Just Another Shi**y Pop Movie?: The Beatles’ “HELP!” Turns 50 (Part 3)

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Realizing John’s songwriting pen had struck gold, the Beatles raced to Abbey Road on the evening of April 13, 1965 (after spending a long day filming, then doing a lengthy radio interview from a car in the studio parking lot — I’m telling you, their calendars were packed) and emerged with not only a massive hit single, but also the film’s official title.

“Help!” the song is arguably one of the all-time greatest Beatles singles. Its gutsy lead vocal from John, and innovative backing vocals from Paul and George (the lyrics in the backing vocals at times actually precede the lead vocals — a minor but notable twist to the formula), backed by the powerful, Ritchie Havens-like pounding of John’s acoustic rhythm guitar (a Framus 12-string), Ringo’s flawless drumming, and the jangling, descending lead guitar lines of George (played on a Gretsch Tennessean) that almost single-handedly launched everyone from the Byrds to R.E.M, combine to create something that was probably much, much better than a song called “Eight Arms To Hold You” would have been. That name was gratefully relegated to the scrap heap.

The opening title sequence where the band performs the song was filmed on April 22.

The title sequence

The title sequence, Twickenham Studios, April 22, 1965. Lennon’s 12-string acoustic heard on the actual song is replaced by a Gibson 6-string here, but the Framus can be seen in the “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” sequence later in the film.

lennonThere is an eerie, odd moment when the Beatles are in the departure lounge of Heathrow Airport (filmed at Twickenham on April 27) fleeing to the Bahamas in disguise. John’s disguise — big beard and round, wire-rimmed glasses — is exactly how he would look four years later — check the cover of 1969’s Abbey Road.

SIDE NOTE: Is Help! racist? Some modern internet reviews display a very laudable 21st-century concern that the film’s treatment of Eastern religion is, shall we say, not the most enlightened. George Harrison’s most recent biographer, Graeme Thomson, sniffs haughtily that “Help! is their least soulful, least committed project, in which alternative spirituality is mockingly played for the broadest of laughs.” Thomson may be overstating the case somewhat (and the remark was a sufficient enough irritant to the Holy Bee to inspire these blog posts.) The unnamed cult in the film does not seem to be a jibe at Hinduism, Krishnaism, or any other form of real religious worship. What they actually seem to be based on is the Thuggee, a bloodthirsty group of thieves and murderers that once terrorized the Indian subcontinent. If that’s Thomson’s idea of “alternative spirituality,” then he certainly has more issues than the film.

Lester directing Ringo and an

Lester directing Ringo and an “Indian” extra. It looks like Ringo has a 21st-century cell phone in his front pocket, but it’s a pack of cigs.

The Thuggee were also the villains in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which has had its own accusations of presenting institutionalized colonial racism as if it were acceptable. The Thuggee were definitely devotees of Kali, but unlike the demon goddess demanding blood sacrifice depicted here and in Temple of Doom, Kali is a loved and accepted (if not always benevolent) member of the pantheon of Hindu gods. In this case, I suppose both films are guilty of fostering a misapprehension.  However, this is Help!, the goofy, written-in-ten-days musical romp that’s a half-century old. Anyone expecting documentary-style accuracy on actual Hindu religious rites should look elsewhere.

And not that any religion is treated with reverence in the Help! universe. “They have to paint me red before they chop me,” Ringo patiently explains at one point. “It’s a different religion from ours. [Long pause]…I think.”

Some also decry the fact that all of the “Indians” are played by lily-white English actors. That, of course, is part of the overall joke, and the English are the butts of it. Despite their Empire being long gone, the English are so childishly pleased with themselves and their way of life that they suspect that everyone, deep down, is really just like them. (As Clang is growling instructions to the henchmen in Hindi, Bhuta looks on helplessly. “I don’t speak the language,” he admits to no one in particular. “Latin, yes, but this Eastern babble…” he concludes with a resigned shrug, like a good British public-school boy.)

In general, the film is just a mild culture clash, with the working-class Scouser/Cockney attitudes toward the “mystic East” tending more toward tolerant befuddlement or innocent cluelessness. If you’re really looking for something to be offended about, I suppose you could find it in Help!, but you’d need to put forth the effort. Keep in mind, Harrison’s and the Beatles’ sincere interest in Indian religion inspired by their work on the film did lead directly to a more educated and informed view in subsequent years.

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At some point in late April or May, the band dug out their heavy Austrian ski outfits to be photographed for the promotional materials, including the movie poster and album cover. Photographer Robert Freeman’s original intention was to have them spell out H-E-L-P with their arms in semaphore. That formation looked awkward and didn’t photograph well, so, in Freeman’s words, “we decided to improvise and ended up with the best graphic positioning of the arms.” They roughly spell out “NUJV” or “NVUJ”, depending on which version of the picture you’re looking at.

I had naturally assumed the “semaphore” photos were shot on location in Austria, but soon remembered that was almost a month before the title had been conceived. (Add to that fact that no version of the semaphore photos with an actual Austrian background can be found — they’re always superimposed onto other things: record sleeves, posters, books, etc., which indicates a later studio shoot against a blank backing. There is a brief arms-extended shot in the “Ticket To Ride” sequence that may have sparked the idea.) The official still photographer on the set of Help! was not Freeman, but Emilio Lari.

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Smoke break on Salisbury Plain. I would love to own McCartney’s outfit, but doubt I could pull it off.

The first three days of May were spent creating a visually striking sequence on the windswept Salisbury Plain with a noticably freezing, shivering band playing “I Need You” and “The Night Before.” (In the film, this was an presented as an unorthodox outdoor recording session, so that the Beatles — a national treasure — could be protected from all the nefarious forces out to do them harm by a ring of armored tanks while cutting their latest record.)

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The last few days of the shoot were spent at Cliveden House, a 19th century mansion in the Berkshire countryside, whose large, paneled rooms were a believable stand-in for the interiors of Buckingham Palace.

At Cliveden House

At Cliveden House

Practically as soon as “cut” was called on their last scene on May 11, the Beatles hit the recording studio again (in fact, they had begun the night before.) This time they turned their attention to the second half of the Help! album, the material that would not be in the film. Through May and June, the Beatles bounced between the Twickenham recording studio, doing post-sync sound work on the final cut of Help!, and their regular recording studio on Abbey Road, laying down “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” “Bad Boy,” “I’m Down,” “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” “It’s Only Love,” “Act Naturally,” and “Yesterday.” The Vox Continental organ replaced the Hohner Pianet as the keyboard flavor-of-the-week during these sessions. (The Hammond organ, mellotron, and Moog were all waiting in the wings…)

They also recorded the appropriately-titled “Wait,” which would end up on Rubber Soul later in ‘65. “If You’ve Got Trouble” and “That Means A Lot” were shit-canned, until both were resurrected for the outtake-based Anthology project in the 1990s.

help british singleOn June 20, they steeled themselves for another round of touring the world, playing the usual 30-minute inaudible shows into a maelstrom of hysterical screams. On July 23, the “Help!” single was released (backed by “I’m Down”) to whet the public’s appetite for the upcoming film and album.

Help! received a Royal Premiere at the London Pavilion in Piccadilly Circus on July 29, 1965, the same day it hit cinemas throughout Britain. The band was on a break between the European and American legs of their tour, and were able to put on their tuxes and attend. It was a box-office hit, although critics, as we’ve seen, were noticeably more lukewarm compared to the raves they gave A Hard Day’s Night.

Beatles & Beatle wives at the Help! premiere

Beatles & Beatle wives at the Help! premiere

The British and American soundtrack albums were two very different entities, following the pattern established by the A Hard Day’s Night soundtrack. In the UK, both  A Hard Day’s Night and Help! were released as proper Beatles albums, with two full sides of original music. The first side featured songs from the film, and the second side featured additional “album-only” songs. The only deviation from standard Beatles recording policy on the British soundtracks was the inclusion of singles, which ordinarily would not be included on a UK album. United Artists dictated, however, that the title song of the movie be released as a single around the same time as the movie/album release, and that the movie/album include an already-released proven hit single of recent vintage (“Can’t Buy Me Love” in the case of A Hard Day’s Night, “Ticket To Ride” for Help!).

On the American versions, only the seven songs heard in each film were included on the A Hard Day’s Night and Help! records, spread over both sides and interspersed with sections of the orchestral scores by George Martin and Ken Thorne, respectively. Kind of a rip-off, really, to be paying full album price for what was essentially a half-album of Beatles songs. In fact, the American Help! was packaged as a “deluxe” album with a gatefold sleeve, and priced $1 higher than a standard album when it hit shelves on August 13, 1965.

George Martin was not invited back to provide the score for Help!. (He says he and Lester “did not hit it off” on A Hard Day’s Night, but has never elaborated.) Lester’s choice of composer Ken Thorne to score the film is not without interest, however unwelcome his presence on a supposed Beatles album might be. His score for Help! consists mostly of orchestral and Indian re-workings of the Beatles songs “A Hard Day’s Night,” “From Me To You,” and “You Can’t Do That,” along with a few snippets of classical pieces, and, naturally, the “James Bond Theme.”

The official British album

The official British album

Here’s the track listing for the British edition of the Help! album, released on the Beatles home label, EMI’s Parlophone Records on August 6, presented as the Beatles intended:

SIDE ONE: Help!; The Night Before; You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away; I Need You; Another Girl; You’re Going To Lose That Girl; Ticket To Ride.

SIDE TWO: Act Naturally; It’s Only Love; You Like Me Too Much; Tell Me What You See; I’ve Just Seen A Face; Yesterday; Dizzy Miss Lizzy.

The Beatles’ American record label, Capitol, had a policy of re-configuring the original British releases into product more in keeping with the somewhat exploitative American sales policies. Remember, singles were almost never included on British albums (the thrifty Brits resented paying for a song twice), whereas American albums were based around hit singles. The Beatles’ Capitol albums through 1966 were greater in number and slighter in content (10-11 songs as opposed to 13-14 in the UK. Fewer songs per album + inclusion of singles = more albums compiled from the available material = more sales). The Side Two content of the British Help! was spread over a full year of Capitol releases — 1965’s Beatles VI and the American version of Rubber Soul (same title and cover, slightly different contents), and 1966’s “Yesterday”…And Today, built around McCartney’s classic ballad, which had been released as a single in the US only. (Capitol finally ended its slice-and-dice policy in 1967.)

The bastardized American version

The bastardized American version

When compact disc technology arrived, and all of Beatles albums were re-released internationally in the new format in 1987,  the British versions became the “official” canonical discography from that point, sending the old vinyl UA soundtracks and Capitol hatchet-jobs into obscurity, and the memories of the American Baby Boomers who were unknowingly swindled when they bought them.

While the Help! film and album were being gobbled up by worldwide audiences, the Beatles were grinding their way through another American tour, kicked off by their record-breaking appearance at Shea Stadium on August 15…

Getting into the Beatles as a kid growing up in the 1980s, the most noteworthy thing about Help! was its frustrating unavailability. A Hard Days Night was easily rentable on VHS, but Help! had never had a home video release, and it never turned up on television. It became a minor obsession. The pictures in my Beatles books (and in the gatefold sleeve of the American soundtrack album, which I got from a flea market in those pre-CD days) seemed so exotic and surreal — the Beatles frolicking in the snow, or performing to no one on an open, grassy plain, a red-painted Ringo standing ankle-deep in the sparkling blue Caribbean surf while wearing a tan suit, or strapped to Frankenstein-style scientific apparatus (with his pants around his knees for some reason)…how did all those random images come together?

35672I had only one option. I knew there was a tie-in novelization paperback by Al Hine (who also novelized Lester’s 1974 action thriller Juggernaut, and the TV series Bewitched.) It was only put out once, in 1965, with no reissues or reprints. How to acquire it in an era before the Internet? It turns out there were early computer networks in the 1980s. My local bookstore, The Book Faire, had a program called “Book Search,” where they would reach out to other participating bookstores across the country to find obscure titles, used or new. For a two-dollar Book Search fee on top of the purchase price ($1.75), I found myself the proud owner of Al Hine’s The Beatles in Help! — with “8 pages of exclusive photos from the movie” and a musty smell only used-book enthusiasts can appreciate. The story was laid out, putting all those random images into context. (I can’t really say it “made sense,” see the synopsis in Part 1.) There was even a lengthy sequence not included in the final film, where the Beatles work with a drama coach, a sly meta-comment on their limited acting ability. (The scene was filmed, with veteran comedian Frankie Howerd as the drama coach, but cut for time at the last minute.)  Like Lester, Hine was a Yank with an ear for British peculiarities of language and behavior. His prose captured the woolly tone of the screenplay perfectly.

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The Beatles and Frankie Howerd in a scene cut from the final version.

I can’t remember how I heard the momentous day was coming, but I did hear, somehow. Help! would be released on home video in February 1987! I marked the day on my Far Side calendar. Hine’s slender, dog-eared paperback was retired to a spot on the shelf with the other Beatles books, no longer needed. When Release Day came, I rented it and watched it three times in a row…it was everything I’d hoped it would be. How often does that happen, after years of anticipation? (It helps to be 12 years old.)

The original VHS version I rented, 1987

The original VHS version I rented, 1987

Help! has since been re-released on VHS in 1995 (which I bought), on DVD in 2007 (which I bought), and Blu-Ray in 2013 (which I still seriously consider buying.) My sons grew up on it, it being in the bedtime-viewing rotation along with the usual Pixar works and SpongeBob episodes. I will always have a spot in my heart for Help!, even if A Hard Day’s Night gets the festival revivals and film snob acclaim. So this summer, when the 50th anniversary of its release rolls around, give Help! a chance. It’s charming as hell, boasts several great Beatles songs, has a number of sequences and set-pieces artfully — even beautifully — staged and shot by Lester, some great actors (not the Beatles) giving hilarious performances, and just as many funny, quotable lines as a Monty Python or Coen Brothers movie.

“You can see in this film the germs for the type of post-modern comedy that would be built upon by the likes of Monty Python. Often Help! feels like a dry run for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and is sometimes — as in a nutty scene involving reverse hand-dryers in a bathroom; a bit where Paul is shrunk and nearly stepped-on; a machine that slows down reality but which keeps breaking — as funny and creative. The ending dedicates the film to Mr. Elias Howe, inventor of the Singer sewing machine.” (Matt Prigge, film critic for Metro US.)

“I realize, looking back, how advanced it was. It was a precursor for the Batman ‘Pow! Wow!’ on TV [in 1966] — that kind of stuff. But [Lester] never explained it to us…partly because we were smoking marijuana for breakfast during that period [and] nobody could communicate with us…it was just glazed eyes…” (John Lennon, 1980.)

Blu-Ray, 2013

Blu-Ray, 2013

It does have a 91% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes…

END NOTES:

Neither the hour-long Magical Mystery Tour nor 1968’s animated Yellow Submarine was accepted by United Artists to fulfill the final part of their three-picture deal. (Yellow Submarine was officially produced by UA, but the Beatles’ cartoon voices were provided by other actors — the “real” group did not actually appear in the film, except for a tossed-off, one-minute cameo for the end credits.) Running out of options because the band had recently called it quits, UA grudgingly took the grim 1970 documentary Let It Be, which was supposed to capture the rehearsing and staging of a spectacular concert made up of all-new material, but instead captured a bored band endlessly noodling through sub-par songs, bickering, and playing a few of the better songs on a roof. After its theatrical run and a limited VHS release that quickly went out of print, Let It Be has never been made available in any form for over thirty years.

Help! premieres in Chicago, August 25, 1965.

Help! premieres in Chicago, August 25, 1965, promoted with incredibly outdated early 1964 head shots of the band.

Twickenham Studios in southwest London was the Beatles cinematic home. Interiors for A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, and the first half of Let It Be were all filmed there, along with the promotional videos for “Hey Jude,” “Revolution,” and the aforementioned cameo for Yellow Submarine. (The only exception was Magical Mystery Tour, which was thrown together too hastily to book studio space. Interiors were filmed in a disused aircraft hanger in Kent instead.) Smaller and homier than the other British studio spaces (such as the massive Pinewood and Elstree complexes, home to the Star Wars, James Bond, and Harry Potter productions), Twickenham went bankrupt in 2012 and was almost demolished/repurposed. It was saved at the last minute.

Marc Behm continued to pay the bills with run-of-the-mill screenwriting (1982’s Hospital Massacre is not the brightest spot on his resume), but also was able to follow his true ambition and become a novelist. His most noteworthy work in that field was the acclaimed The Eye of the Beholder (1980). His 2007 obituary states that most of his other works are currently available only in French.

Charles Wood, in addition to stage plays and television plays too numerous to list, went on to write the screenplay for 2001’s Iris, the well-received biopic of writer Iris Murdoch, which resulted in an Academy Award for Jim Broadbent for Best Supporting Actor. (Eleanor Bron also had a small role in the film.)

Victor Spinetti charmed audiences through the early 2000s with his one-man show A Very Private Diary before dying of cancer in 2012.

Leo McKern and Patrick Cargill passed away in 2002 and 1996, respectively, each having long and varied careers. Eleanor Bron and John Bluthal are both, as of this writing, still very busy.

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Richard Lester followed up Help! with the film version of the Broadway musical A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Forum, and also directed some quintessential British Sixties fare such as the now-very dated sex farce The Knack…And How To Get It, the still-very relevant anti-war dark comedy How I Won The War (featuring John Lennon in a small part), and Peter Cook’s post-apocalyptic satire The Bed-Sitting Room. In the 1970s, he was responsible for the excellent The Three Musketeers and its immediate sequel The Four Musketeers, injecting a lot of Lester-esque humor, but staying fairly true to the Dumas novels, with an eye for accurate and sumptuous period details. He took over direction of 1980’s Superman II after the producers fired original director Richard Donner, and is, sadly, at least partly culpable for turning 1983’s Superman III into a goofy comedy. During the filming of 1989’s Return of the Musketeers, Roy Kinnear was killed in a horse-riding accident. Deeply shaken, Lester decided to retire after finishing the Paul McCartney concert film he had already agreed to. 1991’s Get Back remains Lester’s final film.

In 1984, MTV gave Lester a special award, crediting him with being the “Father of the Music Video.” “I gave it back immediately and demanded a paternity test,” he said of the honor.

The Beatles were never heard from again…

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3 Comments

Filed under Film & TV, Music -- 1960s

3 responses to “Just Another Shi**y Pop Movie?: The Beatles’ “HELP!” Turns 50 (Part 3)

  1. Pingback: Just Another Shi**y Pop Movie?: The Beatles’ “HELP!” Turns 50 (Part 2) | Holy Bee of Ephesus

  2. Vince M

    Great run-through of a movie I love unapologetically! My cherished DVD crapped out somehow; guess I need a new copy this month.

  3. Jason Dole

    Great stuff! A thorough run-down, review, and behind-the-scenes, thanks! May sound silly, but there’s something magical about Help! The colors, the music video sequences, and the humor are key points (the Scotland Yard scene kills me EVERY time). But another key thing here, in tandem with pop-art approach you describe, is seeing and hearing the Beatles in this moment on the cusp of psychedelia.
    Now I have to figure out who has my DVD…

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