Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Stop Worrying! The 50th Anniversary of The Beatles' Help! (1965)

It was fifty years ago today, on July 29 1965, that The Beatles' film Help! premiered at the Pavilion in London. Since its premiere Help! has largely been in the shadow of The Beatles' first film, A Hard Day's Night. While A Hard Day's Night is widely regarded as a classic that had a lasting influence, Help! is sometimes dismissed or ignored entirely. Despite this in my experience Beatles fans themselves are divided as to which of the two films is their favourite, and there are very many that cannot make up their minds as to which film they prefer. Even if Help! is not a better film than A Hard Day's Night, it is a classic in its own right that also had a lasting influence.

Here it must be noted that Help! emerged as part of a three picture deal that The Beatles manager  Brian Epstein had signed with United Artists. A Hard Day's Night was the first film in the deal, while Help! would be the second. The animated film Yellow Submarine was meant to fulfil the deal, but since it did not actually star The Beatles, it was decided that it did not. As a result The Beatles then made the documentary Let It Be.

Although both starred The Beatles and both share the same off-kilter humour, in many respects A Hard Day's Night and Help! are very different films. A Hard Day's Night portrayed The Beatles as they journeyed to London to shoot a TV programme and their experiences at the TV studio. It was shot in black and white in the style of cinéma vérité. Help! had what was in some respects a more traditional (if very loose) plot, one in which Ringo finds himself in possession of the sacrificial ring of the cult of Kaili who are now pursuing him. It was also shot in colour and its style owed a good deal to the spy thrillers of the era. Of course, in both films The Beatles essentially played, well, The Beatles.

Regardless, early in its pre-production Help! was simply referred to as Beatles 2. Eventually it was given the title Eight Arms to Hold You. That title, like A Hard Day's Night, came from Ringo Starr, who had a knack for coming up with such odd phrases. The title would remain Eight Arms to Hold You very late in the film's production. The initial American release of the single "Ticket to Ride", released on April 19 1965, even stated the song was from the "United Artists release Eight Arms to Hold You." Eventually director Richard Lester and The Beatles changed the title of the film to Help!, taken from a song that John Lennon had written as a reaction to the stress he felt after The Beatles' rapid rise to success. The Beatles did not particularly care for the title Eight Arms to Hold You, and in an interview Paul McCarntey joked,  "I just don't think anybody will want to hear a song called, 'Eight Arms To Hold You.'"

Much like A Hard Day's Night before it, Help! drew upon multiple sources of inspiration. The Beatles themselves said the film was inspired by The Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup (1933). Not only did the comedy in the film owe a good deal to the Marx Brothers, but it also owed a good deal to the classic British radio comedy programme The Goon Show starring Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, and Peter Sellers. This should perhaps come as no surprise, given Richard Lester had directed The Goon Show movie short "The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film" (1959) and The Beatles were huge fans of the show (here it must also be noted that The Beatles producer George Martin produced albums featuring both Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers). Another source of inspiration were the then popular spy thrillers, particularly those featuring superspy James Bond. In many ways Help! can be considered a parody of the James Bond movies and similar spy thrillers.

Due to the success of A Hard Day's Night, director Richard Lester was given a much larger budget for Help!. Not only was Help! then shot in colour, but it was also shot at various locations around the world. In the film The Beatles appeared in such locales as London, the Austrian Alps, Salisbury Plain, and the Bahamas. Help! would also have much more extravagant sets than A Hard Day's Night, including the temple of Kaili.

Although one would not know it from watching the film, The Beatles did not particularly enjoy making Help!.  At the height of their success and with a busy schedule of recording, touring, and appearances on television, The Beatles were suffering from exhaustion as a whole by the time Help!  began shooting. While the band had a good deal of input on A Hard Day's Night, according to John Lennon, "...with Help!, Dick Lester didn't tell us what it was all about." John would later complain that The Beatles felt like extras in their own film. It is because of this that Help! was shot in what has been called "a haze of marijuana". According to Paul McCartney in an interview, "We showed up a bit stoned, smiled a lot and hoped we'd get through it." In the documentary The Beatles Anthology Ringo Starr admitted, "A hell of a lot of pot was being smoked while we were making the film."

While The Beatles did not enjoy making Help! and were apparently stoned throughout its production, the film itself was very well received. While most critics at the time did not declare Help! a masterpiece, most of them did regard the movie as being a good deal of fun. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, while somewhat unimpressed by The Beatles themselves, referred to Help! as "...90 minutes of good, clean insanity." Leo Sullivan of The Washington Post admired Richard Lester's utilisation of camera movement. The critic at Time was less impressed with Help!, saying, "Help! is The Beatles‘ all-out try at carving a new career as a screen team before their long love affair with the squealers dies out.” Needless to say, in the years since the critic at Time has been proven wrong both by The Beatles and the movie Help!. Movie goers certainly disagreed with the Time critic regarding Help!. The film did well at the box office, taking in $12,066,667 in the United States alone.

While much has been written about the lasting influence of A Hard Day's Night, less has been written about the lasting influence of Help!. This is a shame as Help! had as much influence as A Hard Day's Night. While The Beatles were initially a bit unhappy with the end result of the film, John Lennon himself would later admit, "I realise, looking back, how advanced it was. It was a precursor to the Batman 'Pow! Wow!" on TV—that kind of stuff. But (Lester) never explained it to us." It is hard to argue with John's assessment of the film. Help! relied on a camp, pop art sensibility that drew heavily upon Anglophonic pop culture (everything from the Marx Brothers to James Bond). It would be precisely that sort of sensibility that would come into vogue only a few months later with the TV show Batman and movies such as Smashing Time (1967) and  Barbarella (1967). Indeed, much as the spy thrillers of the early Sixties influenced Help!, Help!  would have an influence on such spy spoofs of the late Sixties as the Matt Helm movies, Our Man Flint (1966), and The President's Analyst (1967). Like Help! they were shot in colour, utilised a number of sight gags, and possessed a nearly camp, pop art sensibility.

Indeed, the influence of Help! can clearly be seen on one particular TV show. It has often been written that the classic TV show The Monkees drew upon The Beatles' movie A Hard Day's Night for inspiration. In truth, The Monkees drew much more from Help!. Like Help! most episodes of The Monkees placed the band in some sort of stock plot (The Monkees spend the night in a haunted house, must save their favourite restaurant from gangsters, et. al.) that drew heavily upon popular culture. Like Help!, The Monkees also relied a good deal upon sight gags, throwaway bits, non-sequiturs, and chases. That The Monkees owed a good deal to A Hard Day's Night there can be no doubt, but it owed much more to Help!.

Of course, Help! would also have a lasting impact on music video. Certainly A Hard Day's Night also had an enormous impact on music video, but with Help! Richard Lester took what he had learned on A Hard Day's Night to a whole other level. Indeed, there are music sequences in Help! (such as the one for the song "Another Girl") that entirely break with the cinematic tradition of portraying a band playing instruments throughout a song.

Help! is hardly a perfect film. Certainly its plot is so loose as to be disjointed. That having been said, Help! is so filled with fun and good humour that it hardly matters. The film moves forward at a right good clip, with enough sight gags, funny lines, throwaway scenes, and great songs to fill any two other movies. Ultimately Help! is a film whose whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. It is an immensely enjoyable film despite any of its weaknesses, and one that had as much influence as its precursor. It deserves every bit as much to be counted as a classic alongside A Hard Day's Night.

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