1965 • 96 minutes • United Artists
In college, my friend Kathryn and I came up with a completely objective list of the Beatles rated from best to worst. It goes as follows: George (whatta saint!), Ringo (whatta cutie!), Paul (whatta ham!), and John (whattan a-hole!). Kathryn grew up with the Beatles, whereas I had just finished listening to their discography for the first time. I have this feeling that mainstream (Western, English-speaking, and white) pop culture can be understood through the dual lens of James Bond and the Beatles. I, personally, know that they have given me a better grasp on the last fifty years of pop culture in two dedicated but still manageable Big Gulps. (Television’s the hard one to get through, although my attention span is infamously shot.)
Of course, I’m hardly done with the Beatles—I’ve got to finish Beatles Anthology, Shout!, and, of course, their cinematic output. I’m endlessly fascinated by the narratives created by, developed for, and assigned to the boys, undoubtedly influenced by my nascent interest in star studies. How do all the various incarnations of the Beatles—scream-worthy mop tops, stoners, and psychedelic searchers—fit together? I still feel like I’m only at the beginning, and Help!, didn’t, well, help. A Hard Day’s Night is such an effervescent and almost pure expression of that first (to American eyes, at least) incarnation of the Beatles that anything was going to fall short of it, if only because the boys had discovered marijuana and could no longer be coaxed into doing much of anything that wasn’t music.
That certainly hurts Help!, but it’s not like the film was really trying. In contrast to the cinema vérité atmosphere of A Hard Day’s Night, Help! features color, exotic locales, and an actual story—a surrealist James Bond parody. I know that sounds incredibly tempting, but the end result is pale, vague, and racist. The plot, in one of its few good decisions, makes Ringo the closest thing they’ve got to a protagonist. Having started sporting a new ring sent to him by a fan, Ringo discovers that the ring marks him for death via sacrifice to Kaili by a vaguely Indian cult that is, of course, entirely composed of white actors trying to get comedic mileage out of xenophobic and racist stereotypes. This sort of thing is not unexpected when I watch films from the fifties and sixties, but it remains highly unwelcome.
(There is a small silver lining, however: George Harrison learned about the sitar during filming, and the rest is history.)
Occasionally, the surrealist comedy lands, such as when a tiger is introduced with the unhelpful chiron “A tiger,” but it’s largely shapeless and shaggy. Starr’s hang dog looks and serene absurdism makes it more of a natural fit for him. The decidedly unsober Fab Four’s charisma cannot be dulled, but their memorization and communication skills can be. Infamously, Harrison calls a bomb “a fiendish thingy.” The energy, therefore, drags, making this—despite a fairly trim run time—a bit of a slog. Just writing about it makes me want to go out and watch A Hard Day’s Night again, to double-check that it was amazing.
But there are some bright spots in Help!, and that’s when Richard Lester gets out of his own way and lets the Beatles be the Beatles. Their chemistry and charisma is never better displayed than when they’re simply goofing off together and playing together, highlighting the push and pull that made them such an amazing band. “Ticket to Ride” is the best sequence like this, featuring the boys alternating attempts to ski with mugging for the camera and supposedly playing instruments. But even the quiet “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” showcases the wonderful thing that is the Beatles.
I rented this DVD from the public library.