The classic Beatle movie “Help!” celebrated its 50th anniversary on July 29, 2015. To commemorate the golden anniversary of its release, another look at this timeless piece of 60s cinema is offered here.
A religious cult needs one of Ringo’s rings in order to make a human sacrifice. So they travel to England to get the ring, planning to physically remove it if necessary. This results in a relentlessly funny, delightfully outrageous, wonderfully droll comedy that is filled with some of the greatest music ever recorded.
Director Richard Lester had scored the previous year with the first Beatles movie “A Hard Days Night.” That black and white film, showing a typical 48 hour day in the Beatles’ lives, was a brilliant look at the massive stardom thrust upon the fab four. No plot or linear structure, “A Hard Day’s Night” is a series of vignettes peppered with great music. It was considered something of an art film, but its mainstream success resulted in another movie a year later.
“Help!” added color, a plot, and a structure that the first film lacked. It does not hamper the Beatles spirit or their characters, and benefits from a hilarious scenery-chewing role by veteran British actor Leo McKern as a comic villain. McKern’s accomplice is played by the attractive Eleanor Bron, only in her 20s at the time, as were The Beatles. From its opening moments with an angry McKern throwing darts at a screen showing a movie of The Beatles singing the title theme (while the girl about to be sacrificed watches with giggling delight) to the riotous concluding sequence, “Help!” never lets up.
Throughout the film, Ringo’s life is in grave danger, but The Beatles never leave their droll characters. They remain focused, aloof, and only mildly concerned. They are confronted by slapstick sequences (the hand drying machine in a restroom becomes a vacuum in an attempt to get the ring, an elevator becomes magnetized, etc), but most of the film’s humor rests on dry dialog, McKern’s comic villain characterization, and the wonderfully cheeky elements of British humor that had, by this time, been made popular by The Goon Show and would later inspire Monty Python’s Flying Circus. When Victor Spinetti is added as yet another comic villain after the ring (believing it to offer the wearer great power), the proceedings become more layered without becoming more complicated.
Despite the decidedly serious plot, none of “Help!” is presented seriously. It is consistently off-kilter. The fight scenes are purposefully ridiculous, containing such moments as Ringo rigging an Orange Crush machine to shoot actual oranges at his adversaries, then weeping as his good suit is doused with red paint. When Spinetti confronts the Beatles with a gun, Lennon overpowers him by brandishing a lamp. An intermission title flashes across the screen, followed by a few seconds of the Beatles cavorting, then a part two title card, followed by another brief scene, and finally a part three card, allowing the film to progress. It is only seconds long, but is both jarring and hilarious. Paul shrinks after being jabbed with a hypodermic needle meant to shrink Ringo’s ring finger to retrieve the sought-after ring. A tiny Paul conceals himself with a gum wrapper and tries to avoid being stepped on until the effect wears off. A winter sequence shows The Beatles piled upon each other on a sled, going slowly down a hill and repeating “ho ho ho ho” as they do. A cache of explosives is labeled “Equal to Exactly One Millionth of All The High Explosives Exploded in One Week of the Second World War.” And, throughout the film, there are references to pop culture, responses directly to the camera, and other bits of business that break down the fourth wall and make us quite aware that everyone knows it is just a movie. It balances between the seriousness of the plot and an aloofness from the entire process with effective comic grace.
The musical sequences range from studio shots to more elaborate productions, director Lester extending from his brilliant “Can’t Buy Me Love” sequence from “A Hard Day’s Night” and offering clever shot compositions to make each musical performance more artful and interesting. The best is likely the skiing sequence that accompanies “Ticket to Ride,” one of the highlights of the entire film. Perhaps the only flaw in the music’s presentation is the sequence for Paul’s “The Night Before.” Lester chooses to cut away to plot exposition mid song, disrupting the music’s flow.
Unlike a lot of rock and roll movies from this period, “Help!” was not produced solely for the teenage demographic that were devouring Beatle records and all manner of merchandise in 1965. The humor extends to any age group, and the attitudes of The Beatles offer a coolness not unlike Dean Martin’s Matt Helm character in American movies that were made for a much older demographic.
Counterculture cinema that challenged conventional thinking and explored new directions started happening in American movies a couple of years later. Films like “The Graduate” and “Bonnie and Clyde” (both 1967) ushered in a new attitude that continued with movies like “Easy Rider” (1969). Even though “Bonnie and Clyde” was set in the 1930s, the film gave the real life title gangsters the counterculture attitudes of sixties youth. “Help!” offers a counterculture attitude within the structure of a conventional movie. Along with its quirky plot of comic characters, “Help!” presents The Beatles as separate from the norm, remaining aloof in the presence of danger, basically above it all.
The Beatles burst onto the English music scene in the early 60s and exploded on to American TV in 1964. They were active for less than ten years, busting up the act as the sixties concluded, neatly capping an era. During that time they were capable of consistent and ceaseless change, transforming rock and roll from a rebel yell and a lover’s whisper into the most comprehensive music of the century. And while Elvis Presley’s entry into motion pictures resulted in mostly lightweight musicals for which his original rockin’ rebel image was suppressed for the mainstream, The Beatles’ movies effectively championed their image and remain important cinematic artifacts that represent who they were and what they were about.
Five years after the release of “Help!,” the documentary “Let it Be” would show four bitter geniuses who despised each other working on what would be their final two albums together. It showed us that Beatlemania itself had ended, even though the songs would live on over time and generations. “A Hard Days Night” and “Help!” show Beatlemania in full force. “Help!” is a much different film, but no less perfect. The Beatles’ appealing characters, the brilliant music, the outrageous humor, the strong supporting cast, and Richard Lester’s insightful direction all combine to make “Help!” one of the truly great movie experiences one can have. As the movie concludes, and the credits roll, the first credit dedicates the film “to Elias Howe, inventor of the sewing machine.” Perfect.