The massive commercial and critical success of A Hard Day's Night surprised naysayers and fans alike, and United Artists wasted no time moving ahead with the second of their three contracted projects with the Beatles. They kept director Richard Lester -- who wouldn't? -- gave him a much bigger budget, then set about locking the actual band out of any creative decisions. An exercise in the dangers of an overinflated budget, Help! is almost as strange as the films the band would later make while tripping on hallucinogenic substances.
The plot -- oh dear Lord -- is about as needlessly complex as they come: the movie starts not with the Beatles but some Eastern cult in England made up of white people who speak in vague approximations of Indian accents. They plan to sacrifice a young woman, but the ritual is halted when one onlooker discovers that the woman is missing the ring needed for the sacrifice, because if you're not going to accessorize properly and take it seriously, what is the point? But if this woman doesn't have the ring, who does?
If you guessed "some poor bastard who can't catch a break," you'd be right. Yes, it's on Ringo's finger. The intended victim sent it to Ringo because she's a big fan of the Beatles; ergo, she didn't realize the importance of the ring, or even at the height of the band's popularity people were taking it out on Ringo. So now, while trying to play and goof around with his mates, he must fend off numerous attempts from cultists to reclaim his new piece of jewelry, which I swear looks just like a Ring Pop.
Help! is one of those movies that was clearly written to give everyone involved a nice vacation around the world. A Hard Day's Night took place in the bombed-out, post-WWII streets that formed the group, but Help! zooms them all over the world, from the Austrian Alps to the Bahamas. Presumably, they're all trying to outrun what an absurd film this is. Explosions tend to go off in each of these locations, though why I'm not sure.
With astonishing speed, the film reveals itself to be some weird parody of a James Bond film. Walthers, lasers, even an ever so slightly altered version of the James Bond theme pop up here and there, as the group must fend off the crazy cult as well as a mad scientist who wants the ring for himself. At one point, the kind high priestess of the cult offers to shrink Ringo's finger so that he might remove the stuck ring, but she accidentally drops the magic needle into Paul's leg, shrinking him down to nothing in a segment titled "The Excting Adventures of Paul on the Floor."
OK, I admit it, Help! made me laugh a lot. That title alone is worth a great chuckle, and Lester clearly remembered that John was the closest the group had to a natural screen presence, so writer Charles Wood feeds him all of the good lines. There's a fun gag poking fun at the band's attempts to maintain their working class image when they each walk up to their own modest flats, only to step inside into some England apartment version of the Neverland Ranch. Maintaining their flippant, rebellious attitude even as they drink from their very own soda machines, I couldn't help but think of Jean-Luc Godard's quote that the kids who grew up in the '60s were "the children of Marx and Coca-Cola" even if the lads are just cheeky and far from revolutionaries. There's also a funny bit of pseudo-prophecy when the band visits the cult's temple and the kind priestess shows Ringo where he'll be disemboweled lest he give the ring to someone else. "I don't wanna knock anyone's religion..." he starts, a foreshadowing to Lennon's future comments about the Beatles' popularity over Jesus (which of course isn't a jab at Christianity, but it's still funny in retrospect).
What goes wrong with the film is that, be it the comedy or the trips across the world that serve no purpose but to change scenery, the filmmakers are just trying too hard. Lester of course came to prominence directing Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, who were members of legendary British comedy troupe The Goons. The influence of the Goons is all over the place here, which also brings a slight hint of Python to come -- the members of Monty Python cite the Goons as a primary influence -- albeit without the literacy. There's also some good old fashioned Looney Tunes humor here, with Lennon very much play the smarmy role of the Bugs Bunny substitute. A number of scenes are charmingly silly, but the desire to wring every ounce of humor out of every situation turns even the funny moments into displays of pathetic desperation.
Too, because it lacks much, if any, input from the Beatles themselves, that interesting semi-realism of A Hard Day's Night is lost. Sure, the group simplified themselves and played to public perceptions, but we got a conceivable look into some of their interactions amidst the hi-jinx as well as their own subtle commentary on what people thought of them. Help! seems to believe that the simplified movie versions of these guys are their real selves, and we never truly get any insights into the Fab Four. And where their weariness and wariness concerning fame in their first film was evidenced through satire, here it is simply evident on their faces. The group wrote, recorded and released singles throughout the shoot even as they wrote the songs to be used in the film and subsequent soundtrack and, coupled with their limited acting ability, they cannot contain their resentment over the shoot.
Help! is often funny, yes, but despite being longer than A Hard Day's Night and containing more of a story, Lester has so much less to say with the movie. The musical numbers in A Hard Day's Night worked because, as they spent so much time in a TV studio, the band could strike up a number at any moment and make it look natural. Here, they stop in the middle of the field to bang out a song, or they just start playing right after some action-packed moment without any sense of transition. How could Lester, who pioneered and perfected the manner in which rock music can be filmed, be so clumsy in his staging a mere year later? Whatever; the movie is fun enough if you've got a case of the Beatlemania, but where A Hard Day's Night was an outright classic regardless of context, Help! tries so desperately for mass appeal that it often falls flat.