THE BEGINNING

Andrew Anderson has been sitting through movies made by and featuring bands. One that he’s always genuinely rated is Help! by The Beatles. Here’s why…

beatles

Name the first Beatles film that comes into your head. A Hard Day’s Night? Maybe you’re thinking of Magical Mystery Tour? Or what about Yellow Submarine? Whichever you picked, chances are your first thought wasn’t of Help!, their second cinematic sojourn circa 1965. What with the ubiquity of A Hard Day’s Night, the national children’s treasure status of ‘Submarine’ and the resurgence of interest in ‘Mystery Tour’, Help! has found itself as the forgotten middle child, underrated, overlooked and unloved. And that’s a shame, because it’s the best Beatles film – by far. Here’s why.

The progression from AHDN is apparent from the first shot, which opens on a strange sacrificial ritual in an ancient temple. While this turns out to be important to the plot, what’s more important is that it’s an ancient temple in full colour. After Beatlemania bore AHDN to the top of the box office it was decided a follow up film was needed, only this time they’d have a budget. So goodbye to the cool (and cheap) black and white of AHDN, and hello to Help!’s glorious Technicolor. It captures the ’60s in all its garish glory, every scene vibrating with energy.

As the opening crashes and cries of Help! kick in, it becomes apparent that the filmstock isn’t the only thing now in full colour. Whereas before the Beatles’ songs were a monochrome world of she loves you/she maybe loves you/be nice to me or I won’t love you, now they’re using the full palette of emotions, from the existential angst of the titular track (my independence seems to vanish in the haze) to the claustrophobic sorrow of ‘Ticket To Ride’ (she could never be free when I was around). Yes, there’s still a decent sprinkling of that old innocence on numbers like ‘You’re Going to Lose That Girl’ and ‘I Need You’, but even those have a harder and more cynical edge.

Before I continue dribbling endlessly over the amazing music (something I am known to do when it comes to this film) I suppose we should actually talk about the movie itself. After AHDN the Beatles and their creative cohorts had a conundrum – what kind of film should they make next? Various ideas went around (including a cowboy western), but in the end they settled on a chase film. Sounds familiar, but this time it isn’t screaming girls, but rather crazy cult leaders and scary scientists, that are after them.

Ringo (for reasons unclear) has come to possess an enchanted (and oversized) ring, one which is crucial in the sacrificial ceremonies of an unidentified eastern cult. Cult leader Clang (played by Leo McKern) tracks them down to Liverpool and the house that the Beatles share (with four different doors, of course). He and his gang then try their best to liberate the ring from Ringo through a series of stunts of the type usually employed by hapless cartoon crooks like Dick Dastardly. The cult leaders are soon joined by a duo of scientists (one of whom is played by Victor Spinetti, the oddball TV director from the first film) who the Beatles first turn to for help, only to find they too become besotted with the ring (written down, it sounds more Tolkien than it actually is…so don’t worry, there aren’t any elves).

As the band seek escape they travel to London (taking in Buckingham Palace), the Alps (where they narrowly avoid being blown up by bomb disguised as a curling stone) and the Bahamas. It’s a whirlwind, worldwide tour that illustrates both the budget and the ambition of director Dick Lester. It also indicates a band that is orbiting in a different universe from our own, detached from everyday reality. No longer are they among us, being pulled apart by screaming teens – they are somewhere far away and unreachable.

There’s also a subtle shift in the dialogue, which was largely off-the-cuff-improv in the first film. Instead, deadpan word play and surreal silliness is the name of the game, something similar to Spike Milligan’s Goon Show and Lennon’s own A Spaniard In The Works (copies of which Lennon is seen reading in the opening sequence). Sure, Charles Wood’s script is less natural, but it’s also a lot funnier, and it’s clear how much it influenced later comedians, particularly Monty Python, who directly lifted the intermission/title credits gag in Holy Grail from a similar scene in Help! But it wasn’t only comedians, and David Watkins’ stylish cinematography, with its use of soft focus, colour filters and layered compositions, has inspired generations of filmmakers ever since.

Help! is a film so packed with action that we’ve barely scratched the surface of their adventures here. I’ve not mentioned that they ski down a mountain (in top hats); that Paul plays a woman as though she was a bass guitar on a Bahamian beach; that they smoke endless cigarettes through a mesmerising take of ‘Lose That Girl’; that a tiger attacks Ringo only to be placated by an ensemble rendition of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony; or that we end on the revelation that the entire film is dedicated to Elias Howe (who invented the sewing machine in 1846).

Whether it’s Watkins’ cinematography, Lester’s direction, Woods’ words or indeed the Beatles music, each and every element was not only innovative but also entertaining. The Beatles were the world’s biggest band and yet they made amazing art and music, something that seems inconceivable today. With the sounds, the clothes, the playfulness and the personalities, Help! is the distillation of this incredible fact – a brilliant film, and the Beatles’ best.

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