Saturday, January 5, 2008

Eight Arms to Hold You

[I just posted this over at my film blog, but I'm posting it here as well since it might have some interest to Electric Sailor readers...]

Help! is a very, very odd film, but one-of-a-kind in the best of ways. It is the Beatles' second, and the last big production with their full involvement. American Richard Lester had directed their prior hit, A Hard Day's Night, and had made that film a quasi-documentary about their life in and out of hotel rooms, clubs, trains, cars, and concert halls (with one liberating moment in the open daylight, set to "Can't Buy Me Love"). When he was asked to do a follow-up, every bit the quickie as the former film--since the Beatles might be just a temporary fad--his own artistic restlessness led him to make not a carbon copy but a completely opposite work. A Hard Day's Night is cinéma-vérité, loose, rough around the edges, realistic with a satirical sensibility, with a script that sounded improvised, and cinematography in stark black-and-white. Help! is in bright, beautiful, color, rigorously scripted and structured, resolutely absurdist, a piece of pop art. It is set almost entirely outdoors, whether outside Stonehenge, in the Alps, or in the Bahamas.

If A Hard Day's Night is smothered in cigarette smoke, Help! has the cannabis aroma of the Beatles' new drug of choice, recently introduced to them by Bob Dylan. The Dylan influence is even evident in "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," John Lennon's Dylan homage, and veiled ode to closeted manager Brian Epstein. While John strums that song in the band's London flat, which looks like something out of Yellow Submarine (1968), Paul leans against a bookcase with a secret panel that only reveals more books (some of them copies of In His Own Write by John Lennon), Ringo hits a tambourine from inside a pit in the floor, where sits his sunken bed, and George lounges on the couch next to Eleanor Bron, purse in her lap, ever dignified while George makes cartoonish bedroom eyes at her. Leo McKern peeks out from under a manhole, still hunting the Beatles down. It's really one of the first music videos, although that line's a blurry one as rock musicals overtook Cole Porter and Rogers & Hammerstein; in the supplements to the film's latest DVD release, Lester says that in the 80's he was sent a "scroll" pronouncing that he was the father of MTV--and he sent it back to the network demanding a blood test. But it's hard to argue that Lester wasn't brilliant at shooting the Beatles in performance. Each song in Help! sits comfortably on a velvet cushion; the plot is secondary and the music's the thing. The title song is performed by the band in traditional Ed Sullivan Show-stance, in a white room with Ringo at the famous logo-adorned drum kit, but the black-and-white is interrupted by red darts flung at the screen by the crazed cult led by McKern; sublimely, we briefly see their female human sacrifice pining on the altar like any teenage Beatles fan. (I almost wish that the brief prologue had been excised so that this would be our introduction to the color of Help!, presenting a neat transition from AHDN's B&W.) Shortly thereafter, the band steps into a mock-up of their Abbey Road studio to perform "You're Going to Lose That Girl"; the lights are dimmed, and the band sings through rapturously filmed lens flares and spotlights, singing into the mic in extreme close-up. Rather than pulling back to see the full band and the entire studio, Lester concentrates on fractioning the performance into these close-ups, as he slips in and out of focus. It's one of the most intoxicating and inspired pieces of musical filmmaking you'll ever see. But "Ticket to Ride" is the most famous sequence, a hit single performed while the Beatles literally tackle the slopes on skis. The band had never been on skis before, and Lester filmed them while they were learning--going sideways down the bunny slopes and tripping forward into the snow. The props are limited to a piano set up in the snow, which the Beatles climb into and around, but the most innovative moment comes when musical notes are projected onto telephone wires that frame the top of the screen.

There is a plot, it should be mentioned, which takes this long to describe: a cult and a duo of mad scientists are after Ringo's ring. It's an excuse for obvious gags--Rube Goldbergian plots by the cult to sever Ringo's finger, hand, or arm--and James Bond parodies and pastiches, the trend of the day. The gags, in particular the final one in which the film is dedicated to the Singer sewing machine, anticipate Monty Python's Flying Circus, although there was already a rich tradition of dry, surrealist humor in British stage, radio, and television. From the tradition comes Bron, who plays Ahme, one of the cultists who infiltrates the Beatles' inner circle; she's a gifted comic actress, but is tasked with playing it straight against the non-sequitur-spouting Fab Four, who are a bit too bizarre to be the Marx Brothers surrogates that contemporary critics envisioned. Is Ringo, as so many have asserted, the best actor of the group? Perhaps, although he's given a "type" to play in both films--the hapless schlub who doesn't understand why everything bad has to happen to him. (Worse, even his fellow Beatles try to pursuade him that he doesn't really use that ring finger very often, and could stand to miss it!) Every time I watch a Beatles film I'm impressed by John, who doesn't so much "act" as confidently deliver his sarcastic one-liners. It's the confidence that impresses me; he has none of the awkwardness of Paul and George, and convinces that this is who he really is. Which must be acting. To their credit, George allows his shirt to be ripped right off in one scene, and later Paul is shrunk straight out of his clothes, taking a nude bath in an ashtray. Teenage girls, take note.

The only real flaw in Help! is that there isn't more of their music: a whole side B is missing from the film, which includes "I've Just Seen a Face" (belatedly receiving its cinematic bow in Julie Taymor's Across the Universe), "Act Naturally," and "Yesterday." Not that "Yesterday" could really work in a film stuffed with sight gags, car chases, and bad puns. The real wonder of Help! is in the joy the film exudes. There's one moment, during a performance of "The Night Before," when Ringo shivers from the cold and then smiles widely at someone off-camera. That these couple of seconds remain in the film is no coincidence; this is what Lester was after. During the musical sequences he wanted to show the band's charisma, their real personalities, their real joy in performance, how good these songs are, and just why we love the Beatles so much. As a result, Help! and its companion film are the best possible document of the band, however fictionalized and glued to paper-thin plots. Here you can see them performing for each other, not for an auditorium filled with screaming girls who drown out their music. Shortly after this, the band would begin to tire of each other, and jealousies and bitter feelings would begin to intrude and drive them apart. Later, John would say that the song "Help!" was meant to have a slower tempo, a more serious tone; it was a song about a nervous breakdown. Instead, it's a marvelous pop song, a pinnacle of the art. Whatever the reality, the fiction of Help!--Richard Lester's Help!--is a snapshot of the band as we'd like to remember them.

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