A Hard Day’s Night looms large in the legacy of the Beatles. Usually described as the best album of their early years, it represented a seismic shift in their approach to making albums, composed entirely of Lennon-McCartney originals. The film it soundtracked has become a classic as well; Roger Ebert included it in his list of The Great Movies, it has been reissued by the Criterion Collection, and Time listed it as one of the 100 greatest movies of all time. In the popular imagination, it represents the Beatles’ early period better than perhaps any other document: fun, freewheeling, and joyous.
By contrast, Help!, the Beatles’ film follow-up to A Hard Day’s Night, has gained the reputation as fun but underwhelming and is generally considered an afterthought when discussing their legacy. The soundtrack album has enjoyed continued popularity, containing as it does the energetic title track and the immortal “Yesterday” (sadly not featured in the film). It also lives on as a document of a band in transition, moving towards more mature songwriting, a process that would result in Rubber Soul the following year. But the movie itself has missed out on this continued popularity.
To be fair, Help! didn’t have a chance to capture the lightning-in-a-bottle magic of A Hard Day’s Night and, to its credit, it doesn’t really try to. Instead of the black and white, borderline plotless coolness of its predecessor, Help! is a vibrant, colorful romp through a madcap plot that sees a religious cult (based on the same Thuggee cult that serves as the antagonists of Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom) attempting to steal a sacrificial ring from Ringo, who also runs afoul of a pair of bumbling scientists who are also attempting to get the ring in order to “rule the world.” Help! is at once more ambitious than A Hard Day’s Night and less successful in realizing that ambition. There are several attempts to parody the Bond films of the ’60s that only serve to make the film feel dated. The musical sequences remain excellent, but unlike the previous movie, there’s no attempt to integrate most of them into the story.
The best moments of Help! have little or nothing to do with the plot and instead just focus on the Beatles and returning director Richard Lester having fun. As the Beatles’ primary film collaborator, Lester has a lot of skill with executing visual gags and assorted bits of nonsense. The opening credit sequence, which features black and white footage of the band playing the title song, is interrupted by colored darts being thrown onto the screen, revealing other characters watching the sequence. When the Beatles arrive at home at the beginning of the movie, they open the doors to four separate houses only to reveal that they have been combined into a single house that resembles a ’60s version of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. The cult’s initial attempts to steal the ring have the rhythms of classic Looney Tunes and Three Stooges bits (such as when they saw through the floor under Ringo’s drum set at the end of the “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl” sequence). And perhaps most strikingly, a mishap with a shrinking potion results in Paul having to dodge hazards on the micro level.
Help! ended up being something of a fascinating dead end for the Beatles. They continued to make movies, but they never really made a “true” Beatles movie again: Magical Mystery Tour ended up as a television special, Yellow Submarine notably doesn’t feature the voices of the Beatles, and Let It Be was a documentary that captured the group in the process of fracturing. In a strange way, Help! presaged the future of the Beatles: they would move to India and practice Transcendental Meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and toward the end of their run as a group, they would grow facial hair that heavily resembles the disguises they wear here. This movie, then, represents the last gasp of the Beatles as symbols of pure fun.