This installment of our Beatles cinema retrospective is extra special this week. As explained in the previous blog, all of the feature films starring the Fab Four (with the exception of the Let It Be documentary) premiered in the month of July in one form or another, with their second film “Help!” premierming exactly 55 years ago on July 29th, 1965.
The unsung hero of the group’s filmography, Help!’s cultural footprint may not be quite as obvious or remembered, but is nevertheless wide-ranging and integral to what The Beatles would become as icons and as human beings. The lack of attention this film (and album if we’re being honest) gets is a large factor that pushed me to highlight the Beatle films in the first place, and it’s my firm opinion that Beatles fans deserve to delight in the ridiculous romp that is Help!
A Hard Act to Follow
AHDN was, by no surprise, a lucrative hit at the box office, raking in $11 million in today’s cash on a measly budget of $500,000. As previously discussed, although the film was cheap and fast to make in the hopes of cashing in on a fad that would surely fade, care from the writers, directors, and stars produced a beloved film lauded by some as the “Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals”.
Yet, with three more movies to make to fulfill their contract with United Artists and Beatlemania raging on, there was no time to waste on the production of a second motion picture. With a bigger budget of $1.5 million, one thing was certain when writers and (soon to be Palme d’Or winner) Richard Lester embarked: this time, it’d be in full color!
So, What’s the Story?
In a 2013 mini documentary created on the making of Help!, Lester explains the main predicament in crafting a new adventure for the rock stars without its being being a “color version of AHDN”:
“We couldn’t show them in their private life, which would be the next logical extension to [a fictionalized documentary], because that was by then certainly X-rated … or at least, what would be considered X-rated in those days. So they have to become passive recipients of an outside plot or an outside threat brought on by a weakness within themselves.”
Though The Beatles’ personal lives in 1965 would likely be no more than a PG-13 on the MPAA scale, the need for an entirely new fictional conflict meant they could get bigger writers to contribute to the screenplay. The Beatles also wanted to act and enjoyed the process itself, and looked forward to doing it “for real” and not just playing themselves.
The story is most definitely a product of its time, in both positive and problematic ways. Written by Marc Behm and Charles Wood, who’s combined work includes crime novels and military-based black comedies, Help! Is an amalgamation of a James Bond spoof, surrealist Peter Sellers-type humor, and hijinks on par with Saturday morning cartoons (fitting, as it would be a heavy influence on The Beatles’ own record-setting animated television series the same year). It’s wacky, it’s nonsensical, and it’s a great deal of fun. The visual gags and word-play just gel with The Beatles’ sense of humor and pretty darn good acting chops, definitely carrying most of the film, as the plot is amusing, but pretty hard to get truly invested in despite the seemingly dire conflict.
Once again in peril, Ringo kicks off the plot in a way no one could’ve predicted. Somehow, by some means, the drummer obtained a huge, red-gemmed ring from “some Eastern bird” to add to his collection. Turns out, it’s actually a sacred item belonging to an Indian cult that must sacrifice whoever wears it to the goddess “Kaili”, and the chief priest Clang and high priestess Ahme set off to London to retrieve the piece of jewelry with their goons. Whereas A Hard Day’s Night had the pop group in danger of missing a live television gig, Help! raises the stakes. Unable to take off the ring stuck on his finger, Ringo faces either amputation or full-on sacrifice if the cult gets a hold of him long enough to perform their ritual.
The montages of the villains’ attempts to get the ring back are peak slapstick shenanigans, with plenty of manhole covers, giant magnets, and even guillotine-like coin returns before John, Paul, George, and Ringo are chased out of London and around the world from the Swiss Alps to the Bahamas. If you never thought you’ve be able to see Ringo karate-chopping bad guys, Paul shrunken down and out of his clothes, George Harrison’s shirt being sucked off by a mad hand-dryer, or John Lennon nearly getting run over by a tank– it’s out there right at this very moment for you to see!
Though the plot may be more in the vein of the classic comedies like The Pink Panther, the Bond elements in this follow-up are obvious. Most notably, the bigger budget allowed for a full orchestral score, which adopts unmistakable Bond theme riffs and dramatic brass strings, which made their way onto the U.S. version of the Help! album soundtrack. There’s also the Bond Girl-adjacent character of Priestess Ahme, who has a different fabulous outfit for every new scene; like other women characters in those flicks, High Priestess Ahme double-crosses her cult and aids the boys in evading Clang and saving Ringo, seemingly because of how cute Paul is.
Not quite as predictable is that it would be actress Eleanor Bron’s continuing friendship with The Beatles that would get the name “Eleanor” in McCartney’s head, liking the sound of it and eventually developing a little song called “Eleanor Rigby”.
Help! (No, Seriously! Help!)
On the topic of Bond and the importance of a name, it’s important to note that all throughout production and just a hair’s breadth away from its premiere in theaters, Help! held the Ringo-given working title of Eight Arms to Hold You (a reference to the goddess Kaili’s eight arms). Though this did the job of evoking the title structure typical of the super-spy series, Help! came up somehow between a talk with Lester, the band, and their manager and was good enough that the title was changed, post-press announcement.
As with A Hard Day’s Night, John Lennon would be responsible for most of the opening track, finishing it with Paul later on during one of their legendary writing sessions. Though changed from a ballad to a more commercially available tone, the single-word prompt managed to spark much more personal lyrics than its predecessor despite being recorded just a day before filming wrapped in April of 1965. In one of his last interviews (released posthumously by Playboy in 1981), Lennon gave some insight into his mindset at the time:
When ‘Help’ came out in ’65, I was actually crying out for help. Most people think it’s just a fast rock ‘n roll song. I didn’t realize it at the time… But later, I knew I really was crying out for help. It was my fat Elvis period. You see the movie: He — I — is very fat, very insecure, and he’s completely lost himself. And I am singing about when I was so much younger and all the rest, looking back at how easy it was. […] It becomes easier to deal with as I get older; I don’t know whether you learn control or, when you grow up, you calm down a little.”
The Beatles’ work ethic had been grueling before Beatlemania, but by the beginning of 1965 and two years into the ceaseless touring, dangerously obsessed fans, and back-to-back albums, singles, and interviews, the four musicians and their young families were already feeling the weight of the world on their shoulders.
Lennon absolutely had more than his fair share of issues long before Beatlemania hit, but he was hit hard in this particular period. After excessive drinking and eating caused John to gain just a tiny bit of weight in the face, a reckless “journalist” called him “the fat Beatle” in 1965, and triggered the beginning of a likely life-long complicated relationship with food and body image. In that same interview, John would go so far as to say the following about his mental state: “Now I may be very positive… but I also go through deep depressions where I would like to jump out the window, you know”.
McCartney would later add his own thoughts on the subject:
“… He bolstered his way through it. We all felt the same way. But looking back on it, John was always looking for help. He had [a paranoia] that people died when he was around: His father… uncle … then his mother died. I think John’s whole life was a cry for help.”
It wasn’t all bad, of course– the film’s story being written around locations such as the Swiss Alps and the Bahamas (for tax reasons) served as a way for the mop-topped mates to have some form of much-needed vacation. The settings and frolicking musical sequences allowed the group to relax and have fun in the midst of it all, although Lennon would later report that they felt like extras in their own movie, attributing the feeling to being somewhat left out of the loop, and having less creative input this time around.
One has to be fair to Richard Lester and other members of the crew, however, as there was plenty to work against for everyone involved. Beatlemania followed them everywhere, starting with the first location on a caribbean beach as fans overtook the stars’ beachside dressing rooms, ruining scenes by interrupting shots for autographs and forcing everyone’s day to be even longer. In addition to the constant threat of being rushed the band had become familiar with, there were even more outrageous incidents towards others, such as defunct hospitals being used for filming in the Carribean location rather than the abandoned areas promised to the crew, with sick and elderly people hidden away, much to everyone’s disgust.
There was also a new factor that made communicating with The Beatles on set especially difficult, but a whole lot more enjoyable for them…
A “Haze of Marijuana”
One fateful August day in 1964, The Beatles met Bob Dylan who’d become a lifelong friend (and future bandmate to Harrison) in a hotel room after a concert in New York City. Getting influenced by more than just Dylan’s acoustic style and prose, it was then that the Brits were introduced to weed, and subsequently hooked.
No strangers to self-medicating, the group lived off of pills and alcohol to survive their late teens in Hamburg, Germany, where they played to tiny clubs for eight-hours straight, often shared one bed, and called a deserted cinema’s filthy storage room home. But marijuana was exciting and new to them, and became their go-to drug of choice over booze and uppers.
“We were smoking marijuana for breakfast during that period. Nobody could communicate with us, it was all glazed eyes and giggling all the time. In our own world. It’s like doing nothing most of the time, but still having to rise at 7am, so we became bored.”
Ringo echoed the sentiment a couple decades later in Anthology:
“…You can see a lot of red-eyed shots; they were red from the dope we were smoking… Dick Lester knew that very little would get done after lunch. In the afternoon we very seldom got past the first line of the script. We had such hysterics that no one could do anything.”
It’s certainly evident in the film (and even more so in the volumes of behind-the-scenes photographs) that John, Paul, George, and Ringo did have great times, most of which are maintained in their element of performing a song with their instruments, whether in a tight studio space or a lush, grassy plain.
There’s lots of smiles and plenty of laughs, which mostly shine through when it’s just a sequence of the four friends in their ridiculous mod home, or the entire “Ticket to Ride” number, which was created by simply filming the group’s first trip to the slopes, and letting the camera roll. Richard Lester would later say that this portion “cut itself”, the carefree spirit emanating through the raw footage.
Eleanor Bron, a third-party, gave some more insight in a 2013 interview that suggest that beyond all the angst, the eager young men had yet another bonding experience attributed to their unique friendship:
“They made the most of it. They had company, they could be themselves when they were together and boost each other when they needed to be. They were all up for it, whatever it was. They were very keen. I’ve always been incredibly impressed by the fact that they’d done this one film and they wanted to know how to act, they wanted to learn how to do it. You had to look as if you didn’t care but I think they really did care.”
Changing Palette for a Changing Sound
If A Hard Day’s Night broke new ground for music on film, then Help! took a jackhammer to it.
An more acoustic album, the singles that comprised the album were the stepping stone from the group’s merseybeat sound, to more intrinsic lyrics, and greater musical experimentation and subjects. “Help!” would be their last LP to contain any covers by other artists until “Maggie Mae” on Let It Be in 1970, and the most covered song of all time “Yesterday” would prove to all that McCartney and Lennon could create masterpieces all on their own.
Maintaining the same youthful vigor, the locations for Help! Offered new possibilities. Lester wanted to maintain the element of the group “recording” or playing diegetically, hence the impromptu serenade to Ahme in The Beatles’ home and unusual placement of a grand piano in the snow.
When stating that this film is in color, it cannot be emphasized enough just how much it’s utilized to its fullest. Vivid greens, stark whites, and ocean blues really make each location its own thanks to the lay of the land, but it carries through into wardrobe and set design as well. Easing away from the clean-cut looks and having more freedom with their own looks, The Beatles are no longer restrained to white shirts and black ties, sporting turtlenecks and even completely monochrome looks. They even, gasp, wear t-shirts and jeans on-screen!
The color story is key to the film’s tone, and it’s no better shown than in the reveal of The Beatles’ shared home, color-coded by section and absolutely bizarre in concept to play with the narrative of “the successful working-class boys” becoming famous, as well as giving the members a bit of individuality.
Nothing is more important though, than the strides made by Lester and the director of photography in regards to filming the actual song sequences. “Ticket to Ride”, while it “cut itself” in Lester’s own words, utilized elements such as jump-cuts and playing directly to the camera, with one most stand-out feature being the ski’s function in match-cutting from one Beatle to another. There’s also the charming anecdote that they added music notes to a certain shot with telephone wires out of pure need to keep the shot.
The use of reflected and colored light is responsible for much of Help!’s vividness, and we have director of photography David Watkin to thank for it. Although using reflected light wasn’t new, now many people were doing it because of how much longer it took film to develop, but the result certainly pays off. There was also the innovation of putting a filter onto every frame of film, supposedly making the original cut more gorgeous than anything you can find on DVD or Blu-Ray today.
Smoke wafting through the air, shadows and backlighting, and fantastical fades transitioning the group into their own little world capture a magic along with the song, and make it just as pleasing to the eye as the ear. The studio sequence and two songs filmed in a field among military tanks are definitely highlights, both severely different with natural earth-tones to bright purples.
For these strides that truly birthed the modern music video, Richard Lester was sent a scroll in the mail one day, rightfully declaring him the “Father of MTV”.
Whole New Worlds
While The Beatles weren’t the first western group to use the sitar or incorporate Indian sounds in their music (The Kinks and The Yardbirds released sitar-like sounds in hits not long before “Rubber Soul”, they are certainly the ones that popularized it and associated the sounds of :the orient” with the psychedelic 60s and drugs. The film was certainly piggy-backing off gross orientalism present in non-Asian cultures, what with making and Indian group (played by white people in brown face) a killer cult for some vaguely forgein goddess and jokey comments that are kinda “yikes” now.
But the story of how any why is so bizarre, and truly goes to show just how a single chance encounter can change a person’s entire life and even history.
Because of the need to understand the mystic eastern artifact, the Beatles go to “the nearest orient”– which is an Indian restaurant in London. To set the scene (and play more of the sitar-based scare), there is a group of Indian musicians playing music to add some mise-en-scene, and the idea to have sitar incorporated into the film score.
Though they have no bearing on the plot, the presence of these musicians on set would be the group’s first exposure to Indian sounds, and George Harrison’s first encounter with the sitar. Harrison was interested in the instrument, and after talking with the musicians, decided to buy the records of a name that kept coming up in discussion– Ravi Shankar.
Harrison felt a connection to music, which felt both familiar and bizarre to him. He eventually bought his own sitar, and was invited to a dinner party that Shankar happened to be at through a mutual friend.
The sitar was not only the precipice for a new age, being the missing element needed to make “Norwegian Wood (That Bird Has Flown)” the huge departure it was, but would lead to the group’s further immersion into eastern philosophy and music that would surround them throughout the new exploratory eras of Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour, and “The White Album”.
For George Harrison, it was just the beginning of his life-long spiritual journey, as he would convert to Hinduism and become the mentee and dear friend of Ravi Shankar himself, dedicating everything in his life from his music, family life, and legacy to Krishna and the existential human goal of finding out who we all are.
Again, all this from a band of musicians in a restaurant scene! It’s really beautiful, and gives me an extra bit of glee when watching the film, knowing what was to come for my favorite Beatle in particular.
While Help! Isn’t as well-known as AHDN, it truly deserves just as much recognition of its role in music and film history. It’s also loads of fun, ridiculous and also genuinely funny and perplexing, from the hilarious ADR voice-overs and seconds-long intermissions not unlike Monty Python (which was about four years down the line).
It’s truly a film I believe deserves a theatrical re-release to be able to see the gorgeous work put into the visuals on the big screen, and Beatles content I certainly should be able to find musical sequences of on the official Beatles YouTube channel rather than bootlegs.
Hopefully, we won’t have to wait until the 60th anniversary for that.