In 1964, those four famous lads from Liverpool, The Beatles, made their feature film debut with the classic masterpiece A Hard Day’s Night, directed by Richard Lester. The not-so-fictional-yet-fictional account of the day in the life of a Beatle was a tremendous success (not to mention highly influential for future musical documentaries), immediately prompting the band and Lester to collaborate the following year with Help!. Despite the success of their first film, this highly anticipated, sophomore effort (with a much larger budget), didn’t quite reach the same level of critical and popular success as its predecessor. Over the years, A Hard Day’s Night has become finer with age, being recognized not only for its importance in founding and influencing an entire genre of film and the art of the music video, but for being a finely scripted, shot, and acted piece of cinematic beauty. On the other hand, Help! has been criticized for being unfocused, bloated, and a generally unfunny film that tries too damn hard. It might not be at the same high level as A Hard Day’s Night, but Help! is still a fine film with moments of comedic brilliance. It has certainly been unfairly maligned and on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, it deserves an open-minded revisit and reevaluation.
Help! is really not a bad little movie, especially considering that it heavily influenced the art of the music video. Where A Hard Day’s Night introduces the concept in the sublime “Can’t Buy Me Love” sequence, Help! takes it a step further and perfects it. If you question this assertion, just take a look at the “Ticket to Ride” scene. The locale, fun attire, and improvised skiing (none of them knew what the hell they were doing): this segment is the definition of the quintessential music video.
It’s also very much of its time, with its usage of the western world’s obsession with Eastern culture (and the politically incorrect way of handling it) as the driving center of the plot. This fascination with the East was beginning to heavily influence the band, particularly George Harrison, who would later embrace aspects of the Hindu religion. There are echoes inspired by this culture that can be heard on the Help! album, but it wasn’t until the trippy 1966 masterpiece Revolver where the eastern-influenced sounds and lyrics really began to integrate into the band’s style.
Help! is less about a discernible plot and more about the camaraderie between John, Paul, George, and Ringo. If you can acknowledge and accept this, it makes for a much more enjoyable viewing experience. Unfairly considered the “weakest” member of the band, it’s Ringo who’s at the center of this zany film. There’s a fiendish plot to sacrifice him to the goddess Kalili by a crazy religious cult (a take on the Thuggee cult. Think Gunga Din ), all because of a gaudy, red gemstone ring that he can’t possibly get off of his finger. As with any caper movie, when more people become aware of this seemingly powerful ring, more evildoers engage in pursuit of it and Ringo, making the chase more ridiculous at every turn. From London, to the Alps, to the Salisbury Plain, and finally culminating in a beachfront battle under the gaze of the goddess Kalili, whose statue-form is floating in the warm Caribbean waters, Help! is unabashed, cheeky fun. Although it wasn’t the first time The Beatles were presented in color, it was by far the most accessible, giving their young fans a more realistic glimpse at their four handsome idols. It was also the first time, at least officially, that audiences saw a more relaxed Beatles. For much of the first half of the film they sport their famous matching suits, but as they trek to different locales, their attire becomes gradually more casual, giving audiences a glimpse of each Beatle’s individual style and personality. By the time the group makes it to their final location in the Bahamas, they’ve traded their suits for jeans and loafers–a look that this Beatle fan simply can’t get enough of.
As for acting skills, all of The Beatles were surprisingly talented, but the standout, natural of the group was Ringo. Audiences experienced his comedic skill and timing during his brilliant and charming solo walking scene in A Hard Day’s Night. Richard Lester and the producers certainly picked up on this extraordinary talent, framing the entire storyline of Help! around Ringo. He’s really the star of the picture (next to the music, of course), and holds his own against the veteran actors Leo McKern, Eleanor Bron, the great Victor Spinetti, and Roy Kinnear.
I first watched Help! as a twelve-year-old kid. I thought it was silly and extraordinarily funny, with the added bonus of four handsome lads singing great music about love, love, love, sex, love, and love. One viewing was all it took; I was hooked. Back then, I much preferred Help! to the very dialogue-heavy (perhaps more adult?) A Hard Day’s Night. As I’ve grown older, watching Help! has shifted from that awe and admiration I once had as a pre-teen, to a sentimental emotion that has reared its head quite often as of late. (All of these 30+ year anniversaries are killing my heart.)
Until recently, it had been at least 10 years or more since my last viewing. This time around, I shared it with someone very important to me: my 4 1/2-year-old daughter, Ellie. Since they’re a staple in this household, Ellie has listened to The Beatles quite a bit. I think she enjoys them, and on occasion even asks me to put them on, completely unprompted. Of course she asks for Eddie Money just as frequently, so… (Don’t lie. You love “Two Tickets to Paradise” too).
After seeing Help!, she can now place the voices of John, Paul, George, and Ringo with their cute faces. And like other classic films and television shows that I have shared with her, she thinks The Beatles are very much in the now (which to be fair, they are still incredibly relevant, and for the foreseeable future will always be), which is part of the beauty of sharing the music and movies with her that I hold dear; their stars and music are perfectly preserved in that time. Although time has not been as kind to Help!, and as an adult I find A Hard Day’s Night to be the far superior film, I still find the former to be a terrific fun. It’s the perfect way to share classic film and continue a healthy rock ‘n’ roll curriculum with my daughter.
I really believe Help! is a great way to introduce The Beatles, their music, humor, and personalities to kids. Ellie absolutely loved it. I know that may not seem to be a glowing endorsement for a movie made by the greatest band ever, but I see it as essential viewing to help bring in an entirely new generation of Beatlemaniacs. So far it’s looking pretty good that my little one will one day call them her favorite band. I can’t wait until she asks me if she can borrow the photo stills from my copy of the White Album (which was passed down to me from my awesome mama) to put on her ceiling so she can stare and daydream. I’m truly confident that day will come, and I can guarantee all of you will likely hear about it, too. Unfortunately it will probably be a little while before Beatlemania takes hold; right now we’re in a full-on obsession-fueled binge of all things The Monkees.
But that’s another story for another time.
I don’t think it is any secret how much I love this film. In fact, I waver as to whether I like it or A Hard Day’s Night best. And it was every bit as influential. In fact, as John once pointed out, it was foresaw that pop art, comic book sensibility that became so fashionable in the Sixties with the success of Batman.
Terry: I didn’t know John said that, and as usual, he’s spot on. I always thought of it as the Bond spoof it’s meant to be, but it ABSOLUTELY is in the pop-comic book vein of the BATMAN series. All it’s missing is a good “POW” 😉
Terrific critique! And I don’t find any need to apologize for this movie at all. I re-watched it just last week and think just as highly of it as you do. Hope you’ll read my blog entry about it here:
Thanks so much for stopping by! I agree, that film is just SO much fun. (And I love the title to your piece, very clever! 😉