Tuesday, June 25, 2013
I have always considered Help! to be the red-haired stepchild of Beatles movies because A Hard Day’s Night, their first film, is so universally loved, so honored, so highly held in the hearts of hundreds—Help! cannot hope to hop the horrendously high hurdle that is A Hard Hay’s Height. Ha!
The Plot in Brief: A cult of East Indians (Leo McKern, Eleanor Bron, and John Bluthal) cannot perform their daily human sacrifice because the chosen sacrificial virgin is not wearing the special sacrificial ring. The virgin in question is a Beatles fan and has sent the ring to Ringo Starr in a fan letter. The rest of the film details the cult’s (sometimes) comical attempts to retrieve the ring. Along the way, a mad scientist (Victor Spinetti) bent on (dare I say it?) ruling the world and his idiot assistant Algernon (Roy Kinnear) join the chase.
Did I mention the Beatles perform seven songs too? The scenes featuring the songs—“Help!” “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl,” “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away,” “I Need You,” “The Night Before,” “Another Girl,” and especially “Ticket To Ride”—are like proto-MTV music videos and are clearly the main attraction here. Oddly enough, none of the songs has anything to do with the narrative of the film.
I understand that many people feel Help! is the lesser of the two films; its “Up-Its-Own-Ass” quality of forced whimsy becomes tiresome after about an hour. Some of the jokes work; some of them fall flat. (I still use the “Elias Howe” dedication at the end of Help! to explain to my English classes every year the definition of “non sequitur.”) Still, I would rather have a lesser second Beatles film than no second Beatles film at all. I have always wondered if critics’ regard for Help! would have been improved if the filmmakers had included one of the additional songs written for the film (and included on the original British soundtrack album.) Which song am I thinking of, that the filmmakers decided not to include? An obscure little ditty called “Yesterday.”
Whenever I watch this film, I ask myself if it is racist. The sight of Brits playing comical East Indian characters with brown makeup and outrageous accents is surely no longer politically correct. Like The Party and Peter Sellers’ portrayal of Hrundi V. Bakshi, which I wrote about many months ago, I will leave it to better minds than mine to decide this matter. I do not consider it offensive; then again, I am not East Indian. It is interesting that this topic is never addressed on the making-of documentary included on the disc, even though Eleanor Bron, who plays Ahme in the film, is interviewed at some length.
Another way of looking at Help! is through a soft haze of marijuana smoke. After all, the Beatles certainly did. In his famous “Lennon Remembers” interview for Rolling Stone magazine after the Beatles broke up, John admitted that A Hard Day’s Night was made while the Beatles were taking amphetamines (to keep pace with their impossible touring and recording schedules). This lends extra meaning and significance to the “We’re out!” scene where the four mop-tops gambol about in fast motion in a field. (Maybe that was not fast-motion photography after all!) In the same interview, Lennon admits that Help! was filmed while the four lads were nicely stoned on grass. In fact, in The Beatles Anthology documentary, Ringo tells a funny story about filming the scene with the explosive curling stone. “It’s a thingy! A fiendish thingy!” yells George, and that sets Ringo and Paul running away from it. Even after they were out of camera range, Ringo and Paul just kept running. Even after director Richard Lester yelled, “Cut!” Ringo and Paul just kept running. They wound up so far away from filming that they had time to light up some sploof on the walk back… which, of course, is why they ran away in the first place.
Ah, the Sixties!
I am the biggest Beatles fan I know, by weight if not by volume. While I am thankful to have A Hard Day’s Night (from Canada, but still), Magical Mystery Tour, Yellow Submarine, and now Help! available on Blu-ray, I cannot understand why there is such a backlog of Beatles’ material still awaiting a release of any kind. It makes me think that Apple is one guy, one single solitary guy, manning the vault with no assistants, who can only concentrate on one project at a time. It also makes me wonder if Apple, for some reason known only to the two surviving Beatles, is waiting for every first generation fan to die before releasing Let It Be on DVD, The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl on CD or iTunes, or The Beatles Saturday morning cartoons or The Beatles at Shea Stadium television special on any format. Step it up, Apple. I ain’t getting any younger.
Help! is available on Blu-ray disc as of today. This is a cause for celebration, no?