Though largely denigrated at the time of its release in 1965 as inferior to A Hard Day’s Night (1964), Richard Lester’s second film built around the Beatles, Help!, has been pretty completely vindicated by time. It has also been championed by no less a figure on the film scene than Martin Scorsese, who has compared the film to the works of Truffaut, Antonioni, Godard and Fellini, calling it “just as exciting.” Taken with A Hard Day’s Night, Help! was a cheerful and cheeky death-knell for traditional standards of well-crafted filmmaking from the previous decade. It was a youth film—a rock ‘n’ roll film—that actually spoke to youth on their own terms, putting forth a cry for freedom—both artistic and personal—in fun terms that no one had ever seen before.
Help! is, in many ways, the first truly self-aware comedy. It works on the assumption that the audience is in on its every joke, starting with its very premise and its deliberately unreal depiction of the Beatles. The story has it that an Indian death cult—headed by such decidedly non-Indians as Leo McKern as the high priest Clang and Eleanor Bron as his assistant Ahme, who is not what she seems (as she constantly tells us)—are after a sacrificial ring that has become stubbornly affixed to Ringo’s finger. Seems a fan—in actuality Ahme’s sacrifice-bound sister—sent him the oversized bauble in a letter. The entire plot hinges on Clang’s attempts to retrieve the ring and, later, his attempts to sacrifice Ringo. Complications arise in the form of a mad scientist, Foot (Victor Spinetti), who thinks he can—“Dare I say it?”—rule the world with such a ring. And then there’s his addled assistant, Algernon (Roy Kinnear in the first of eight Lester films), whose love of animals would, he thinks, make him better suited to a career in vivisection.
The Beatles themselves are presented as a kind of cartoon version of themselves—all living together (pop stars are funny that way, as witness the Dave Clark Five in John Boorman’s Catch Us If You Can that same year) in a fantasticated series of knocked-together houses. They never seriously pretend to be doing anything other than playing the Beatles at making a movie, the sole reason for which is to have fun—and poke fun at their own image and society. It’s this effortless sense of fun—mostly executed with spot-on deadpan timing—that pervades the whole movie, resulting in 85 minutes of pure enjoyment with the bonus of Beatles songs. It would really be rude to even contemplate asking for more, but actually there is more.
Lester is at the top of his form with the filmmaking. He throws every stylistic trick in the book up on the screen—and those that weren’t in the book, he made up. Nearly all of them work and seem as playfully fresh and alive today as they did in 1965, even though many of them have since become assimilated into our basic cinematic vocabulary. The difference with Lester’s approach is that it invites the audience to be a part of the process—again, it’s the sense of being in on the joke. There’s nothing intrinsically funny about seeing the words “A tiger” appear on the screen. There is something funny about poking fun at the literalness of things by suggesting that the viewer might need telling what the animal is. It’s a throwaway gag, but it’s one of a nonstop parade of such gags—so many in fact that they become the actual fabric of the film.
The Asheville Film Society will screen Help! Tuesday July 20 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of the Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.