Chief Justice Michael Stailey needed no help appreciating this wacky Fab Four classic.
Our review of Help! (Blu-ray), published July 10th, 2013, is also available.
For as much of a Beatles fan as I've been over the years, I'm embarrassed to admit I had never seen Help! It wasn't a conscious choice. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen A Hard Day's Night all the way through either. The opportunity just hadn't presented itself. But, on the plus side, I'm glad my first viewing was this beautifully remastered print…in a rather unique setting.
Facts of the Case
Going about their normal everyday lives, the boys are thrust into international intrigue, when Ringo becomes the target of a religious cult. It seems their current sacrifice—"an Eastern bird"—had gifted Ringo with (of all things) a ring. In order to complete the sacrifice, the cult leadership—Clang (Leo McKern, Candleshoe), Bhuta (John Bluthal, The Fifth Element), and Ahme (Eleanor Bron, Iris)—must retrieve the priceless artifact at any cost. Despite the duplicitous actions of Ahme to help the boys, and the interference of two world-conquest seeking scientists (Victor Spinetti, The Return of the Pink Panther and Roy Kinnear, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), it still takes John, Paul, George, and Ringo a while to realize exactly what they've gotten themselves into.
In mid-September, I was invited over to POP Sound, a recording and post production studio here in Santa Monica, for a special screening of Help! Having done voice over work as a kid, I wasn't a complete stranger to the studio setup, but sitting behind a massive sound board while watching four of the music industry's most influential artists at the top of their game, was an almost nirvanic experience.
There were only four of us in the studio. I was up front with Kevin who was running the board. He had just wrapped work on the new audio mixes for the upcoming HD release of the Godfather films ("they were an absolute mess"), and while the restoration work on Help! was done elsewhere, he couldn't help but be impressed. I wholeheartedly agree.
Help! is legendary on several levels. As a comedy, the film was way ahead of its time. The surreal, oddball script from writer Charles Wood opened the door for comedy teams like Monty Python, whose series debut in 1969 drew on much the same absurd observational humor. In fact, close your eyes and the very brief "Part Two" interlude in the bathroom between Ahme's mother and sister could well have been written and performed by Terry Jones and Eric Idle. It's also blatantly obvious that Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider lifted the entire format of Help! for The Monkees which premiered stateside in the fall of 1966. I guess one could argue this was the series' pilot episode. Now that's not to say Help! is wholly original. They too borrow from what came before, not the least of which is the Bugs Bunny gag with the errant swimmer looking for the White Cliffs of Dover, and any number of Abbott and Costello, Hope and Crosby, or Marx Brothers' inspired word play and sight gags.
On a purely musical level, director Dick Lester (A Hard Day's Night) has been credited with Help! giving birth to the music video and deservedly so. The script is merely the icing for the film's centerpiece—seven exceptional musical performances for Help! (as shown on a movie screen in Clang's temple and during the film's climatic beachfront battle), You're Going to Lose that Girl (with the boys being ambushed in the recording studio), You've Got to Hide Your Love Away (in the boys quadra-flat), Ticket to Ride (on the ski slopes of Austria), I Need You and The Night Before (on the battlefield outside of Stonehenge), and Another Girl (on the beach in the Bahamas). The two most iconic sequences are the boys on skis for the first time in their lives and their antics on the beach. Credit not only Lester, but cinematographer David Watkin and impressive amounts of pot smoking for conceiving, lighting, and executing these non-traditional ballets.
And finally, on a personal level, Help! serves as a time capsule, capturing John, Paul, George, and Ringo at the height of their brotherhood, before the pressures of life, relationships, the music business, and success eroded those fraternal bonds. It's obvious they enjoyed each other's company and the result is a timeless infusion of frivolity and creative genius. Forget Yoko, the attack on George's life, John's assassination, Ringo's Caveman, and Paul's less than civil breakup with Heather Mills. These are images of The Beatles that will endure for generations to come.
In terms of performances, it's difficult to judge. The boys are playing themselves, improvising most of their dialogue, if only because they couldn't remember their lines and Dick Lester preferred to go with the flow. Do credit Leo McKern with buying into the role of Clang with every fibre of his being. The only way a comedic performance like this works is when the character is deadly serious about their actions and circumstances. The same holds true for the great character work of Victor Spinetti and Roy Kinnear as the bungling scientists who see this as their one chance to make a name for themselves. A case could also be made for Patrick Cargill as Scotland Yard's finest, but the character while funny is fairly one-dimensional. Unfortunately, I'm not as sold on Eleanor Bron as Ahme. We've seen this character played with more panache by actors such as Lenore Aubert in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein or Joan Collins in The Road to Hong Kong.
From a purely technical perspective, Apple Corps has outdone themselves, bringing in the best in the business to handle the restoration. The visuals are stunning, having taken a badly decaying source negative and painstakingly scrubbed it free of dirt, noise, and scratches, retimed the colors to add depth and detail to an image that was flat and lifeless, and brought it back into its original 1.75:1 aspect ratio (and anamorphic to boot). But for as impressive as the video is, the audio will blow you away. Hearing it in the studio was amazing enough, but to have that robustness be duplicated in your living is absolutely masterful. The PCM stereo is great for those without the benefit of a surround system. For everyone else, the DTS 5.1 track is a must! You'll swear you're in the studio listening to them record these tracks live. And the enhanced audio gives you new appreciation for Ken Thorne's magnificent underscore, utilizing alternate interpretations of the boys' biggest hits. Check out the 12 min restoration featurette to see just how much work went into bringing this film back to life.
And speaking of bonus materials, the entire second disc of this set is dedicated to the making of Help! Unfortunately, for as much new material that has been produced, it's sorely lacking input and comment from Paul and Ringo, the two surviving members of the Fab Four. I can't say whether or not they tried to get them involved, but their absence is significant. The only cast member interviewed for The Beatles in Help! is Eleanor Bron (Ahme). Others featured here and in Memories of Help! include director Dick Lester, cinematographer David Watkin, hair and makeup designer Betty Glasow, costume designer Julie Harris, and stunt doubles Peter Cheevers and Chris Diggins, among others. Also included is a look back at the deleted drama school sequence featuring Wendy Richard (Are You Being Served?) and Frankie Howerd (Mr. Mustard in the Bee Gees' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band). It wound up on the cutting room floor because the dynamics of the scene didn't work. Finally, the set is topped off with three theatrical trailers (2 US and 1 Spanish), several 1965 radio spots promoting the film embedded within the disc's menus (I loathe content you have to dig for), and a 16-page booklet with an introduction from Dick Lester and an August 2007 essay on the film by director Marty Scorsese.
A must have for any Beatles fan in your life. If you've only the seen film on VHS or a previous DVD release, you owe it to yourself to experience Help! the way it was always intended to be seen.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Apple Corps Ltd
• Documentary: The Beatles in Help!
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