Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
|Title:||Help!: The Beatles (1965)|
MPI - Stop worrying! HELP! is on the way!
Help!, the follow-up film to the Beatles' fantastically successful A Hard Day's Night, is a fun-filled adventure that takes us back to a simpler era - a time when the Beatles and a whole generation took themselves less seriously. And now, the film that provided the soundtrack to many of our own lives and times has been newly remastered, along with the eight minutes of rare bonus footage.
Help! follows the Fab Four on a worldwide jaunt around the globe. When a fan sends Ringo an ancient sacrificial ring that becomes struck on his finger, he becomes targeted by a group of hilariously obsessed oriental mystics, as well as an ambitious scientist who has his own plans for the ring. On the run, the Beatles are chased from London to the Swiss Alps to the Bahamas, outwitting their pursuers, singing great songs and having a ball.
As an added bonus, the Help! digital video disc comes from a fully restored print made from the film's original color negative, and includes the original theatrical trailer, two newsreels, silent footage of the film set and the world premiere, still photos and posters set to original radio ads, and an open radio interview that allows for a friendly "chat" with the Beatles.
|Cast:||John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Leo McKern, Eleanor Bron|
|DVD:||Standard 1.33:1; audio English Digital Stereo, Spanish & French Digital Mono; subtitles English, Spanish, French; single sided - single layered; 17 chapters; rated G; 90 min.; $24.98; street date 11/14/97.|
|Purchase:||DVD | The Beatles DVD Collector's Set|
And now my life has changed in oh so many ways: I first saw Help! back in late 1980, back when I was only 13 years old but I was a major Beatles fan. (Actually, it was about twenty years ago - well, not today, but around this time - that I began my fascination with the band.) Help! ran as a special midnight showing at a local theater.
To me, this was a BIG DEAL. We now take for granted the easy availability of movies on all sorts of home video formats, but in 1980, it wasn't quite so simple. Sure, VHS and Beta were out there, but they had not yet reached a price level that was readily affordable for the average consumer, and the amount of software available was pretty limited. The same was true for other formats like laserdisc.
So as a 13 year old in 1980, I either took in the rare theatrical screening of a Beatles picture or I hoped for the even-rarer TV showings. How desperate a situation was this at the time? Well, in the summer of 1980, my family spent some time in Minnesota for my grandparents' fiftieth wedding anniversary. During the week or so we were there, a local drive-in ran a triple feature of FM, The Buddy Holly Story, and Let It Be. My father knew how much this meant to me, so he was kind enough to take me to the showing. Of course, Let It Be ran last, and since the FIRST movie (FM) didn't start until about 9 PM, that meant the Beatles wouldn't hit the screen until around 1 AM. My luck being rather poor, we experienced a massive hail storm midway through Let It Be and they had to stop the film for a while. Dammit, I wasn't to be dissuaded that easily, so my Dad and I and one other car stuck it out all the way until it ended.
Of course, everything is different now. (Well, sort of - Let It Be has been out of print in any video format for about fifteen years - I might have to head back to Minnesota if I want to check it out again...) Other than Let It Be and also-long-out-of-print Yellow Submarine, I can absorb Beatles videos to my heart's delight. A Hard Day's Night, Help!, Magical Mystery Tour - all movies I went way out of my way to see as a kid - can be viewed whenever I'd like. And let's not forget all of the stuff I never dreamed of when I was a kid: do you know exactly how many people I would have gladly killed for a copy of the 10 hour Beatles Anthology?
While I'm still quite fond of them, I'm not nearly the Beatles fanatic that I was twenty years ago. Still, a certain feeling of joy comes over me whenever I watch something of theirs on home video, since I recognize just how much the 13 year old me would have delighted in the material.
Of course, some vague nostalgic glee won't keep me interested in the material. Back then, I was just so damned happy to see the films that it wouldn't have mattered if they were any good; that ain't the case now. So how does Help! hold up?
Decently, I'd say. It was never the greatest film to begin with, as it couldn't live up to the high standards set with A Hard Day's Night. Help! tried to have its cake and eat it, too, as it attempted to replicate the glibness of the earlier film but also expanded the film to include an actual story and make a spoof of the James Bond films.
As a comedy, Help! works on an intermittent basis. It's never as funny or clever as its predecessor, and the humor frequently seems forced. Still, it offers some good bits, such as a villain who emulates Odd Job from Goldfinger with a coonskin cap, and even the weakest parts aren't terrible. Actually, the film seems to improve as it goes along; I definitely preferred the second half to the first. It appeared that everyone stopped trying quite so hard to be all things to all people and relaxed to some degree.
As in A Hard Day's Night, the Beatles essentially play stereotypical versions of themselves. John and (especially) Ringo received the best reception in the first film, so they carry most of the load during Help!; Paul and George aren't left with a lot to do.
Actually, that latter point is what's mainly wrong with Help!: there's too much emphasis on story and supporting characters and not enough footage of the Beatles being "themselves". Unlike the first film, they all seem somewhat disconnected from each other here, so while we still get the witty banter, it comes across more as lines read from a page. The supporting characters play much more prominent roles than they had in A Hard Day's Night; at times, it seems like the Beatles are the support, not the other way around.
It's still a fun movie, though. The film throws out so much comedic material during its 90 minutes that some of it had to stick, so Help! offers enough entertainment to remain worth watching. Plus, it's always nice just to watch the Beatles play, even if they're lip-synching.
MPI have offered up probably the best home video rendition of Help! to date, as it appears to include all of the material of Criterion's old laserdisc at about one-third the price. The picture quality of the movie is probably the DVD's weakest aspect. It's tremendously inconsistent; at times it seems sharp, with rich colors and nice definition, but at others, the image seems extremely soft and slightly washed out. Print defects pop up semi-frequently, though not at a horrendous rate. I have the feeling that most of the problems with the image are due to the source material. Anyway, the movie never stops being watchable, but the inconsistency is frustrating.
The mainly mono soundtrack also suffers from some erratic qualities, though not to the degree of the image. For the most part, dialogue, effects, and the film's score sound a little flat and harsh but are acceptable given the age of the movie. Every once in a while, the audio deteriorates and seems excessively distorted, but those occasions are rare.
The one thing that elevates the movie's audio up to a "C+" rating is the remastering of the Beatles' songs. When these appear, they're in full stereo, and they sound terrific; had these been in the same condition as the rest of the movie's audio, I would have given it a "C-." This sound boost comes at a price, however: it appears that some dialogue and effects from the original film have been given the boot because of the remastered songs. For example, during the climax, the title song runs. We see various characters speak to each other, but we don't hear what they say. I can't say for certain that the original film ran that way, since I don't own any other copy of Help!, but it sure looks like some audio is missing. Is this alteration worth the improvement in the sound? I think so - face it, you're not really missing much in these instances - but others surely will disagree. It would have been nice if an alternate soundtrack had been provided.
Speaking of alternatives, the film's subtitles deserve special comment because they appear to be terrible. From time to time I flipped on the English subtitles, and they omitted very large chunks of the dialogue. Some omissions were inevitable, because many scenes in the film include overlapping dialogue that would be difficult to present within the time available, but Help! loses entire sentences and ends others very abruptly. Since I don't need them, I don't study subtitles religiously, but I imagine these are some of the worst.
Other than that, the Help! DVD does quite well for itself. It features surprisingly robust supplements. No one will mistake this for a New Line extravaganza, but it offers much more than I would have expected. Of most interest is a brief interview (about three minutes) with director Richard Lester that is followed by his short Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film. The latter has attained something of a legendary status among Beatles fans, since we've all heard about it many times but few have actually seen it; the eleven minute picture has widely been cited as the reason the Beatles wanted Lester to do A Hard Day's Night.
Legendary it may be, but boy does it suck! It's one of those "yeah, it might have been funny at the time but it sure doesn't work now" pieces. Although it features some prodigious talent - as well as Lester, it includes Peter Sellers - it has not aged well, and is watchable solely as a historical curiosity. Barely watchable at that, for not only does the movie itself lack much entertainment value, the print looks and sounds horrible; I have home movies from when I was three that are in better shape. Still, while I found it to be a disappointment, I'm very happy that MPI saw fit to include it.
The interview and the film pop up in a fairly perfunctory cast and crew biographies section. In addition to that, we get a trailer for the film, as well as a trailer for A Hard Day's Night and promos for three other Beatles DVDs. Finally, the DVD includes some entertaining newsreel clips of the Beatles and some behind the scenes footage from the film; the latter is silent but offers a number of Help! radio promotional spots on top of it. Not a tremendously comprehensive collection, but a decent one, nonetheless.
Help! hasn't aged quite as well as A Hard Day's Night, but it still offers some solid entertainment for Beatles fans. For all of its faults, it remains a fun film that gives us a not-so-candid look at a great band in their prime.