Wednesday, January 5, 2011


I’m rather more a fan of later period, trippy Beatles than I am of their earlier straight pop efforts, so it’s rather interesting to me that, of the four movies they made, their two best were the ones made during this time. Help! isn’t quite on the level of A Hard Day’s Night, but it’s infused with the same level of silly charm and chaos that their first film had.

The film opens with a beautiful young girl about to be sacrificed to the goddess Kali, when the ritual has to be called off. It seems that for Kali to accept the sacrifice, she needs to be painted red and be wearing a special ruby ring, but being a teenage girl in the mid-60s, when she got it she mailed it off as a gift to her heartthrob Ringo Starr. He’s of course now wearing the ring, and since it appears to be stuck on his finger, he now gets to spend the entire movie getting chased and attacked by the worshippers of Kali, who are now trying to paint him red so they can use him as their sacrifice. It’s just enough of a plot to give them the chance to film anything that came into their heads, and good on them for it.

In an essay that comes with the DVD, director Richard Lester said that, even when he was making A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, he knew he would always be known specifically for them. Indeed, while he’s made some good movies since then, I doubt he’d ever want to be remembered for the only other high profile films he made afterward (he took over Superman 2 after Richard Donner was let go, and also filmed all of Superman 3 -- yes, the one with Richard Pryor). He directed this movie with a wild passion that was nowhere to be found in those later films, giving us a movie that hurls about everywhere it can possibly imagine: we get a mad scientist that accidentally shrinks Paul down to mouse size, a pub with a trap door leading to a wine cellar with a deadly Bengal tiger that can only be soothed by singing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” to it, a brief military battle, etc. One would almost wonder why they didn’t just say “screw it” and throw an actual kitchen sink in, though it might have been repetitive after the Beatles destroy the sinks in a bathroom. And interspersed throughout are lovely music videos (and yes, I believe we can safely call them that, since almost none of them have anything to do with the rest of the movie beyond starring the four main characters) showing off the band’s latest music, ostensibly the entire reason the movie was made.

The band itself was rather disappointed in the movie, mainly in how they’re not in it as much as they should be (Lennon in particular complained that they were made extras in their own movie, though he later revised his opinion and admitted a large part of the problem the band had with the film was in how they spent the whole movie stoned and so didn‘t really understand what was going on), and the lion’s share of their face time is given to Ringo. While the cultists (led by the delightful Leo McKern) do appear on screen quite often, I don’t know that it’s a completely fair criticism to make, particularly when just a few years later they demanded that other people do their voices for the animated Yellow Submarine film. Plus, while Ringo does dominate so far as the Beatles go, the appalling amount of hatred the rest of the band openly expresses for him was one of my favorite ongoing jokes in the movie. Right when the cultists first start coming after him, he complains that something weird’s going on and they all monkey pile on him that he’s making up stories again and shouldn’t be trying to drag everyone else down to his level. Later, after they learn of the cultists, and have their lives threatened, John, Paul, and George all chip in to try to convince Ringo to cut off his finger, since he never really uses that one anyway, and he’s really just being selfish putting them in harm’s way like this. I’m not too proud to admit that I was giggling uncontrollably for a good chunk of the film.

And that’s what I love about the movie. It may not have the depth that A Hard Day’s Night did, but it went out there with the specific aim of being as funny and silly as possible, and it succeeded brilliantly. Released just one year before Vietnam made the entire western world miserable, it’s a film that was designed specifically to make you smile, each and every one of you. You know what else makes me smile, thinking about the movie? Not once in this entire review did I call it pop-art, like every other review I’ve read of it has. Oh, damn.

Rating: *** ½

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