HELP!

(1965)
With John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Leo McKern, Eleanor Bron, Victor Spinetti, Roy Kinnear, John Bluthal, Patrick Cargill
Directed by Richard Lester

Reviewed by JL and JB

They love a piano...    HELP! arrived at a transitional time for both the Beatles and popular culture in general.  Film comedy still reflected the farce and satire of the 1950s, just as it was beginning to hint presciently at the sort of late-’60s lampooning of the banal that defined the CASINO ROYALE and Laugh-In approach (think Austin Powers, all you youngsters out there).  But such trends were still about a year away in the summer of 1965, rendering HELP! something of a time capsule of a youth culture restless for the Next Big Thing.
 
     Such a cultural context was a rather poor fit for the Beatles, who at the time had been treading Beatlemania waters for nearly two years and were but six months away from entering the magnificent autumn period that produced Rubber Soul and Revolver.  But the Beatles operated at the opposite end of the pop-culture spectrum.  They transcended Carnaby Street style.  They were on a different plane from Twiggy and Batman.  What they said and sang seemed to matter.  Their brand of cocky humor would more logically evolve into the Monty Python style, rather than the middle-aged-corporate approach to trendiness that Rowan & Martin offered.
 
     As such, HELP! seems to force-fit the Beatles into a comic world where only the most superficial aspects of pop culture and Beatlemania exist.  Compare this to the social satire of A HARD DAY'S NIGHT, in which the lads’ cheekiness works perfectly as a bemused counterpoint to the madness around them.  Its message was that these guys maintained their sanity by not taking themselves too seriously, even as the rest of the world looked to them to lead a generation.  It would not seem out of place in HELP! to have a quick cutaway to George trading stale puns with Arte Johnson at the “Joke Wall,” which is a rough indication of how socially satiric the film gets.
 
     That said, there are certainly enough highlights in HELP! to please most Beatle (and comedy) fans.  Director Richard Lester exhibits his Goon Show influence with a frantic comic pace and emphasis on the (mostly) well-cast supporting players.  There are also individual bits that showcase the Beatles well, and the script provides some choice one-liners that have taken permanent residence in the lexicon of Beatle fans.  And it offers a few choice musical moments (especially “You’re Going to Lose That Girl,” “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” and “Ticket to Ride”) that support the notion that Lester was the father of MTV (a charge to which Lester replied, “I’d like to see the blood tests”).
 
     But for every good thing the film offers, there are two or three parallel negatives to drag it down.  You can’t top a supporting cast that includes Leo McKern and the unbeatable teaming of Victor Spinetti and Roy Kinnear, but stiff-lipped Eleanor Bron lacks the sense of fun her role demands, while the usually reliable John Bluthal verges on the annoying with his overplayed stereotype.  And though such scenes as those set in the Beatles’ communal home, the jeweler’s shop, and Scotland Yard are a delight, they must compete with such drawn-out and tiresome sequences as the battle on Salisbury Plains and the entire Bahamas business.  This was also a hit-and-miss period for Beatle songwriting, with an equal number of gems and mediocrities among the mix.
 
     The main problem with the film, from a Beatlefan perspective, was best summed up by John Lennon himself: “We felt like supporting players in our own film.”  Actually, next to Ringo (whose ring serves as the McGuffin around which the action revolves), John receives the lion’s share of Beatle screen time, as well some choice one-liners suited to his droll delivery.  Paul and George, on the other hand, are reduced to making faces and playing guitars.  In A HARD DAY'S NIGHT, Wilfred Brambell and Victor Spinetti were afforded several hilarious moments without overshadowing the Beatles.  In HELP!, the Beatles seem the least interesting members of a crowded comic ensemble.
 
     In all, HELP! is fun and entertaining even for non-Beatles fans, and it’s strong enough to hold up to repeated viewings for the diehards.  But it’s a film that’s never quite sure what it wants to be, as well as an artifact from a pop culture that wasn’t sure where it was headed.  It’s every bit as good as a film built on compromise can be. 3 - JL


    HELP! hasn't aged well.  Back in 1965, it was a novelty to see the Beatles in color, singing seven new songs and cavorting around the world in a James Bond parody.  Today it is entertaining for roughly fifteen minutes and then quickly runs out of fresh surprises.  While there are some very clever laugh out loud lines and excellent supporting performances from a gallery of droll comics, the film suffers from amateurish performances by the Beatles themselves and an overwhelming sense of everybody going nowhere slowly. There are seven songs, including at least three Beatles classics, but the film runs out of steam musically four songs in, after the "Ticket to Ride" skiing sequence.  After that, the only songs left are George's so-so "I Need You", and Paul's lyrically vapid "The Night Before" and musically unpleasant "Another Girl".  

     Hands down, the best scene in the film is the beautifully photographed and edited "You're Gonna Lose That Girl", sung by John with the usual glorious backup vocals by Paul and George.  The best gag?  Instead of being chased down the street by hordes of young girls as in A HARD DAY'S NIGHT, the Beatles are greeted by two middle-aged ladies across the street, one who is even reluctant to wave.  It's one of the few times a comedy bit actually plays against something, in this case the expectation we have of the Beatles being chased by crazed young female fans. Otherwise it is one of those comedies where everybody runs around acting silly in a crazy world.  And unless you are Monty Python, those comedies grow old fast.

     HELP! signals the end of innocent Beatlemania.  Some of the songs, especially the title tune and the folky "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" hint at the amazing compositional and lyrical breakthrough they would achieve later the same year with their Rubber Soul album.  With HELP!, the movie and the album, both out of the way, the Beatles were finished with being cute moptops and would commence with being brilliant pop music technicians. 2½ - JB

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