Once upon a time we walked into buildings called “record stores” and bought vinyl disks with new Beatle songs on them. It’s funny. Back then, it seemed exotic as purchasing Keds. It didn’t occur to us the day would arrive when the albums stopped coming and we’d never again as long as we lived do something as simple and wondrous as listen to a new Beatle song.
So ever since, when it comes to anything from these four guys, we take what we can get and we say thank you. The recordings made from forgotten Lennon demos-“Real Love” and “Free As a Bird”-on the 1995 Anthology compilation. The remixed 2003 version of their final release, Let It Be…Naked, cleansed of Phil Spector’s orchestral embellishments. The mindblowing mashup created for the Cirque du Soleil show Love in 2006. Thank you.
And now this pristine restoration of the band’s second cinematic outing, 1965’s Help!, just released on Blu-ray with sound so crystalline they could be playing in the next room. Thank you. The movie offers a fascinating testament to their magnetism (“Just the mention of their names,” Martin Scorsese writes in the liner notes, “brings back…something mysterious and exhilarating.”) Such was the spell they cast, a studio could’ve handed them a script pounded out by chimps on acid and pointed cameras in their general direction and the result would’ve been guaranteed to be timeless. Revisiting it after all these years, in fact, nothing in Help! suggests this wasn’t the approach taken by director Richard Lester.
Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964) was a mockumentary depicting a day in the life of the Beatles. It was fabulously successful but one can’t crank out black & white Marx Brothers-flavored mockumentaries each year so the follow up needed at least the pretense of a story and that’s what writers Marc Behm and Charles Wood came up with.
It’s less a plot than a whiff of nonsense about an Indian death cult chasing Ringo, who’s inexplicably gotten its sacrificial ring stuck on his finger. They want it back and their high priest Clang (Leo McKern) attempts repeatedly to separate the drummer from his digit, hand or arm. Oh, and something about a mad scientist.
The pursuit provides excuses to film the four horsing around in locations like the Alps, the Bahamas and Salisbury Plain. It’s the height of silliness and nobody knew that better than the movie’s stars, famously stoned out of their minds throughout. They understood none of that mattered because the entire enterprise was itself an excuse to refine the music video, which they’d recently invented with a little help from their director. The performances, immortalized in realer-than-life Eastmancolour and now remastered in sterling 5.1 surround-sound truly are things of beauty.
The band’s early music is wonderful in a completely different way than its later work and the soundtrack captures them at a pivotal stage in their evolution from simplicity to psychedelia. John’s “You’re Going to Lose That Girl” is one of the last songs of its kind they’d record while George’s “I Need You,” with its understated guitar effects, foreshadows what’s to come.
Speaking of sounds to come-a fun fact you won’t find among the generous collection of extras: Because the bad guys are from India, the score includes lots of hokey sitar. During a break, George picked up a prop instrument and began noodling. Lessons with Ravi Shankar followed and, later that same year, so did Rubber Soul, complete with “Norwegian Wood,” the first pop song to feature a sitar.
The rest, as they say, is history. And the new and improved Help! deserves a place in it. Great cinema it isn’t. Great fun, great music and great company more than make up for that though. To quote the famous movie critic John Lennon at its premiere, “This time there’s a story. This is a real film…almost.”