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Our review of Help!, published November 6th, 2007, is also available.
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Beatles fans are famous for buying every repackaged, reissued, and remastered version of things they've bought many times before. In 2007, fans were treated to a full restoration of the Beatles' 1965 film Help! on DVD. Six long years later, the movie is finally out on Blu-ray. Following in the impressive HD footsteps of Yellow Submarine and Magical Mystery Tour, Help! (Blu-ray) looks and sounds better than ever. It also looks pretty darn familiar to anyone who bought it on DVD. Same packaging, same master, same bonus features. Fans will still want a ticket to ride, but this time they might actually care.
Facts of the Case
An eastern blood cult discovers that the sacred ring central to their human sacrifice ritual has been sent as fan mail to the Beatles' drummer, so their priest (Leo McKern, A Man for All Seasons) and his lovely assistant (Eleanor Bron, A Little Princess) take a team of assassins to London to get it back. After several failed attempts on Ringo's life by the cult and a scientist (Victor Spinetti, The Return of the Pink Panther) bent on world domination, the band leads them on a chase around the globe, from the snow-covered Alps to the sunny Bahamas.
The Beatles made their first feature film, 1964's A Hard Day's Night, at the peak of Beatlemania. What could have been a cynical cash-in turned out to be a great film, combining verite filmmaking with surreal humor and a killer soundtrack. The band had another opportunity to take the easy way out a year later when they reunited with director Richard Lester to make Help!. The Beatles' sophomore effort doesn't reach the frenzied heights of their first film, but it pushed the group in new directions beyond the switch from black and white to color. Where A Hard Day's Night captured the monotony of touring life, Help! set the band free to see the world beyond "a train and a room, and a car and a room, and a room and a room."
The film's merry chase sends the boys around the world (in one day, it would seem). The travelogue is hard to justify from a story perspective—the only reason the film ends in the Bahamas is because the Beatles wanted to shoot there—but it makes for nifty spectacle. The script was originally developed for Peter Sellers then hastily rewritten for the Beatles, which explains some of the insanity. Help! isn't just all over the map; itâ€™s all over the place, incorporating bizarre elements like shrinking potion, explosive curling, and a man-eating tiger whose only weakness is Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." The catch-all approach is held together by the music, classics like "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," "Ticket to Ride," "You're Going to Lose That Girl," "I Need You," "The Night Before," and the title track. The songs are shot like music videos. Little wonder that MTV would later declare Richard Lester the father of the format. They do little to advance the plot, and are still the best parts of the film.
The film may be a random collection of scenes, but the Beatles bring energy to spare—especially Ringo, who proves a capable leading man—while screenwriter Charles Wood fills their mouths with witty banter. The film is so thick with wordplay it's near impossible to get all the jokes on first viewing. One of the best scenes finds the Beatles in Buckingham Palace, playing cards and talking around the idea of chopping off Ringo's finger to save their lives: "Show us your hand Ringo" "Are you going to cut or aren't you?"
The band gets plenty of help from a crack group of supporting actors. No one would accuse Help! of cultural sensitivity, but the ickiness of Brits playing Indians is mitigated by Leo McKern, who plays cult leader Clang like Blofeld by way of Merrie Melodies, and Eleanor Bron whose pretty turncoat Ahme is a tad stiff but holds her own with her famous companions. Victor Spinetti is as wonderful as the tightly wound mad scientist as he was the tightly wound TV director in A Hard Day's Night. He is joined here by the hilarious Roy Kinnear (best known to kids of a certain generation as Veruca's dad in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory). The fractured script doesn't give the actors a chance to gel, but everyone gets a turn to show off.
Help! arrives on Blu-ray with a mostly impressive 1.66:1 AVC-encoded 1080p transfer. Built off the 2007 restoration, it looks even more vivid and detailed than it did on DVD. To see just how well the Blu-ray handles DP David Watkin's vivid palette, check out the Beatles' elaborate open plan townhouse, with its solid blue walls and green grass indoor lawn. There are close-ups that rival the Yellow Submarine restoration for color and clarity. Those breathtaking scenes are mixed with softer shots, and the occasional crushed black and muddy midtones. It's hard to know whether additional tweaking would have helped the 2007 version make the leap to hi-def, but six years seems plenty of time to iron out the inconsistencies.
The lossless 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is a more drastic upgrade from DVD, although there's only so much they can do with the aging audio. The dialogue is crisp enough that I caught some jokes for the first time but the biggest improvement is to the music, which takes full advantage of the surround stage for Ken Thorne's Bond-inspired score and the Beatles tunes. Consider it a sneak peek of the 5.1 lossless albums you will one day buy to replace the remastered CDs you spent $200 on in 2009.
Although the Blu-ray has no new bonus features, this set is a reminder of how good these extras were in â€˜07:
• "The Beatles in Help!" (29:34) is a thorough making-of documentary featuring archival footage and modern interviews with Lester, Bron, and other non-Beatle participants. Superfans will already know a lot of the story, but casual viewers have lots to learn—from the copyright tangle that nearly forced them to use the title "Eight Arms to Hold You" to the Beatles infamous and copious marijuana use that made filming a challenge.
• "The Restoration of Help!" (11:29): There's nothing in this rehashed featurette about the film's HD upgrade, but it's still fascinating to see the lengths to which film restoration supervisor Paul Rutan and his team went to fix every frame of Help! for DVD.
• "A Missing Scene" (3:59): Although no footage exists, we get a description with photographs of an excised sequence in which the lads end up at the "Sam Ahab" drama school. It's particularly sad to hear actress Wendy Richards describe how excited she was to be in a Beatles film. She and Pete Best could start a support group.
• "Memories of Help!" (6:25): A collection of interviews, featuring Eleanor Bron; stunt doubles Peter Cheevers and Chris Diggins; David Watkin; Victor Spinetti; costume designer Julie Harris; hair and make-up artist Betty Glasow; Richard Lester; and Neil Aspinall.
• Theatrical trailers: two from the United States and one from Spain. As evidence that selling Beatles movies doesn't require any effort, check out this amazing tagline: "The colorful adventures of these characters are more colorful than ever…in COLOR!"
• U.S. Radio Spots: Thorough viewers will be rewarded by six radio spots hidden as easter eggs in the menus.
• Booklet with archival photos and essays written by Richard Lester and Martin Scorcese.
Help! isn't as cohesive a film as A Hard Day's Night, but it's still among the best rock movies of the â€˜60s thanks to Richard Lester's inventive direction and The Beatles onscreen charm. It doesn't hurt that the film is full of Beatles music. The only sour note hit by this Blu-ray release is the presentation. The movie looks mostly great, and sounds even better, but it's troubling that six years later all fans can look forward to is a modest upgrade from the DVD with no new bonus features.
I'm feeling down. Even so, Not guilty!
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