Last night I caught the Beatles winking and romping through Help! (as part of VH1 Classic’s nine-day Beatles retrospective). I was reminded of how much, as a kid, I used to love watching that movie, over and over again, on televison — and also of how, as the years have gone by, it has never won much respect, since it’s had to live in the shadow of A Hard Day’s Night. It deserves to, of course. A Hard Day’s Night (1964) is one of the greatest pop-jukebox musicals — scratch that, one of the greatest movies, period — ever made. (Here’s what I said about it when it was re-released in 2000.) It not only captured the sublime excitement of the earthquake that was the early Beatles but showcased the group as if they were gods at play.
Released one year later, in 1965, Help!, in effect, was the sequel, a candy-colored piece of prefab British silliness, with the Beatles, already looking like gods grown a touch blasé, going through the paces of being innocents teetering through a world unhinged by their fame. What startled me a bit, seeing Help! last night for the first time in decades, is that the dementedly frivolous East-meets-West-meets-James-Bond-meets-Beatlemania plot, in which Ringo, wearing a sacrificial ruby ring as big as the Ritz, is pursued by a homicidal sheik named Clang (Leo McKern), whose ragtag band of henchmen are operating “undercover” in London, now plays like a funky ’60s mash-up of the Marx Brothers and al-Qaeda.
A lot of comedies from the mid-to-late-1960s don’t age well — they’re atrociously lit, with a pace that now seems dead sluggish — but Help!, directed by Richard Lester with his compulsively flip TV-commercial velocity, is never less than breezy; it wears its irreverence lightly, like a good Peter Sellers movie or almost any Monty Python sketch. I confess that my deep-dish nostalgia for it overwhelms all good sense. Yet for those of us who love it (is there anyone else out there?), the secret of Help! is that the goofier the film’s deranged cartoon hysteria gets, the more it becomes an almost touchingly absurd counterpoint to the eager rapture of the Beatles’ songs, showcased in the early-music-video form that Lester more or less invented. If you boil out the silliness, the film’s true, eternal subject is the Beatles’ faces: the moony beauty of those pasty round mop-topped mugs, and the sheer happiness that comes over them when they’re singing. Just take a look at this clip, always my favorite number from Help!, and check out the elegant relaxed cheekiness of the staging and editing (Ringo and his tambourine!), and the magic of John Lennon’s expressions — the sly joy he takes in singing even one of his most melancholy songs: