Help! (Blu-ray Review)1 Jul, 2013 By: Mike Clark
Stars The Beatles, Leo McKern, Eleanor Bron.
Momentarily putting aside its impact on pop music during that period when even Freddie and the Dreamers briefly found a way to become Billboard stars, just how big was the British Invasion in the mid-1960s when everyone this side of Dame Edith Evans was wearing a Julie Christie miniskirt? Well, the week before starting college, I conjured up the stamina to pull off a same-day “triple” of three movies that managed to open on the same day and in what were probably the three dominant theaters in my Ohio town — which as summer-of-’65 movie taste went, was kind of a Von Ryan’s Express kind of burg. Each of them Brit-heavy through and through, they were Mod-mad Darling (which eventually got Christie, its script and its costume design Oscars); Richard Lester’s Help!, which reunited A Hard Days Night director Lester with the Beatles; and Peter O’Toole in Lord Jim, from the Joseph Conrad Brit seafaring perennial. None of these were exactly fodder for the local bumper-pool crowd, but in this era, just about everyone loved John, Paul, George and Ringo (John’s death-wish quote about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus was still a year away).
As fun goes, I’d still go with Darling of the three, but there definitely is a nostalgic kick to seeing the Beatles in color (even Eastman Color) after the black-and-white of Night — and watching them perform several very strong tunes (not a dud among them, in fact) staged with Lester’s standard ingenuity. As for the acting prowess of the mop-headed lads (which is actually what they were called by some in the day), there is definitely an element of “you had to be there” in the non-musical scenes, which coast on our still formidable built-in feelings for the group. There were definitely some shoes to fill: Over the years and even by some at the time, Night has become pretty well regarded as ‘64’s standout English-language movie after Dr. Strangelove, unless you got all caught up in the overrated magic of Mary Poppins or the year’s Oscar winner My Fair Lady. Night, of course, had the element of surprise working for it; no one expected it to be any good or for the Beatles to have lucked into a filmmaker so simpatico.
In contrast to Night’s quasi-documentary structure, Help! brandishes a fairly loony concept about a despotic religious sect leader (Leo McKern) who covets one of Ringo’s rings, the key component in a planned human sacrifice. Trouble is, little short of an H-bomb seems able to dislodge the jewel from Ringo’s finger, and the bulk of the picture puts the group’s drummer through a lot of physical attacks and mayhem that the Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts surely never had to endure; key perpetrators are McKern and associate Eleanor Bron (an actress later memorable in Two for the Road and the original Bedazzled). For all the marquee value of the group, chuckles come courtesy of these supporting players, who also include Night’s Victor Spinetti; Lester regular Roy Kinnear (who tragic death on the set of 1989’s The Return of the Musketeers killed Lester’s desire for filmmaking); and especially Patrick Cargill as a Scotland Yard inspector and non-Beatles fan. Shortly after this movie, Cargill had a key supporting role in A Countess From Hong Kong, which makes me suspect he must have been the only person who could say he worked with both the Beatles and Charlie Chaplin.
This is the kind of movie where smiles are constant without the guffaws to stoke them, but the numbers are something else again. One of them (“Ticket to Ride”) is a classic and was from the get-go, featuring one of the single most delightful visual gags I have ever seen in a movie. In one of the copious extras carried over from the 2007 DVD release, an invigorated Lester notes that the scene cut itself and all but on went on screen via its original assemblage — but that he came up with the idea (a brainstorm for the ages) to animate "Ride’s" musical notes onto outdoor telephone wires as the group frolics in the Austrian Alps. It’s so brilliant that you almost want to cry, and MTV later called Lester the father of the music video (he demanded a DNA test). But there was a lot more to his career the Beatles duo, and movies really lost something when the maker of Petulia, Juggernaut, Robin and Marian, the Musketeers romps and more elected to hang it up prematurely, though you can feel the love all around in this excellent upgrade from DVD, which contains one of the best restoration instructionals I’ve seen on a home release. The restoration tekkie crew claimed in 2007 that the DVD looked as good, and probably better, than 1965 prints. Blu-ray ups this ante, and the sound is so imposing for its day that I’m surprised my neighbors didn’t complain because I really cranked the numbers up.