May 5, 2016
Help! – UK, 1965
The plot of Richard Lester’s Help!, the Beatles’ second film, can be summed up in one sentence. Here it is: Members of a pagan cult are trying to kill Ringo, and the Beatles are trying to record an album. That’s it. And when I say that’s it, I mean it. This is a film that could have had a love interest, but doesn’t. It could have been about the Fabulous Four embarking on a campy James Bond-inspired adventure, but it isn’t. It could have been about the recording of an album, but it isn’t. A real film about that would have had recording sessions filled with starts and stops, wrong notes and wrong pitches, and occasional last-minute rewrites. Here, the Beatles only really need one take to create pop masterpieces - they’re essentially the Ed Wood of the music world.
The film begins in an underground lair where a young woman is going to be sacrificed so that the cult’s current leader can retain his position, which makes about as much sense as anything else in the film. Just before the sacrifice is to take place, a woman of high rank notices that the poor damsel in distress is not wearing the so-called sacrificial ring, so just like that the sacrifice is called off. But just where is the ring? Well, as it turns out, it is on the unfortunate hand of one Ringo Starr. So off they go, first to retrieve the ring, then to anoint him with the traditional sacrificial red paint, and then to finish the job. Laughing yet?
From there, the film is a series of failed attempts on Ringo’s life, interrupted by 1965’s version of music videos beginning with “Help” and“You’re Gonna Lose That Girl” and ending with another rendition of “Help.” This one provides the backdrop for a head-scratching slapstick brawl that made me regret all of the harsh things I have said about the end of Blazing Saddles. In between, jokes fall flat, characters break the fourth wall unnecessarily, and the audience is urged to hum along with the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s 9 in order to make a tiger that is threatening to lunch on Ringo…Oh, never mind. You get the picture.
There are bits that are slightly memorable, in particular, the Beatles performing in front of Stonehenge, Ringo joyfully and accurately playing air drums, and a recurring bit about the unreliability of American products in England. I could also mention the soundtrack, but it feels wrong to encourage people to watch a movie for the music when listening to the CD would be a much better use of one’s time.
I suppose the appeal of the film back in 1965 was the chance to see the Beatles on the big screen, especially after the success and widespread acclaim of A Hard Day’s Night just a year earlier, and I admit that this is partly what made me decide to watch it. After all, this was when they were one of – if not the – most popular band in the world, yet stripped of that context and the willingness to accept mediocrity in exchange for the chance to see matinee idols performing some of their best music onscreen, there is relatively little to recommend about the film. It doesn’t help viewers understand the band better, and it seems content to offer its audience as little as possible, perhaps believing that fans of the Fab Four would put up with whatever filler was put in between the music numbers. I hope they’re wrong, for Help! is everything a Beatles movie should not be – tedious, poorly written, and uninvolving. In other words, it is the exact opposite of escapist fun. But hey, at least the soundtrack was good. (on DVD and Blu-ray)
2 and a half stars (the half star is for the music)