Director – Richard Lester, Screenplay – Marc Behm & Charles Wood, Story – Marc Behm, Producer – Walter Shenson, Photography – David Watkin, Music – Ken Thorne, Songs – The Beatles, Special Effects – Cliff Richardson, Art Direction – Ray Pimm. Production Company – Walter Shenson Films/Subafilms.
Ringo Starr (Himself), John Lennon (Himself), Paul McCartney (Himself), George Harrison (Himself), Leo McKern (Clang), Eleanor Bron (Ahme), Roy Kinnear (Algernon), Victor Spinetti (Foot), Patrick Cargill (Superintendant)
In India, Clang, the High Priest of the cult of Kali, is about to conduct a human sacrifice when it is discovered the ring the victim must wear is missing. The ring is currently in the possession of Ringo Starr of The Beatles. Clang heads to England, where he makes numerous attempts to snatch the ring back from Ringo. A madcap chase ensues between Kali cultists, Beatles fans and scientists.
Help! was the second Beatles film, made after the success of the trend-setting A Hard Day’s Night (1964). Here The Beatles again team with director Richard Lester and Help! emulates much the same formula as A Hard Day’s Night – no real plot, just a series of picaresque ramblings designed to highlight the clowning hijinks of The Fab Four.
As with most filmic attempts to repeat a successful formula, Help! plays what went before up to a level that mistakes bigger for better – thus the amiably offhand silliness of the first film has become outrightly surreal absurdity. There is even less plot and nothing that connects the songs together in any way. Richard Lester regards the film as a free-for-all – thrown into the pot are crazed Eastern cultists and mad scientists; side-trips to the Swiss Alps, a battlefield, The Bahamas and Buckingham Palace; Paul is briefly shrunken to miniature size; Ringo is imprisoned with a lion but the others calm it by humming Beethoven; the four live in a flat with four separate entrances all leading to one giant living room where they live and sleep – they have separate telephones to call each other’s beds several feet away. Things end in a fight between every character in the film who all end up together on the same beach in The Bahamas.
The film is trying to be Swinging Sixties Silliness but today seems just silly. The main raison d’etre for the film, as with A Hard Day’s Night, appears to be to indulge the Fab Four’s predilection for Three Stooges-like tomfoolery. (Apparently, the Four were stoned throughout much of shooting and the reasons for the various locations are that they asked for them to be written in as an excuse to go on holiday).
In many ways, Help! is exactly like Elvis’s films – set around a handful of songs and the rest designed to show the star(s) having fun, womanising, being silly and singing the occasional song. They are home movies designed for the fan’s slavishness and the star’s indulgence. The result is a bad film, no two ways about it. If Help! did not predate the disillusionment The Beatles felt after their brief dabble with Eastern mysticism, one might think that the hideously jingoistic plot had been construed as revenge. Even so George Harrison, who embraced Hare Krishna in later years, must have found this an embarrassment.
The Beatles later lent their likenesses to the delightful psychedelic animated film Yellow Submarine (1968). Perhaps the strangest film put out in their name was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978), a flop gonzo musical that tried to tell a story based around their double-album with their parts being played by Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees. Individually, The Beatles have dabbled with genre films upon a number of other occasions:– Paul McCartney wrote and sang the famous theme song for the Bond film Live and Let Die (1973); John Lennon acted as a Cockney infantryman in Richard Lester’s absurdist WWI black comedy How I Won the War (1967); Ringo Starr produced and starred as Merlin the Magician in the genre spoof Son of Dracula (1974) as well as starred in the prehistory spoof Caveman (1981) and narrated the first two seasons of Thomas the Tank Engine tv series (1984– ); and George Harrison formed Handmade Films in the 1970s and has executive produced the likes of Monty Python’s The Life of Brian (1979), Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1981), the British boys hero spoof Bullshot (1983), the bizarre Nicolas Roeg and Dennis Potter collaboration Track 29 (1988) and the hilarious black comedy How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989).
Director Richard Lester returned to genre material on several occasions with Mouse on the Moon (1963) wherein the world’s smallest country launches an expedition to The Moon; the absurdist WWI black comedy How I Won the War (1967); the post-holocaust absurdist comedy The Bed Sitting Room (1969); and Superman II (1980) and Superman III (1983).