Help! was a movie, too, you know…
Nowadays, Help! mostly conjures up thoughts of the 1965 album, its driving, brilliant title single, and its Side Two (in the UK) monster classic “Yesterday.”
But Help! was a cinematic entity as well, and the accompanying album was (mostly) intended to be its soundtrack tie-in. Help! (the movie) has always gotten short shrift from Beatles historians, film critics, and even the Beatles themselves. Oh, no one says it’s bad — everyone acknowledges it’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch — but in most Beatles books it’s dismissively given about a page-and-a-half to two pages out of the band’s whole history. This for a project that the band spent almost four months producing, and four months in those hectic Beatlemania days might as well have been four years. (Even their self-made, self-indulgent psychedelic mess of a TV movie, 1967’s Magical Mystery Tour, gets more notice and affection these days.)
There was a time when popular singers, once they’d reached a certain point of fame, were expected to take the next step and become all-around “entertainers,” conquering other mediums, especially film and television. Guys like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley ended up with just as many films as albums, if not more. Following that mindset, Beatles manager Brian Epstein signed the band up for a three-picture deal with United Artists in late 1963. Their first film, A Hard Day’s Night (released July 1964) was microscopically budgeted and hastily shot with the belief that the Beatles were a temporary craze with an imminent expiration date. (UA could cancel the remaining two pictures if they chose.) It was intended to be a cheapie exploitation flick, but it ended up a landmark moment in film history.
Help!, their second film under the UA contract, was released to British cinemas in July 1965 (a month later in the US). The British and American versions of the soundtrack (two very different animals, as we’ll see) were released a week apart in early August.
“There’s nothing in Help! to compare with…A Hard Day’s Night…This one, without sense or pattern is wham, wham, wham all the way…Some of it is surprising. Richard Lester, the director, has played some witty pranks with his camera. There are some fetching title and color gags, and a lot of amusing tricks achieved with old silent film techniques…The boys themselves are exuberant and uninhibited in their own genial way. They just become awfully redundant and—dare I say it?—dull.” (Original New York Times review by Bosley Crowther, 1965.)
“The script…isn’t a complete failure, especially for fans of British comedies of the 1960s. There’s some really great funny business between the group…But overall, the story can’t hold a candle to the behind-the-scenes look from A Hard Day’s Night. The issue with Help! is its complete rejection of any realistic element – the moment you see the Beatles living in one large house, you know this is a cartoon world with no sense of reality…Help! turns the zaniness to 11 and it’s just too much to make for a good movie….It makes it pretty clear that while the Beatles were geniuses at music, acting was not their forte. The songs written for Help! are some of the group’s best…but the dated stuff in between make it hard to watch on a regular basis…” (Daniel S. Levine, film critic for The Celebrity Cafe, and evidently a hater of everything non-realistic.)
“I enjoyed filming it. I’m sort of satisfied, but not smug about it. It’ll do. There’s good photography in it. There’s some good actors in it — not us, because we don’t act, we just do what we can.” (John Lennon, damning it with faint praise around the time of its release).
“Looking back on it, Help! isn’t such a bad film. It’s more of a fun romp, but I think that A Hard Day’s Night is the better of the two…we’d really tried to get involved and learn the script for A Hard Day’s Night, [but] by the time Help! came along we were taking it as a bit of a joke. I’m not sure anyone ever knew the script, I think we used to learn it on the way to the set.” (Paul McCartney.)
Yes, Help! will always suffer in comparison to A Hard Day’s Night, a film-buff favorite. That first film was cinema-verite style look at a fictionalized “two days in the life of” the world’s greatest pop group. Its gritty, black & white cinematography, documentary-style handheld camera work, jittery editing, and energetic performances from the Beatles still in their first flush of mega-stardom make A Hard Day’s Night a bona fide cinema classic. (The music is pretty good, too.)
The lion’s share of credit goes to director Richard Lester, but accolades are also deserved by screenwriter Alun Owen, like the Beatles a native of Liverpool, who traveled with the band on their November 1963 mini-tour of Ireland, and incorporated their personalities and witticisms into his Oscar-nominated script. Also contributing to its success were Beatles’ recording producer George Martin, who composed the orchestral score, and film producer Walter Shenson of United Artists, who stayed hands-off and allowed Lester, Owen, Martin, and the Beatles to create something that wasn’t just “another shitty pop movie” (Lennon’s words) like the kind Presley was cranking out in bulk at the time. Mere days after the Beatles stood on Ed Sullivan’s stage making their iconic US TV debut, they were in front of Lester’s cameras to get the film in the can before their next round of touring…
SIDE NOTE: The Beatles’ schedule in their first three years or so of worldwide fame was almost inhumanly grueling, as a glance at Mark Lewisohn’s Complete Beatles Chronicles will tell you. Consider this: the last day of filming on A Hard Day’s Night was April 24. On the 25th, they were in rehearsals for their ITV TV special Around The Beatles. On the 26th, they played at the New Musical Express Poll-Winners concert. The 27 and 28th was more rehearsing and then taping Around The Beatles. The 29th and 30th were concerts up in Scotland. May 1st saw them back in London recording an appearance for the BBC. And so on…
“Let’s face it, we just mutter a few words and Dick Lester tells us how to do it.” (George Harrison.)
Richard Lester, one of the more notable British directors of the 20th century, was not British at all, but a native of Philadelphia who came to London at age 21 in 1953 to work in British television, and stayed for the rest of his life (so far). He gained a soft British accent and lost what little hair he had crossed the Atlantic with. He (very) briefly produced and hosted a self-titled variety show that did nothing except pique the curiosity of Peter Sellers, then a fast-rising radio star from The Goon Show, whose anarchic and surreal humor was a profound influence on Monty Python (and on Goons super-fan John Lennon, who never missed an episode). Sellers called Lester and said, “your program was either the worst thing I’ve ever seen, or you’re on to something.” Sellers was interested in transferring The Goon Show from radio to television, and felt Lester was the right man to visualize it. The results, The Idiot Weekly, Price 2d, and later, A Show Called Fred, were successful, and in 1959, led to the creation of a silent short film featuring Sellers and fellow Goon Spike Milligan called The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film. The short’s clever visuals got Lester work in feature films, where he established a working relationship with UA producer Walter Shenson, and ultimately topped the list to direct the Beatles’ first feature. A Hard Day’s Night will always be seen as Lester’s masterpiece, even though he had a long career afterward, including, of course, Help!
So if A Hard Day’s Night is a masterpiece, where does that leave Help!? Just another shitty pop movie? The Beatles were certainly a more tired and jaded group of young men a year after their first film, and did not tackle film acting with the same zeal they had once shown. Some parts of their original filmmaking pattern remained in place for Movie #2: Shenson stayed on board as producer, and the Beatles enjoyed working with the genial, easygoing Lester, so having him back at the helm was a no-brainer. They recorded the soundtrack songs in mid-February, and filmed from late February through late April/early May in advance of a massive world tour, just like their previous film project, but Help! broke the established procedure in a few crucial ways.
First of all, the budget was doubled. Even the cynical, cigar-chomping money men of Hollywood realized the Beatles were not a passing fad, and a second Beatle film would certainly make cash registers ring.
Secondly, Help! had a plot…the faux-documentary style and drab train compartments and dressing rooms of A Hard Day’s Night were replaced by exotic locales and comedic chases, at the service of a story that can be charitably described as “flimsy.” The Beatles still played “The Beatles,” but that’s where all resemblance to A Hard Day’s Night ends. No longer the realistic, hard-working band grinding through endless press receptions and sound checks, they would now be outsized cartoon characters, having adventures in the outside world. There is color cinematography by David Watkins (making his color debut — he acquits himself gorgeously), globe-trotting action, and a gaggle of well-known British character actors filling the screen every second. In fact, it was partly written as a send-up of the James Bond films, which were at the height of their popularity at that moment. (Goldfinger had just left theaters after a massively long run, and Thunderball was a few months from its premiere.)
The other big influence on Help! was the “pop art” movement that emerged in Britain in the late 1950s and reached its maximum visibility in the mid 1960s. Pop artists challenged the traditions of “fine art” and elitist attitudes prevalent in the art world by elevating advertising, comic books, and miscellaneous elements of mass media to a level of artistic expression. With its eye-popping color palette, on-screen comic book titles, random product placement (Mr. Whippy, anyone?), and kitschy, ironic approach to the James Bond film tradition (which was in itself a kitschy, ironic approach to the dead-serious James Bond novels by Ian Fleming), Help! is a model pop art movie. This approach was done without the influence of the Beatles themselves, who had little genuine interest in pop art (unlike the Who). They were masters of writing and performing their own songs, but never took a direct role in how they were presented cinematically, happily putting themselves in the hands of Lester and the screenwriters, who were definitely aware of the pop art movement and used it to maximum effect.
Lester also innovated unique ways to film a band in performance, intercutting between multiple distances and angles. Certainly without knowing it, he was inventing the visual vocabulary of the music video. The performance sequences in A Hard Day’s Night were woven into the story, which depicted the Beatles as they rehearsed and then recorded a live television appearance. (The “I Should Have Known Better” and “Can’t Buy Me Love” set pieces were the slightly surreal exceptions.) In Help!, the performances were only nominally part of the narrative, usually standing alone as stylized and individualized sequences, which could easily be snipped out of the film and serve as the music videos they are often credited with inspiring.
By the way, the whole visual aesthetic of Help! was borrowed by the American television network NBC the following year for their musical/comedy series The Monkees. The Monkees was pretty much Help!: The TV Show, only with a lot more fast-motion (under the mistaken notion it makes things “funnier”), and featuring moderate talent as opposed to towering talent. (Nothing against guys like Peter Tork and Mickey Dolenz, but they’re pretty much the textbook definition of “moderate talent.”)
Another change from A Hard Day’s Night was replacing Alun Owen with Marc Behm and Charles Wood. The original story idea for Help! came from the American-born Behm, hot off the success of his 1963 spy thriller/rom-com Charade, starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. Evidently, Behm had been kicking around his “Bond parody” story for quite a while, intending it to be a Peter Sellers vehicle. He did a first draft of a screenplay based on his original story idea, but according to Beatles biographer Bob Spitz, Sellers passed on the project in favor of the similarly silly What’s New, Pussycat?. The script was then given to Charles Wood, who re-worked it into a Beatles vehicle in ten days. Wood is credited as the screenplay’s co-writer, but I doubt Behm and Wood ever met. (Sellers did eventually do a Bond parody, 1967’s Casino Royale, which was…interesting. A hot mess, but interesting.)
Despite the film being a world-spanning adventure story aimed at an international audience, the Bristol-based playwright Wood turned the broad strokes of Behm’s story into something distinctly British, and deservedly so. 1965 was the first year “Swinging London” was in full force, a time when the British capital was the heart of the cultural universe. The dialogue is so fast-paced (and often mumbled indifferently by the Beatles) and so full of British idioms and colloquialisms, it can be hard for a modern American audience to discern what is an actual cultural reference and what is just a Goon Show-style non-sequitur. It sometimes comes off less like a James Bond pastiche, and more like a homely little Boulting Brothers comedy. (This trait it shares with A Hard Day’s Night. There’s actually a website devoted to clarifying the “Britishisms” in both films.)
At some point during the re-writing process, Wood fell at the mercy of Beatle whims. The band, in no position to be denied anything at this point, began randomly suggesting filming locations that could double as “working vacation” spots. Skiing in the remote Alps and basking on tropical beaches for weeks at a time seemed a good antidote to the oppressive weight of Beatlemania. When these “suggestions” were incorporated into the shooting script is not known, but everyone agrees it did happen. (And the management/production side discovered shooting in the British-controlled Bahamas would provide a handy tax shelter. Everyone wins.)
Here’s the story the Behm and Wood concocted…
The Beatles find themselves the target of a fiendish East Indian cult after their drummer (famous for wearing rings) receives an “ostentatious” ruby ring in a fan letter. The ring happens to be a symbol worn by those marked for the cult’s regular human sacrifices to the Hindu goddess Kali. (The sacrificial ring-wearer is painted red, then disemboweled. “Slaughtered jolly with a knife,” as various characters repeatedly put it.) When the cult travels en masse (led by the High Priest Clang, accompanied by High Priestess Ahme, Assistant Priest Bhuta, and numerous henchmen) from the Orient to London to either retrieve the ring or sacrifice the person wearing it, the chase is on.
The Beatles’ first strategy is to get the ring off of Ringo’s finger, where it appears to be permanently stuck. It is hinted that all Ringo has to do to remove the ring is demonstrate a single act of bravery, which seems beyond his ability. There are repeated attempts to forcibly remove it, culminating in a visit to a scientist (“Dr. Foot”), who turns out to be a stereotypical “mad” scientist, coveting the ring and its power for himself, in order to “rule the world.” (“If he can get a government grant,” his assistant remarks.)
The removal attempts alternate with repeated assassination attempts by the cult (except for Ahme, who is secretly helping the band due to her schoolgirl crush on Paul), so the Beatles finally flee the country, to the snowy Austrian Alps. When that proves to be unsafe as well, they head back to London where they enlist the protection of Scotland Yard, the British Army, and even the royal family in Buckingham Palace. In desperation, they head to the Bahamas, where Ringo is finally captured, first by Dr. Foot, then by the cult. Not only have the cult followed them there, they’ve managed to transport their entire temple. Separated from the other Beatles and about to be sacrificed, Ringo risks his own safety to warn the other three away. In doing so, the ring flies off his finger. After getting randomly passed around during a climactic fight scene between the Indian Thugs and the Nassau police, the ring ends up on the finger of the hapless Bhuta (the much-injured Wile E. Coyote figure of the film), who is, presumably, sacrificed. The End.
The least important figures in the film, from a character perspective, are the Beatles themselves. One book describes their role in Help! as “puppets…to whom things just happen.” Lennon is quoted somewhere as saying they were “extras” in their own film, going on to say “it was like being a frog in a movie about clams.” This may explain their overall indifference to the project as a whole, though they said actually filming it was pretty fun.
The supporting actors, on the other hand, are clearly having a ball hamming it up at the service of an incredibly silly story…more on them next.