You might think that everyone knows the Beatles. But you would be wrong. When a couple of weeks ago I asked the clerk at Best Buy if they had the new Beatles Help! Blu-ray in stock, his reaction was …”Who? What??”
However, there was a time, not so long ago, when the Beatles were the most famous celebrities in the world. “Bigger than Jesus,” as John Lennon unfortunately remarked. Their first feature, A Hard Day’s Night (1964), had been a smash, and had turned its director, Richard Lester, into another celebrity. Help! was the Beatles/Lester team’s second feature, and their first in color. (The exclamation point in the title was essential, because someone else had already
copyrighted registered the title “Help” without an exclamation point.)
Viewed today on Blu-ray, Lester’s use of color, collaborating with cinematographer David Watkin, might be Help!‘s most impressive achievement. The early ’60s were a transitional time in filmmaking. The formal innovations of the French New Wave inspired a similarly innovative spirit in America, Italy, and the U.K. As Martin Scorsese notes in his written introduction to the Help! Blu-ray: “Everyone was experimenting [with color] around this time – Antonioni with Blow-Up, Truffaut with Fahrenheit 451, Fellini and Godard with every movie – and Help! was just as exciting.”
On Blu-ray these colors really pop – particularly, the bold use of solid colors in the indoor sequences – and we also notice remarkably subtle qualities of light in the outdoor scenes. The film begins with an exotic Eastern cult throwing darts at a projected image of The Beatles singing the title song. This first image of The Beatles is in black and white – recalling A Hard Day’s Night – and the darts are in color. The combination of the two makes the darts look three-dimensional, as if they were actually sticking out from the flat screen while, thematically speaking, the act of throwing darts at the projected Beatles announces an intent (not fully realized in the remainder of the film) to deconstruct their celebrity image. This opening sequence also sets up the film’s plot – the ongoing attempts by the fictitious cult to recover a ring, accidentally given to drummer Ringo, that the cult requires for its rituals of human sacrifice.
The plot, of course, is simply a pretext on which to hang surrealist sight gags, bits of comic business, and the occasional musical number. The flavor of a Richard Lester film at this time was a unique combination of the modernist and the retro. The Beatles were often compared to the four Marx Brothers. (John was cynical like Groucho; Ringo was sweet like Harpo; Paul was the bland, good-looking one – like Zeppo – but when you tried, unsuccessfully, to compare taciturn George to talkative Chico, the comparison broke down.) However, Lester’s principal cinematic influences date even further back – to the Silent era – not only the frequent use of title cards (“The Exciting Adventure of Paul on The Floor”), but the visual humor of Buster Keaton, and the narrative proto-surrealism of French serial master, Louis Feuillade. Help!‘s plot device – rival criminal gangs pursuing a common object – recalls Feuillade serials like Les Vampires (1915) and Judex (1916). In Help!, the rival gangs are the Thuggee-like cult (led by Leo McKern as Clang) versus a pair of bumbling scientists (Victor Spinetti and Roy Kinnear). Clang’s assistant priestess, Ahme, played by Eleanor Bron (sometimes helping him, sometimes betraying him to save The Beatles) appears to have been consciously modeled on Musidora, the femme fatale of Feuillade’s serials.
Help!‘s dialogue, like the dialogue of A Hard Day’s Night and The Knack (the two Richard Lester films that preceded it) is terrifically clever, something I would not have fully appreciated without the disc’s subtitles since, as an American, I occasionally have difficulty understanding British accents. The folks responsible for the restoration of this film and its transfer to Blu-ray have done an extraordinary job, not only on its visuals, but also the soundtrack which includes such Lennon & McCartney classics as “You’re Going to Lose That Girl,” “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” “Ticket to Ride,” and the title track. The extras – including talking heads interviews with Richard Lester, Eleanor Bron, and other survivors – are swell.