DVD Review Of Help!
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 7/9/09
Let me state, up front, that I have never been a huge The Beatles fan. I acknowledge them as a fine pop quartet, along the lines of The Dave Clark 5 or the musically much better The Zombies or The Yardbirds, but I have never swooned over them as the greatest rock band of all time- despite sales records, because, they were pop, not rock. Rock was The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Ten Years After, The Doors, Black Sabbath, or Deep Purple. But, even were one to accept them as the greatest pop group of all time, their film work has to be considered distinct. Prior to watching their second live action film, the color film Help!, I had seen, as a child, the psychedelic cartoon Yellow Submarine (which I recall as mildly diverting), and their first live action film, the black and white A Hard Dayís Night, which, while nowhere near great cinema, was somewhat better than this film, for a) it had a real (if thin) plot, b) featured better acting by the supporting cast and even the boys, and c) actually had some real humor.
Help!, by contrast, is simply a bad film. One might argue that, a generation pre-MTV, it is a great extended musical video, with nonsensical non-musical interludes, thus it is a seminal work in that genre. If so, I will concur, but cinematically, while there are many stylistic innovations employed, from the use of color tinting to choppy and quick edits, etc., it simply has no tale to tell save this: an Indian cult obsesses over a large red ring that a female fan sends Ringo Starr as a gift. The cult travels to India to a) either get the ring, or b) sacrifice Ringo if the ring cannot be removed from his finger. Thatís it. Granted, a mad scientist and his assistant, as well as an Inspector and his crew from Scotland Yard, join in the chase. But, thatís it. The film ends with the ring coming off Ringoís finger, the boys escaping, and the rest of the cast chasing each other.
Now, while not great cinema either, there are three examples of why this film fails, as compared to other works The Beatles films are regularly compared to. First, there are the wacky over the top comedies of the 1960s. Many starred Woody Allen and/or Peter Sellers. These would include Whatís New, Pussycat?, Casino Royale, the Pink Panther films, and, of course, Stanley Kubrickís magisterial black comedy, Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb, and others. But, let me simply state that the director of Help! and A Hard Dayís Night, Richard Lester, was in no way comparable, qualitatively, as a director, to Kubrick. Similarly, The Beatles, as actors or comedians, were in no way comparable to Allen nor Sellers, two of the greatest onscreen comic talents in the history of cinema, equals to Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, and a few others. Third, while those other films ranged from funny if mediocre to masterpieces, the fact is that all had better scripts than Help!.
The second example comes from the filmic comedy troupe that the boysí films are most often claimed as descendants from: the Marx Brothers. Yet, the fact is that, love them or hate them, the Marx Brothers (even if one includes the fourth one, Zeppo) were simply better actors than the boys. Ask yourself: what Beatle had the verbal panache and physical dexterity of Groucho? What Beatle could equal the nonpareil silent verbal gags of Harpo? What Beatle could fill the sadistic heel role of Chico? And, even granting Zeppo (weíll leave Gummo out of this), what Beatle was as skilled a straight man? Granted, Ringo is cast as the Ďdumb Beatle,í but, truly, the supposed comic interactions between him and the other boys are often painful to watch. In fact, not only are The Beatles sub-Marx Brothers-level, but they make The Three Stooges truly look like comic geniuses. The Beatlesí films simply are anomic, with no real direction. Even in the loosest films from the Marx Brothers there is a direction and thin thread that ties the gags and musical numbers together- a formula that Abbott and Costello would later perfect in the 1940s. Plus, the Marx Brothersí regular supporting casts, most notably Margaret Dumont, was far superior to anything in The Beatlesí films.
On to the third reason, and likely one that will be deemed heresy by Fab Four enthusiasts; but, itís true. The Fab Four were far inferior actor and comedians to the Prefab Four. Yes, thatís right. The tv group of actors that were assembled to portray a pop group, The Monkees, were far better actors and comedians than The Beatles. Now, reread that. I am not saying that The Monkees were better musicians. They clearly were not, although they were given often very good pop songs to record. But, they WERE actors, first, and musicians, second. I grew up watching repeats of The Monkees tv show, and there simply is no comparison between their chops as actors, and those of Beatles. Granted, Iíve never seen the lone Monkees film, Head, but even if it were a mediocre extended version of a typical tv episode it would still be far superior to The Beatlesí filmic efforts; even if one can rightly state that there would have been no The Monkees tv show without the financial success of The Beatles films. That simply is not the point Iím making.
Let us compare the four on four. The Ďcuteí Beatle was Paul McCartney. Watch him in Help!, and itís painful. By contrast, the girl magnet for The Monkees was Davy Jones- the lone Brit in the Prefab Four. While Jones was just a singer, he was a far superior actor to McCartney. In many episodes, Jones was given a range of quips and situations to react to with sardonism, disbelief, fear, and humor. McCartney, by contrast, is just a piece of wood. Letís move on to the Ďbrainsí of each group- John Lennon and Michael Nesmith. Again, Lennon was a far superior musician to Nesmith, but, since both were the de facto straight men of their groups, look at how Nesmith would modulate his responses to the other members, be it to the two comic foils- Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork, or to Jones. He was always the one allowed to be the leader and savior of whatever mess the boys got into. Lennon, in this film especially, is little less wooden than McCartney, and absolutely void of any real personality. Now on to where the biggest difference lies. The Monkees had two comedians in their troupe: drummer Dolenz and keyboardist/rhythm guitarist Peter Tork. By contrast, The Beatles used Ringo Starr as the comic foil, and George Harrison as, well, letís face it; he was a piece of wood, alongside planks like McCartney and Lennon. Watch any of the skits from The Monkees tv shows online, and Tork- a real musician with goofy looks, and Dolenz- a child actor who was cast as the bandís drummer, are far superior comedians to Starr, who can barely manage a bemused reaction to whatever comic scenario he is thrust into. Tork and Dolenz, by contrast, react with the elasticity and goofiness of real comedians. They could actually mix physical and verbal comedy along the lines of The Marx Brothers, whereas The Beatles simply could not, despite many excuses, such as many fans of the film, and even The Beatles, claimed the film sucked because the boys were too stoned on pot for most of the shoot. So? Assuming that this is true, so what? Does that make the raw badness of many of the scenes any better knowing the actors were stoned? Of course not.
On the plus side, the film does serve as a bit of pop trivia potpourri, if for no other fact than that two of the main character actors in the film (Patrick Cargill as the Inspector and Leo McKern as Swami Clang) would later go on to portray the leaders of The Village, No. 2, in the existential and classic British television series The Prisoner, starring Patrick McGoohan. Also, the use of text across the screen (although their day-glo-like colors often wash out against the filmís background), faux intermissions, and the use of quick edits to reflect the directions of the text, as well as convey the impressions of memory, were innovative. The music, of course, was first rate, and the non sequitur end credit for ĎElias Howe, who, in 1846, invented the sewing machine,í shows how well the film may have gone with even a modicum more of intellectual pursuit in the screenplay. While a number of The Beatles tunes play on the radio, record players, or in the background, there are only seven Ďofficialí soundtrack tunes for which the boys appear in de facto videos. They are: Help!, Youíre Going To Lose That Girl, Youíve Got To Hide Your Love Away, Ticket to Ride, I Need You, The Night Before, and Another Girl.
The two disk DVD, put out by Apple- The Beatles label, is a good solid release. Disk One has the 90 minute long film with a fantastic transfer and restoration job, but unfortunately no commentary track. While it would have been a coup to score McCartney or Starr, the two living Beatles, surely a film or music historian (or both) could have been pressed into duty? The look, as stated, is superb- the boys look like they shot the film last month, not 44 years ago. Disk Two has the extras, and they are solid. There is a section called ĎA Missing Scene.í Alas, it is just the director speaking about the scene- not the scene itself. Thereís a featurette on the restoration process used on the film. Another featurette recalls cast and crew memories of the film. There are three theatrical film trailers, and a radio spot, along with a half hour long featurette on The Beatles In Help!. But, like the film Help!, the DVD package is one that could have been so much more.
Was Help! a film that had influence on the future musical scene? Of course, for this film is really the birth of the music video a generation before MTV (the film was made and released in 1965), and, in retrospect, it has been far more influential- both musically and in terms of the marketing of music (itís essentially one long advertisement), than its predecessor, A Hard Dayís Night. But, itís simply not a good a film as their first one, which itself was only mildly entertaining, filmically. As a comedy, Help! is just not funny. Compared to films from great comedy teams, the laughs are sparse, and the skits lame blackouts, unable to sustain laughter upon rewatch- assuming one even laughs the first time the skits are seen. So, beware, if you are anything but a diehard fan of The Beatles. Help! really needs it. Perhaps I should have stated that up front?
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Cinescene website.]
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