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Film Friday: The Beatles in 'HELP!' directed by Richard Lester

By Daniel S Levine,
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They must have been smoking a lot of marijuana when they made this, any person would think upon their first viewing of The Beatles' 1965 film HELP! and essentially, it's the truth. The Beatles were impossible to work with during production of this film, although the final product hides it pretty well.

HELP! was the follow-up to the surprisingly successful hit A Hard Day's Night (1964). Actually, everybody knew that A Hard Day's Night would be a financial hit, but no one expected it to be a hit with critics, too. Richard Lester directed that film in the irreverent, wacky style that would become a hallmark of later British New Wave hits, including his own The Knack...And How To Get It, which was released mere months after A Hard Day's Night. The Knack and Hard Day's Night put Lester squarely among the top young British directors like Tony Richardson and John Schlesinger.

Unfortunately for Lester, his association with the Beatles meant that he really didn't get to build on the 'kitchen sink realism' that dominated the work of his contemporaries. When United Artists started the process of getting the second Beatles film under way, Lester was recruited. He was given a bigger budget, the chance to work in color and the ability to work on location in the Alps and the Bahamas. To the Beatles, it was a paid vacation. To Lester it was a difficult process of trying to get his stars to take the ridiculous plot seriously.

The plot – as if it really matters – centers on Ringo Starr getting a sacrificial ring. A group of Eastern religious zealots begin chasing them and The Beatles are more than willing to give up the ring. Unfortunately, the ring won't come off Ringo's finger, so they need to find some way to remove it. Ahme (Eleanor Bron) is around to help, but they actually attract more attention. A pair of scientists they had approached (played by Victor Spinetti and Roy Kinnear) decide that they need the ring too, so they go after the group.

Really, though, the reason to watch HELP! today is for the magnificently directed music sequences. Unlike A Hard Day's Night, in which many of the songs were performed in a stage environment, the seven songs in HELP! are featured in zany sequences that take full advantage of mixing visuals to music. Lester took what was born in A Hard Day's Night's “Can't Buy Me Love” sequence and built on it. He manages to make a rather weak song like “Another Girl” really fun with images from the Bahamas and crafts one of the greatest music videos ever with “Ticket To Ride.”

The script by Charles Wood isn't a complete failure, especially for fans of British comedies of the 1960s. There's some really great funny business between the group, particularly the montage with all the different ways their pursuers try to get Ringo's ring. The scene with the dryers in the bathroom is priceless. 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. As zany as A Hard Day's Night is, its sense of realism is what makes it a gem. HELP! turns the zaniness to 11 and it's just too much to make for a good movie.

HELP! wasn't exactly a great experience for all involved, so the Beatles decided not to make another movie like this again. 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, including “Ticket To Ride,” the title track, “You've Got To Hide Your Love Away” and “You're Going To Lose That Girl,” but the dated stuff in between make it hard to watch on a regular basis....unless you're taking the same stuff the Beatles were behind the scenes.

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