Because my mother is a huge Beatles fan, I saw this movie a lot when I was a kid. It may look weak in comparison to "A Hard Day's Night," widely regarded as the "Citizen Kane" of rock musicals. But it's an easier film for a kid to relate to. Instead of a realistic, ironic mockumentary about the lives of rock stars, it's a harmless escapist fantasy that has precious little to do with the real Beatles. These are the Beatles of myth, the four asexual men who all live in the same house, which is supposed to pass for an automated futuristic type of home, at least to audiences in the 1960s. I suppose that as a kid I got a kick out of the idea of having a vending machine in one's own home. Somehow, I never asked myself what the advantage of that would be, and the film never does, either.
Looking back on the film as an adult, I have a hard time determining what it is I liked about it. Certainly, I can't remember laughing at any of the jokes. In fact, I was vaguely aware that most of the jokes fall flat. (In contrast, the Monkees' TV show, modeled heavily on this movie, was often quite funny.) The superintendent who does a bad Cagney imitation and inexplicably begins every sentence with the words "So this is the famous...." left me staring at the screen blankly. This is quintessential British humor, revolving heavily around people's nonchalant reactions to bizarre events. It's a brand of humor that has great potential to be funny; here, it's just strange, probably because none of the ideas are all that inspired. The idea of a tiger who likes Beethoven might have sounded good on paper, I suppose, but it doesn't come together on screen. I suppose it could have been used as the setup for a funnier joke; instead, it's used as the punchline. At least I was able to "get" that joke when I was a kid. Many of the other jokes involve references that went over my head, such as the line "It's the brain drain: his brain's draining." Those sophisticated enough to know what the brain drain is are likely to be too old to appreciate such a pedestrian pun.
The Beatles themselves do not emerge in this film as talented comic actors, to put it mildly. Their line readings are wooden, their comic timing is off, and their apparent attempts at improvisation are pathetic, as in their continual "ho ho ho"ing throughout the film. The Beatles were supposed to have been very funny on stage and in interviews, but none of that ability translates to the screen. It may not have been their fault. The characters they play are given no identifiable traits, and as a result they come off as interchangeable, except for Ringo because of his role in the plot. Instead of giving them distinct comic personas to play, the film turns them into straight-men who are the victims of a zany, insane world that's conspiring against them. This is presumably what led the real Beatles to complain that the film reduced them to "extras in (their) own movie."
So why do I have so much affection for the film? Probably because I was just sort of enchanted by the events. The movie has a lot of the types of scenes that delight kids, like the aforementioned automated house, as well as a ton of weird gadgets. The various methods in which the Beatles attempt to remove the dreaded ring from Ringo's finger is the best aspect of the film, plot-wise. It may not make me laugh, but there still is a certain pleasure in watching these scenes. Besides, I've always liked movies about Thuggees. Along with "Gunga Din," "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," and a somewhat darker film from 1988, "The Deceivers," "Help!" convinced me that Thuggees were a real group existing in modern times. How disappointed I was when I grew up and eventually learned that the actual cult was destroyed by British forces in the early nineteenth century. "Temple of Doom" at least alludes to that fact, and bases its plot on the premise that the cult has secretly survived. "Help!" never explains how Thuggees could be around in the twentieth century; you just have to accept it.
But the most obvious reason why I still like this film is the wonderful music. It actually has a better soundtrack, in my opinion, than "A Hard Day's Night." Among the songs that "Help!" popularized are not just the hits like "You're Gonna Lose That Girl," "Ticket to Ride," "You've Got to Hide Your Love," and the title song, but also lesser known tracks like "The Night Before" and "Another Girl." The earlier film appropriately focused on their dance music. The songs from this film have a greater focus on harmony and musical virtuosity.
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