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The Beatles - HELP! Print E-mail
Saturday, 01 December 2007
format:    DVD (Dolby Digital 5.1)
performance:    10
sound:    10
released:    2007
label:    Apple
reviewer:    K L Poore

ImageAnd now for something (nearly) completely different.

It's the friggin' Beatles, it's one of my favorite movies of all time fully restored, and its songs have been mixed into 5.1. What do you think I'm gonna say, “Wait for the version they can beam directly into your brain?” It's wonderful. I've watched it at least once a day for the last week. I'm stoked.

At this point I'm going to take a break and wait for you to get back from your local super-mega-greed-mart with your copy. Okay, now watch it. This is not a request, and it is not optional.

Good. Now, while you're sitting there stupefied by its magnificence, I'm going to toss some random thoughts that I have about HELP! at you. Why this approach? Because I realize there's a million Beatles experts and billions of words written about the lads from Liverpool, so the only thing new I can possibly add to this mountain of information is my take on things.

From the day it was born, July 29th, 1965, HELP! was the ugly step sister to A Hard Day's Night. When that film arrived the reviewers went into a self-flagellating frenzy and crawled all over themselves with “look how hip I am” declarations about how Ringo was the new Charlie Chaplin or the like (luckily no one promoted John as the new Jesus). And although HELP! was greeted with enthusiasm, and polite applause, the papers were filled with semi-critical helpless wonder. They just didn't get it. The establishment was perplexed. And the course of pop culture was rerouted.

I see HELP! as a clearly identifiable traffic sign warning people that the counterculture side street called the '60s (in actuality the late '60s) was just ahead. A lot of folks were ready for a change, veered gladly down that road, attempted to avoid the speed bumps, and came out the other end with a… well, they came out the other end. Everyone else seemed to vote for Nixon. The newly restored two-DVD HELP! supports this supposition whole-heartedly (except maybe the Nixon part). The color has been restored to its vivid pop art splendor so you can now actually see how the sets and costume design are virtually standing at the edge of the coming psychedelic era (or as John may have written, “the age of aquarium”). The Beatles music itself hints at what's next on their agenda, Rubber Soul, which many believe to be the dividing point of the '60s. And the film, with its blend of irreverent and subversive humor, thumbs its nose at “the man” while clearly setting the stage for the arrival of the Beatles of comedy, Monty Python.

Color? Just focusing on Eleanor Bron's costumes throughout will dazzle you. A shocking pink number, a stark white vinyl thingy, a veiled green Indian sari, they jump off the screen at you. And while you are checking out the blues and greens and reds in the Beatles' “flat” please note when director Richard Lester pushes in on the chattering lawnmower teeth … the contrasting red and green forces a laugh out of you before you realize what's happening. And the whirl of colors in the opening sacrifice scene? Brilliant.

The music? “Help!” “Ticket to Ride.” “You're Going to Lose that Girl.” “You've Got to Hide Your Love Away.” It is easily Lennon's film as far as the music's concerned, and represents a few of his greatest contributions to the Beatles. McCartney's the primary writer on “Another Girl” and George contributes “I Need You” but it is John's songs which carry the weight of the movie. And they also pull back the curtain to reveal John's love of Dylan and tea, especially on “You've Got to Hide Your Love Away.” The jangling acoustic guitar (stark and startling in the rear channel) is Dylanesque in its power and simplicity and I often speculate, in my strange little world, that John was singing about a green leafy substance. When you're under the kind of pressure the Beatles were at the time I figure he had to find his “love” where he could. John looks somewhat “weighty” in the film, almost bloated in some scenes, and I wonder if he'd been craving a lot of sweets at the time. His songs had become both personal and obfuscating and I can't think of two words, when combined, which more clearly define the music of Bob Dylan.

Humor? Wild, inventive, and imitated to this day. The quick cuts. Irreverent quips. Self reference. Non-sequitors. Dick Lester and writer Charles Wood took the building blocks of the Goon Show and Beyond the Fringe and created a whole new language for film comedy. Like the hundreds of parody comedies that followed, including Airplane! (note the exclamation point), Scary Movie, and a string of National Lampoon Presents monstrosities, HELP! takes the day's popular genre, in this case the spy movie craze, tears it apart and reassembles it and forces you to laugh at the absurdity of it all. And it's no small detail that the fools of HELP! are represented by organized religion, the government and experts.

The disrespect starts in immediately when, after the sacred ring is determined to be missing, a henchman throws in the aside, “Has nobody looked in the washbasin?” and continues through the entire length of the film. Whether directed at Scotland Yard (“The Great Train Robbery, how's that going?”) or scientists and their preoccupation with good English plugs, HELP! shines its light on the failures of the old guard. And when the baddies are filling the tunnel beneath Salisbury Plain with dynamite and the lead box reads “equal to exactly one millionth of all the high explosive exploded during one week of the second world war,” you know where the film's heart truly lies. Silliness is not insanity. War is insane. Society is insane. Mankind is both. (A theme that would be expanded on later in Lester's How I Won the War.)

You'd think the Beatles would have seen the film as a corollary of the
world they were in, with them as the eye of a hurricane of lunacy, but that wasn't the case because in the years following its release John said they didn't really understand what HELP! was about. George obviously got the joke later because he put up the money for Monty Python's Life of Brian merely because he wanted to see the movie when it was done.

And when it comes to Monty Python, HELP!, and particularly Lester's direction, are very chicken and egg. Lester was spurred on by the wonderful Ealing comedies of the '50s, to which he added the concept of a laugh for laughter's sake and a non-linear approach that was later raised to its highest level by the Pythons.

Lennon and his self reverential promo for Spaniard in the Works, the silly monkey on a string intermission and the long distance swimmer (Mal Evans, by the way, for you Beatles trivialists) will all be hallmarks of Monty Python's Flying Circus at the end of the decade, and will be imitated by every zany band for the next 40 years from the preprocessed (think Monkees) to the modernist (think Tenacious D).

HELP! is a manic, swirling, collage of color, wordplay and music and I love it. And even though I originally bought this new double DVD version merely to get the songs in 5.1, I'm really happy I have the movie in its original form. And speaking of the music, it's time for …

Wow. Hearing the music mixed like this allows you to discover things you couldn't have before, even with fantastic ears, an audiophile stereo pressing, and the best headphones. When the opening credits version of HELP! came barreling out of my home theater system and I heard John's quasi-angry, verge of cracking, voice fill my living room I nearly crapped with joy. And then to hear the tone in George's guitar, the tight smack of Ringo's snare, and the stuttering majesty of Paul's Hofner bass -- Heaven baby, heaven.

Listening to the seven songs on the DVD is surely as close as you can get to being in the Abbey Road studios as the songs were being recorded, and not in a Beatlemania, incredibly stunning re-creation way. I swear now, before Kaili and all those other gods, that I will once again buy every damn Beatles release if they'll mix them into 5.1. I swear it.

Other highlights you'll discover in listening:
The low E string on Paul's bass sounds a bit out of tune on “You're Going to Lose That Girl,” and I'd never really noticed how the song is a maze of contrasting instruments literally held together by the vocals.

The acoustic guitars on “You've Got to Hide Your Love Away” kind of roll into existence in the rear speakers and the reverb on John's voice gives him a kind of detached, otherworldly sound and positioning which it turn gives the song an overriding sense of sadness.

Ringo's drums are impeccably recorded on “Ticket to Ride,” something lost on all previous recordings, and his playing is as fine an example of his genius as you'll find. After listening to their harmonies on this, if the Eagles were in the room I'm certain they would decided that a serious practice session was in order.

All of the momentum in George's “I Need You” comes from Paul's bass line and the distance between “I Need You” and “Something” seems even greater than that between “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

I do have a bone to pick with this latest version of HELP! There's very little of the soundtrack, besides music and some effects, in the rear speakers (or if there is it's mixed so far back I can't really hear it. This lends itself to what periodically feels like jumps between surround sound and stereo and I wish there was at least some room tone or something being fed through.

Overall I believe song mixer Guy Massey has done a real service to the songs of HELP!, and once again I command you to pick it up. And now Part Three, later that evening…

Extra Features
The second DVD holds all of the extras, including “The Beatles in Help!,” a 30-minute making-of documentary, “A Missing Scene,” a short doc on “The Restoration of Help!,” and reminiscences from the cast and crew on “Memories of Help!”

Beware! (Wow - I get to use my own exclamation point.) “A Missing Scene” is not actually a missing scene but a discussion of a scene that was intended for the film and not used. I was very excited about the thought of a missing scene and felt a trifle let down when it never arrived.
The documentaries are informative and fun but nothing makes them extraordinary. Richard Lester seems the same these 40-some odd years later, and I wish he'd make another movie.

There are three theatrical trailers included (one in Spanish) and I wish they had more to choose from because they're not all that great. There are a few radio spots for 1965 hidden in Easter eggs in the menus, and upon discovering and listening to them you realize how innocent (advertising-wise) those days were.

The set comes with a nice 16-page full color booklet with an appreciation scribed by Martin Scorsese, and it seems he feels the same as I do about HELP! And upon watching this movie seven times in seven days I know I still feel the same way he does. I've realized that its effect upon me is as profound as any book I've read or any film I've watched. This review is also dedicated to Elias Howe who patented the sewing machine in 1845.

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