“Help!” is one of those movies that can go either way on you. If, after about twenty or so minutes, you aren’t impressed with its almost divine silliness, you should go ahead and abort. You’re not ready to see it yet. The movie has often been criticized for under-using its greatest natural resource, the Beatles, and while it’s true that it’s more Richard Lester’s vision than the group’s, it must be noted that Lester’s anarchic absurdity and quick cut camera gags make for a pretty good whole.
John Lennon was always critical of himself for taking a very pleading personal prayer like “Help!” and allowing it to be recorded as an up-tempo number, but for the sake of the film the arrangement is a perfect wake up call to the madcap, go for broke, break-neck chase of “Help!”‘s ridiculously inane but fun plot. It gets the movie started like the ring of a firing shotgun. In “A Hard Day’s Night” they were chased by screaming girls. In “Help!” they get chased by everyone else.
“Help!” plays like the original version of “Austin Powers”. The tone is the same, they are mocking the same James Bond type films, and both films resonate with fashion, music and joy.
The Beatles as a group are still pretty charming and biting, but it’s not too hard to figure out that they made this movie right after Bob Dylan introduced them to marijuana. They look for the most part stoned but happy, practically laughing out loud at the constant ongoing foolishness.
The musical numbers in “Help!” are starting to look more like stylized little music videos, with all the hi-jinx and energy that would one day make The Monkees and everyone around them rich. Any time you get a chance to watch John Lennon sing, you should take advantage of it. He always looks like he knows “everything” and that eventually “everything” will be all right. Hearing his voice never fails to make me instantly happy. The Beatles seem to be desperately trying to record an album amid the chaotic hurdle of an eastern religious cult and a couple of mad scientists trying to hunt down Ringo.
I’m sure the film’s mocking of Indian religious culture probably embarrassed George Harrison one day, but personally I’m all for it. You see, the cult needs to paint somebody red (hopefully a young virgin, but after a while they’d be happy for anyone) so they can make a sacrifice and look properly religious for their followers. Unfortunately, the victim needs to be wearing this huge ugly ring that happens to be dangerously stuck on Ringo’s right hand. This is the kind of film that checks in on the intended sacrifice’s home, while her mother berates her lifestyle, choice of company, and the fact that she has come home painted all red.
For a while, everyone tries to get the ring off of poor Ringo’s finger, but eventually the Indians seem more than happy to just paint the drummer red and use him as their offering. In the meantime, John, Paul and George get a little frustrated with having their cushy Rock star lives invaded by people who want to see them dead. For a while, they even mull over the possibility of a one armed drummer twenty years before Def Leppard made it popular. Pretty soon Scotland Yard, the army, and two scientists who think the ring will help them rule the world are chasing the helpless Liverpool Pop Group through the Alps, over and amid a World War II re-enactment, and across the shores of the Bahamas. The hand held camera style battle scenes even turn out to feel quite similar to the ones in, believe it or not, “Saving Private Ryan”.
The film also has fun with the Beatles’ home life. It seems that they all live in the same gigantic house with vending machines and four separate entrances. It’s a lot like four apartments with no walls in between. Of course, my favorite bit of minutia shows us that John likes to read copies of his own books and sleeps in a pit. If I’m ever rich and famous I’m gonna sleep in a pit too.
If they had felt like it, they could have probably been the English version of the Marx brothers. As it is, they take us one step closer to Monty Python.
[ Songs Include: Help!, Another Girl, The Night Before, You’re Gonna Lose That Girl, and Ticket to Ride. ]