by Dan Schneider

I have never been a huge Beatles fan. I acknowledge them as a fine pop quartet, 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, or The Rolling Stones. 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, Richard Lester's 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 Day’s Night (also directed by Lester), which, while nowhere near great cinema, was somewhat better than this film, because 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! (1965) by contrast, is simply a bad film. One might argue that, a full generation before MTV, it is a great extended music video, with nonsensical non-musical interludes, and thus a seminal work in that genre. On those terms 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. Granted, a mad scientist and his assistant, as well as an Inspector and his crew from Scotland Yard, join in the chase. But that’s it. The film ends with the ring coming off Ringo’s finger, the boys escaping, and the rest of the cast chasing each other.

The Beatles films are often claimed as descendants of movies featuring Marx Brothers. But, love them or hate them, the Marx Brothers were simply better actors than the boys. What Beatle had the verbal panache and physical dexterity of Groucho, or could equal the nonpareil silent gags of Harpo? In fact, not only are The Beatles sub-Marx Brothers-level, but they make The Three Stooges look like comic geniuses. The Beatles’ films are simply 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.

In addition (and this would likely be deemed heresy by Fab Four enthusiasts) the Fab Four were far inferior actors and comedians to the Prefab Four. Yes, that’s right. The group of television actors that were assembled to portray a pop group, The Monkees, were far better actors and comedians than The Beatles. Of course they were not better musicians, although they were often given some very good pop songs to record. But they were actors first and musicians second. Davy Jones, for instance, the lone Brit in the Monkees and thought of as "the cute one," displayed a range of quips and reactions of sardonicism, disbelief, fear, and humor in the series episodes. Paul McCartney, by contrast, is just a piece of wood.

On the plus side, Help! serves 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. Also, the use of text across the screen (although their day-glo-like colors often wash out against the film’s 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 "Elias Howe, who, in 1846, invented the sewing machine," shows how well the film may have gone with even a bit more 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 "official" soundtrack tunes for which the boys appear in de facto videos.

The two-disc DVD, put out by Apple, the Beatles' label, is a good solid release. Disc 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 film looks like it was shot last month, not 44 years ago. Disc Two has the extras, and they are solid. There is a section called "A Missing Scene." Alas, it is just Lester speaking about the scene-- not the scene itself. There’s a featurette about the restoration process used on the film. Another featurette presents 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 itself, the DVD package could have been so much more.

Was Help! a film that had influence on the future musical scene? Of course, for it marked the beginning of the music video concept, and in retrospect, it has been far more influential, both musically and in terms of marketing (it’s essentially one long advertisement), than its predecessor, A Hard Day’s Night. But, it’s simply not as 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. So beware, if you are anything but a diehard Beatles. Help! really needs it.

©2009 Dan Schneider