HELP! ~ the Deluxe Edition w/ script, book, more.
5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
Open your eyes!…
You don’t have to squint at that bootleg copy of “Help!” anymore. (Maybe you have one, I certainly don’t!) On October 30, EMI Music will release a 2-disc digitally restored DVD set of “Help!” the hilarious 1965 feature film starring The Beatles. The set will feature the original film, a 30-minute documentary about the making of “Help!,” missing scenes, and recollections from the cast and crew. Spare no expense and go for the deluxe box set that also includes Director Richard Lester’s script, a 60-page book of rare photos and production notes. You know the picture’s going to be shipshape and the sound sharper than Einstein’s I.Q., because this is The Beatles we’re talking about – numero uno – so the production’s going to be first class.
If you don’t know who The Beatles are, well you probably can’t read this anyway and I don’t want to know you. Let’s just say that without them you might not have/have had rock & roll as you know it, MTV, LSD, long hair, free expression, or singer/songwriters. You’d be listening to Al Martino and combing your crew cut before going to the dinner table in a jacket and tie. To say The Beatles were huge is to say Barry Bonds has hit a fly ball or two.
Lester, who helmed The Beatles’ frantic day-in-a-life debut, “A Hard Day’s Night,” was a master at combining slapstick with the current pop culture. More importantly, he understood that Beatle fans wanted to see the Fab Four as handsome, witty, cool bachelors, even of they really weren’t that way in real life.
The plot is as thin as actor Victor Spinetti’s hairline. In a far eastern country, the sister of a high priestess is about to be sacrificed. The sacrifice is halted when the high priestess (enticing Elizabeth Bron) points out to the high priest (blustery Leo McKern) that the victim isn’t wearing the sacrificial ring, so she can’t be “Slaughter jolly with a knife.” So who’s wearing the ring? It’s on the finger of The Beatles’ drummer, Ringo Starr, of course. McKern and his followers head to London to retrieve the ring. Ringo is more than willing to give it back, but can’t get it off his finger, targeting him as the next sacrifice. The Beatles try everything to get the ring off, including taking Ringo to a mad scientist (Spinetti), who recognizes its value and decides he must have it. A Marx Brothers marathon pursuit ensues as The Beatles are chased throughout London, Switzerland, The Bahamas and back to London by McKern, Spinetti, and Scotland Yard. Along the way there are acidic zingers from John Lennon, matinee idol posing by Paul McCartney, wry observations by “The Quiet Beatle” George Harrison, and comic mishaps featuring that lovable sad sack, Ringo. Starr shows a talent for making the audience laugh with him, laugh at him and empathize with him whenever he’s feeling a bit down or sorry for himself. Starr would capitalize on his ease in front of the camera, starring in a number of successful cult films including, “The Magic Christian” (with Peter Sellers, Raquel Welch and Christopher Lee), “Candy” (featuring Richard Burton and James Coburn) and “Caveman” (with future wife Barbara Bach and Dennis Quaid).
So what makes “Help!” a better movie than “Hard Days Night?” Well, geez, for one thing, it’s in color. It’s also got a superior sound track – “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away,” “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl,” “I Need You,” “Ticket To Ride,” and “I Need You” to name a few. Secondly, with one movie under their belts, The Beatles seem more at ease with the lunacy going on around them. (Maybe the liberal amounts of pot they were smoking at the time helped.) A main reason “Help!” is a better movie is Leo McKern, whose villainous turn as the high priest eats up the screen. I have to admit I absolutely hated Wilford Brambell, who played Paul McCartney’s scheming grandfather in “A Hard Day’s Night.” Although he was referred to as “A very clean man” (a reference to Brambell’s character in the TV series “Steptoe and Son,” the model for “Sanford and Son,” in which he was called “A dirty old man”), there was nothing to like about his character, a sour pussed conniver who even tried to turn Ringo against the others (boo, hiss). McKern is a better comic foil, more at home with the frenetic pacing. Victor Spinetti, who appeared in “A Hard Day’s Night,” and later “Magical Mystery Tour,” was a favorite among The Beatles. He even starred with John Lennon in a stage production of Lennon’s “In His Own Right.” Spinetti displays his talent for playing a snooty know-it-all done in by his British built equipment as well as his bumbling assistant (Roy Kinnear). Every pre-teen I knew fell in love with Eleanor Bron’s exotic Mati Hari femme fatale character, and Patrick Cargill nails his role as a the stuffy Superintendent of Scotland Yard, a symbol for the upper crust landed gentry types that Lennon loved to satirize:
Superintendent: So this is the famous Beatles?
John Lennon: So this is the famous Scotland Yard…
Superintendent: How long do you think you’ll last?
John Lennon: Can’t say. Great Train Robbery, ay? How’s that going?
Silly? Sure. This isn’t “The Godfather” or “The Sands of Iwo Jima.” “Help” is a swingin’ 60s farce conducted at the speed of a Keystone Cops short with all the quips, pratfalls and
nudge-nudge-wink-wink comedy that would later crop up in “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” (George Harrison, it should be noted, helped bankroll some of their movies.)
On the heels of “A Hard Day’s Night,” other groups followed suit, including The Beatles’ closest competitors in the singles market, The Dave Clark Five. They lensed “Having A Wild Weekend” (a/k/a “Catch Us If You Can”) which was also released in 1965. The group’s mistake was centering the plot on drummer Dave Clark, who plays a stunt man who falls in love with an actress. Problem was Dave Clark was no Ringo on screen. Lacking warmth or comedic ability, Clark’s as wooden as one of his drumsticks, and the film itself tries to make too pointed a statement about love and the trappings of being a pop idol. Singer Mike Smith, as affable as Ringo, as snap-crackle-pop quick as John, as wise as George, and as matinee handsome as Paul, winds up in drag for way too long, and another member of the band, guitarist Lenny Davidson, plays a mute! Amusing, yes. Wild? No. Like The Monkees’ movie, “Head,” (co-written by Jack Nicholson), “Having A Wild Weekend” greased the skids for the Dave Clark Five’s demise.
“Help!” perpetuates the Beatles’ image as clean cut ups. It captures The Beatles before the drugs, the arguing and…ulp…YOKO. You’ll see them when Beatle mania was in full flight and when they were still brothers, all for one and one for all. You’ll forget it’s been nearly thirty years since John Lennon died, and marvel at the cheek of a manchild who hadn’t even turned thirty. George is already cranky, but the mysticism that clouded his optimism hadn’t sunk in yet. Back then, Paul knew how to write a tight pop ditty, long before people realized they really did have enough of Macca’s silly love songs. And Ringo, well, he’s still Ringo. One of us. Even back then he knew he was an average bloke who’d gotten lucky and happened to wind up in the greatest rock and roll band of all time. Above all, the guys were having fun, and it shows on the screen.