Once upon a time we walked into buildings called “record stores” and bought vinyl disks with new Beatles songs on them. It’s funny, back then, it seemed as exotic as purchasing Keds. It didn’t occur to us the day would arrive when the albums stopped coming and we’d never again do something as simple and wondrous as listen to a new Beatles song.
So, ever since, when it comes to anything from these four guys, we take what we can get and we say, “thank you.” The recordings made from forgotten Lennon demos, “Real Love” and “Free As a Bird,” on the 1995 The Beatles Anthology compilation. The remixed 2003 version of their final release, Let It Be ... Naked, cleansed of Phil Spector’s orchestral embellishments. The mind-blowing mash-up created for the Cirque du Soleil show The Beatles LOVE in 2006. Thank you.
And now this pristine restoration of the band’s second cinematic outing, 1965’s Help!, just released on Blu-ray with sound so crystalline they could be playing in the next room. Thank you. The movie offers a fascinating testament to the Beatles’ magnetism. (“Just the mention of their names,” Martin Scorsese writes in the liner notes, “brings back ... something mysterious and exhilarating.”) Such was the spell they cast, a studio could’ve handed them a script pounded out by chimps on acid and pointed cameras in their general direction, and the result would’ve been timeless. Revisiting Help! after all these years, in fact, nothing suggests that wasn’t the approach taken by director Richard Lester.
Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964) was a mockumentary depicting a day in the life of the Beatles. It was fabulously successful, but one can’t crank out black-and-white, Marx Brothers-flavored mockumentaries every year. The follow-up needed at least the pretense of a story, and that’s what writers Marc Behm and Charles Wood provided.
It’s less a plot than a whiff of nonsense about an Indian death cult chasing Ringo, who’s inexplicably gotten its sacrificial ring stuck on his finger. The cult wants it back, and high priest Clang (Leo McKern) attempts repeatedly to separate the drummer from his digit, hand or arm. Oh, and something about a mad scientist.
The pursuit provides excuses to film the four horsing around in locations such as the Alps, the Bahamas and Salisbury Plain. It’s the height of silliness, and nobody knew that better than the movie’s stars, famously stoned out of their minds throughout. They understood none of that mattered, because the entire enterprise was an excuse to refine the music video, which they’d recently invented with a little help from their director. The performances, immortalized in realer-than-life Eastmancolor and now remastered in sterling 5.1 surround sound, are things of beauty.
The band’s early music is wonderful in a completely different way from their later work, and the soundtrack captures them at a pivotal stage in their evolution from simplicity to psychedelia. John’s “You’re Going to Lose That Girl” is one of the last songs of its kind they’d record, while George’s “I Need You,” with its understated guitar effects, foreshadows what’s to come.
Speaking of sounds to come — a fun fact you won’t find in the generous collection of extras is that, because the bad guys are from India, the score includes lots of hokey sitar. During a break, George Harrison picked up a prop instrument and began noodling. Lessons with Ravi Shankar followed, and, later that same year, so did Rubber Soul, complete with “Norwegian Wood,” the first pop song to feature a sitar.
The rest, as they say, is history. And the new and improved Help! deserves a place in it. Great cinema it isn’t. Great fun, great music and great company more than compensate, though. To quote the famous movie critic John Lennon at the film’s premiere: “This time there’s a story. This is a real film ... almost.”