Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Beatles- Help wanted

"My dear girl... there are some things that just aren't done, such as drinking Dom Perignon '53 above the temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit. That's just as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs!"

That's James Bond, quipping in Goldfinger (1964). But years before McCartney would go on to write the theme for a Bond film, the Fabs would show unrequited love back to the U.K.'s favorite spy in their second feature film, Help! (1965), which is only now back in print after a long absence.

The problem was that while Sean Connery (and later Roger Moore, my own favorite Bond actor) played the role to a T as a suave action men, the Fabs were essentially the same charming whip-smart lads from their first feature, A Hard Day's Night (from the previous year). That mockumentary took us through what was supposed to be their hectic lives and while it didn't find them stretching themselves too much as actors, they gleefully obliged at being themselves. That's probably why it'll always be their quintessential film.

Though they're paired up with AHDN director Richard Lester again in Help!, they're not really in their element there. A lot of the time, they act like they're almost too clever for the movie's goofy conceits. Basically, Ringo is chased around by an Indian cult which wants to sacrifice him for the big ruby ring he's got on. Plot and character development are beside the point as the boys romp around the Swiss Alps, the Bahamas, Buckingham Palace and other locales to escape (though note that in the beginning, they all live in a communal pad of wonders much like the Monkees would later have).

For an action-comedy, it's not a total flop. It's actually got some of the hip parody elements of the original Casino Royale film (the 1967 version) even if Help! has Englishmen with bad accents playing villainous, stereotyped Indians and a mad scientist chasing them around too (played by Victor Spinetti, who also appeared in AHDN and later in Magical Mystery Tour). On the plus side, there's some genuine slapstick stuff that Airplane creators Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker (and Monty Python) would appreciate, including snowmen attacking the boys, the Queen's guard getting accidentally gassed, a massive sing-a-long to stop a tiger, a ridiculous fight scene at the end and cheeky captions throughout the movie.

Most of all, beyond the obvious wit and panache of our heroes, there was also their indelible tunes, including the title song (which Lennon later reckoned was a real cry for help), the lovely, Dylanesque "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" and "Ticket to Ride," which they all lip synch as mini-videos within the movie. Their songs are played otherwise as incidental music by orchestras, brass bands and Indian musicians. For the latter, Harrison supposedly picked up a jones for the sitar, setting up an early link of the Western phenom of "world music." It's also interesting to note how much classical music they appropriate here- the tiger's lulled by Beethoven's "Ode To Joy," a battle scene ends with Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," a theme from Wagner (Lohengrin I believe) is heard in another fight scene and the film ends with the lads hamming it up over Rossini's overture for "Barber of Seville." Alex Ross would be proud...

But luckily, they wouldn't go on to keep making silly genre pics, just as Elvis was doing at the same time. They were shifting along quickly from pop art to art pop within a year. Compare the arty, surreal video that they did for "Strawberry Fields Forever" as well as the experimental flop Magical Mystery Tour (which also had its share of stunning mini-videos buried within it).

And though they kept nursing an interest in film, along with a handful of other interesting videos still waiting to be collected, their output otherwise was giving their blessing to the Yellow Submarine cartoon (1968) and documenting their demise in Let It Be (1970). Like Help!, both of these have been E-Bay fodder for a long time, waiting to be widely available again to complete the Beatles' celluloid legacy.


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