1965; Director: Richard Lester; Writers: Marc Behm, Charles Wood
With John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr
Available Nov. 6, List Prince $29.98
The Beatles exit their limo on a street of row houses. Two working-class matrons wave at them, and one (Gretchen Franklin) says approvingly, "Adoration hasn't gone to their heads one jot, has it? ... Just so natural. And still the same as they was before they was."
This scene, early in Help!, the Fab Four's second film with Lester after A Hard Day's Night, was a joke on their squeaky-clean reputation at the height of their never-duplicated allure. In fact, says the director on this two-disc set, "an awful lot of pot-smoking was being done" by the lads during the filming. And they were constantly mobbed by fans. Cinematographer David Watkin recalls that assistant director Clive Reed, whose job was to round up the Beatles, always "found them by the screams: Clive would know by the number of decibels exactly where they were." Beatlemania could briefly attach itself to guys who looked a little like the real thing. Chris Diggins, one of the film's stunt doubles, was mistaken for a Beatle by one of the girls, who then noted sourly, "He's not one of them. He's one of us. He's nothing."
Lester, who was in his early 30s when he directed the Beatles films, is still vigorous and youthful at 75. (The blessing of being prematurely bald is that you look exactly the same for the rest of your life.) In Claire Ferguson's excellent 30 min. making-of extra, Lester says that he'd already gone the mock-doc route with A Hard Day's Night, and that "we couldn't show them in their private life... because that was by then certainly X-rated, or at least what X-rateds were in those days." So for Opus No. 2 the team decided to parody the James Bond thrillers just reaching the crest of their vogue.
The film makes the Beatles the ferocious focus of an offshoot Hindu cult led by Leo McKern (Rumpole of the Old Bailey) and Eleanor Bron (the first woman performer in Cambridge University's Footlights troupe). Ringo has innocently added the cult's sacred ring to his famous collection, which spurs a lot of chases and a clogged itinerary. The lads show up in the Austrian Alps, on Salisbury Plain, and in the Bahamas (because producer Walter Shenson heard that the Bond film Thunderball was being shot there). John flirts with Bron, Paul gets shrunk and Ringo goes red. "They have to paint me red before they chop me," he explains to a Scotland Yard inspector. "It's a different religion from ours. I think."
A Hard Day's Night was Paul's movie: cuddly and semi-realistic. This one, with its surreal touches and deflating asides, is more in John's spirit. "In the last one it was just sort of documentary," Lennon said at the time, "but this is a real film almost." John also wrote the film's best songs: "Help!", "You're Gonna Lose That Girl" and "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." Paul's two tunes are minor, disposable ("The Night Before" and "Another Girl"), which is odd, considering that for the film's British LP he contributed the sprightly, "I've Just Seen a Face" and a ballad, "Yesterday."
The word back then was that the Beatles felt like supporting players in their own movie, passive creatures the film's clowns capered around. In another 1965 clip, George is asked about the shoot and says joylessly (mock-joylessly), "It's great fun. We have a great laugh. Don't we, fellows?" Others, also in a zombie monotone: "Yes, we do." They never made another movie with Lester, though Paul called on him to direct the 1991 concert film Get Back! Anyway, who cares what the actors think? Help! remains a quirky delight, and a charming distillation of mid-'60s musical trends and movie tropes.
Help! also comes in a deluxe edition, which includes a 60-age book, eight lobby cards, a movie poster and a reproduction of Lester's annotated script. Yours for only $134.99.