatles, one of many strokes of luck in which they were bound to work with one of the most inventive people in a given field. When Lester made A Hard Day’s Night, Beatlemania was still a fresh phenomenon in progress, documented with grace and breakneck speed as it was happening. Help! occurs in a world and a time wherein Beatlemania is already a fact of life, a bedrock, as Lester’s odd and witty young friends have become so enormously famous that the only way to react to it is to mock its hugeness, to place them in a James Bond-scale world travelogue so far over the top as to be wholly ridiculous, as Beatlemania itself frankly was. There are no screaming girls here and little evidence of the world outside the Beatles’ protective bubble; the caricatures of Mal Evans and Neil Aspinall are gone. Instead, as John Lennon would say, they’re props in their own film. But if you’ve spent much time reading about what the Beatles’ lives were like in 1965 and 1966, you know that this renders it just as accurate a portrait of their lives in this moment as A Hard Day’s Night had been of their lives one year earlier. So much had changed so quickly, and as at so many other points in brilliant 20th century art, the only proper reaction to go insane.
I wasn’t yet a seasoned Beatles listener, I just had a stack of records and only a faint clue of how they were meant to be organized, but I’d within the year begin reading about them obsessively, and for decades thereafter I’d always dread coming in a given biography to the pages that would discuss Help! and tell me so emphatically how it was supposed to suck. It wasn’t until I heard Leonard Maltin and Rob Sheffield’s defenses of the film that I realized why my opinion was so far from that of most Beatles cultists: the film uses the Beatles, their personalities and their music as merely a backdrop and they’re nearly beside the point. A fan of spy parodies and wordy, goofy screwball comedies, on the other hand, will find a celluloid kindred spirit here, and further in Lester’s other films like The Knack. The truth is it’s more a Richard Lester movie than a Beatles movie, even if it’s tough to imagine it without them.
Help! was written by Mark Behm of Charade notoriety and by the surrealist Charles Wood, which is akin to handing your action film over for Man Ray to photograph. The laughable subversion of making a teenybopper film with Charles Wood’s name attached is so entertainingly delightful that just thinking about it is almost as good as actually watching the film. Lester, Behm and Wood have a field day, arranging a vague plot around an Eastern syndicate and its diabolical plan to recover a sacrificial ring that’s somehow ended up on Ringo’s hand. We fall in with smug jewelers, sinister restaurants, inept mad scientists, clueless Scotland Yard detectives, and off we go to the Bahamas and the Alps. This is the mark of the inevitable sequel budget after A Hard Day’s Night had proven so profitable — we’re in color now, and we’re all over the world. Thanks to Wood, we have “I thought she was a sandwich, ’til she went spare on me hand” and “Hold! Release him or I shoot, and I am a dead-eye shot, shooting” and a parade of dialogue about going back and “getting ’em.” Some of the jokes even make sense, and are hilarious, but somehow they work just as well when they barely seem to function as anything besides gleefully nonlinear wordplay (undoubtedly influenced by Lennon’s operations in that field). Just as intelligently scripted and advanced in its humor as A Hard Day’s Night in an entirely different manner, it’s one of the most quotable films ever made; the lines that aren’t funny are just off-kilter enough to be unforgettable. And at its best, the thing is a classic sort of madcap smart comedy, built on character oddities, heightening the established sarcasm and attitude of the first film, and heroically pinning down the feverish urgency of the Bond films while upending it.
Although Lester attempts to make the amusingly haphazard plot string all of his film together, it’s really a series of brilliantly odd setpieces that skip any kind of logical setup and instead run directly into crazed fooling around. If it has precedent, it’s surely in the truly anarchic early Marx Brothers films with their sometimes completely otherworldly tangents. Help! traverses from an alienating opening sequence in the temple of an Eastern cult to the equally bizarre nooks and crannies of the Beatles’ supernaturally vast apartment, later the subject of a hysterically abortive home invasion complicated by, among other things, a can of red paint and a shrunken Paul hiding on the floor. Have we brought up the fact that the other three Beatles all don Ringo masks to pose as his decoys? Or that George painstakingly rescues a kidnapped Ringo from the trunk of a car by slowly dismantling its tires? It’s all indescribable, quick and never stops to take a breath, and I’ve lived with it so long that it knocks my brain around a bit to realize how fucking strange it is. Yet this only makes it harder for me to accept that so many Beatle-adoring weirdos don’t love it. How can you not love a movie with the Beatles all donning fake beards and trying to downplay the fact that the press has discovered their whereabouts by pretending they’re wrong? And when they land they all gather around and take photos of one another? And the endless series of non-sequitours Lester inserts that have nothing to do with anything? And for heaven’s sake, Eleanor Bron’s double agent Ahme, Victor Spinetti’s self-regarding Foot, Leo McKern’s diabolical Clang? Any immortality they’ve attained by association with this is well-desered.
What fans will inevitably agree on is the music and how beautifully it’s presented. A Hard Day’s Night mostly stuck to mimicked live performances to deliver the Beatles songs it was obligated to offer. In Help!, the songs have essentially nothing to do with the story, so Lester, cameraman David Watkin (famed later for Out of Africa and Chariots of Fire), and editor John Victor Smith choose to loosen themselves from plot and have fun creating several bravura song sequences that more or less inaugurate the filmic style of the music video — or at least, the good music video, something of a rarity. “Help!” is a somewhat generic performance clip underneath the title sequence, lifted up by the amusing dartboard effect that reveals the credits (the end titles are far superior, also designed by Robert Freeman, whose best work in this field is in AHDN and The Knack). But “I Need You” and “The Night Before” show up against the backdrop of Stonehenge, surrounded improbably by tanks. “Another Girl” is a gorgeous, heavily color-filtered sequence tied together by footage of the Beatles goofing around in the Bahamas, the permanence of their youth on celluloid here enough to make you tear up nearly as much as seeing them in the far-friendlier-to-sentimentality AHDN. “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” features some Lesterian strangeness with Leo McKern and a manhole and two Beatles eye-fucking Eleanor Bron but all the while, there’s John Lennon sitting there, settling so deeply into demons he can’t possibly better elucidate in this context than with his saddened, tired eyes (this and “Help!” are among his most personal compositions, making supreme irony out of the fact that they were written for such an irreverently silly film). “You’re Going tO Lose That Girl” is a rather lame tune livened up by the glorious smoky lighting in its studio clip here. But best of all is “Ticket to Ride,” raw footage of the Beatles attempting to learn to ski, charming and selfless and free of any kind of pretension. If you hate everything about Help!, you will love this moment anyway if you care anything at all for this band.
Of course I can’t say how much of what I’ve just told you comes from a place of critical thinking. If I had to guess I’d say this is the only film that I have seen more than thirty times, at least since I’ve been school-aged. That’s dwindled down to just four or five times in the last fifteen years. Has it diminished for me since I wore at least two VHS copies down to tracking-addled scrambles? Except in the sense that I’m now a little uncomfortable with its insensitive (though decidedly ridiculous and therefore not so deeply troubling as it could be) caricaturing of Indians and Indian culture, no, not really. Though it was my favorite of the Beatles’ five films as a kid, I’d now rank A Hard Day’s Night and Yellow Submarine above it, but that’s simply because the years have revealed those to me as even more transcendent and truly great. If you know your Beatles history, you know that Help! may be the most important of their movies to the band itself since it introduced George Harrison to the sitar, but nuts to that. You and I need this movie so we can see what a badass John Lennon is reacting to people waging war in his house, the exciting adventure of Paul on the floor, Ringo painted red about to have his head lopped off, George getting winked at, and again, John dialing a phone as slowly as possible in one of cinema’s first meta screw-the-audience gags. Vastly ahead of its time, Help! is apart from anything else one of the most exuberant and hilarious of all film comedies. I can say no more.