"Help!" and the Origins of British (Stoner) Comedy Revisited - Help Week

By Timothy Dillon

The Beatles’ 1965 flick, Help! is not the greatest music film of all time. In fact, it doesn’t even make most people’s Top 10 lists of greatest rock movies of all time. Compared to A Hard Day’s Night released just a year prior, Help! lacked the realism of the band’s rise to fame and the struggles they would really deal with.

Photo courtesy of babgreeb RECORDS.

While it is no cinematic masterpiece, looking back on Help! provides for some interesting food for thought. At face value, it certainly foreshadowed some of the band’s upcoming creative left turns and helped define how their experimentation with drugs actually influenced their creative product.

The film also helped redefine both British and babyboomer comedy, paving the way for others to follow in key during the British (comedic) invasion. For those of you who don’t know the story of Help! here is a quick recap and the trailer:

The Beatles are on the run from a murderous Hindu death cult! After Ringo comes into possession of a mysterious ring, which can’t get off his finger, the group soon finds out he is being hunted down for sacrifice and must protect their beloved drummer.

And if you want to get even more heady, Help! arguably provided a visual and stylistic critique of British filmmaking up until that point. The film’s soundtrack starts off with a parody of the James Bond Theme, which could just be a slight nod to another British pop culture icon, but what makes Help! a critique is the plot: A mysterious cult and a mad scientist are pursuing a British icon for their own self-serving needs. Sound familiar?

It can even be speculated that this was the filmmakers’ response to Goldfinger, where Bond takes a jab at the Beatles saying, “My dear girl, there are some things that just aren’t done. Such as drinking Dom Pérignon ’53 above a temperature of 38° Fahrenheit. That’s as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs.”

Director Richard Lester directed both of the Beatles’ films, and while there was a lot of participation from the band on A Hard Day’s Night, there was not the same sort of collaboration on Help!. The storyline took a major departure toward the ridiculous, and really tested the limits of the band’s fame.

The two major reasons the film came out this way was due to a purposeful detachment Lester made, and the haze of marijuana use surrounding the film. Leading up to and during the filming the band members have admitted to being high and went to great lengths to prevent boredom on set.

Lester used this haze to his advantage, as this was, after all, a chase comedy, and there is nothing funnier than the stoned leading the stupid around the world.

“The movie was out of control. With A Hard Day’s Night, we had a lot of input and it was semi-realistic. But with Help!, Dick Lester didn’t tell us what it was all about. I realize, looking back, how advanced it was. It was a precursor for the Batman ‘Pow! Wow!’ on TV – that kind of stuff,” said John Lennon about the filming process.

The film was shot on location in London and in several locations throughout Southern England, in addition to the Austrian Alps, and two gorgeous islands in the Bahamas. What was perhaps the first “stoner” flick, in the end, lead to something else entirely.

Monty Python was in its earliest stages of forming when Help! was released in 1965, and set the precedent for bizarre and absurd humor to take root. A blend of British pop culture and the Marx brothers gave way to silly slapstick contrasted with dry British sarcasm and surrealism. What the Beatles and Lester didn’t understand was that by being a bunch of silly stoners not knowing what was going on amidst the chaos of the plot, they pioneered a new type of comedy altogether. And you probably thought they were only the most successful band of all time.

While this was not the first rock movie or even the best*, this was an important rock movie. It changed the rules of what a band could produce and set their music to. In addition, it also foreshadowed growing individual interests that would begin to eclipse the band’s chemistry. For instance, how George would eventually forsake Western materialism for Eastern spiritualism.

During the film’s intermission, while the rest of the group is prancing around a field, George is seen throwing flower petals at the camera, distinctly separate from the group. Let’s not forget the fact that the group is on the run from an Eastern cult worshiping a bizarre form of Hinduism. Between the eastern undertones and the floral symbolism, one could say it was inevitable the group would get more interested in that culture.

Ringo has always been scrutinized for being the weakest musician in the band, and the group always felt the need to protect him, much like they did in the film. This isn’t too eerie of an association, and it is likely that when they choose Ringo to be the human sacrifice, they had these musical criticisms in mind, but still, the subtext it there.

Indeed, Help! is still a lot of fun even after all these years. It spawned a new type of film, one where story and musical numbers were interspersed, and paved the road of the British comedy invasion and influence over the next decade.

*One man’s humble opinion.