March 2008 Issue
Help! is Here
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum celebrates the Beatles on screen.
Lennon's guitar is on exhibit at the Rock Hall
George Harrison's ski boots
The "Help!" exhibit includes photographs shot on location.
Teens scream at the movie's 1965 premiere and theater posters
The Beatles’ second motion picture, “Help!” is known for its zany comedy filled with James Bond-like costumes and capers, memorable songs and big-screen close-ups of the most famous pop combo the world has ever known.
But beneath all the silliness lay a sobering reality, as described by John Lennon in a 1980 interview for Playboy magazine. “The whole Beatle thing was beyond comprehension,” Lennon said, “and I was dissatisfied with myself, grossly overweight, eating and drinking like a pig. …
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, [the title song] was my subconscious cry for help.”
That revelation is just one facet of the film waiting to be explored at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland through September 1 in an exhibit launched to coincide with a new DVD release of the 1965 movie.
Looking back, Lennon’s anguish was understandable given the whirling dervish his life had become. In little over a year, the Beatles had taken the globe by storm while adhering to a grueling tour schedule, composing four albums’ worth of chart-toppers, and starring in their groundbreaking first movie, “A Hard Day’s Night,” widely acclaimed as the predecessor of today’s music video.
“The title song for ‘Help!’ was truly a cry from [Lennon’s] soul,” says Jim Henke, the Rock Hall’s vice president of exhibitions and curatorial affairs, who adds that the plot, combined with the score –– which also includes the classic “Ticket to Ride,” “I Need You” and “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” — make for an unusual juxtaposition. “Most of the songs in the film are relatively serious, not a bunch of silly songs for a silly movie.”
But it all works, and the wacky story line remains untarnished by time. In the Eastern temple of the goddess Kali, a human sacrifice is about to take place. The proceedings are put on hold, however, when it’s discovered that the victim is not wearing the sacrificial ring essential to the ritual. The chase is on when the bad guys learn that the crucial trinket is affixed to Ringo’s hand on the other side of the world.
The film, which took three months to complete, was shot in a variety of locales, capturing the globe-trotting Beatles skiing the Austrian Alps, frolicking on the sand in the Bahamas and rehearsing on Great Britain’s Salisbury Plain with Stonehenge as a backdrop.
“They were naturals on the screen,” says Bob Spitz, author of the 2005 biography, The Beatles, by phone from his home in Connecticut. “They were charming, yet not self-possessed. They gave themselves up entirely to the medium and looked good on screen.”
As it did back then with everything Beatles, the public enthusiastically embraced the group’s latest release. But, as the Rock Hall exhibit illustrates, the film received a lukewarm reception from critics. “‘Help!’ in short, is a Beatle production, rather than a Beatle movie,” wrote Time magazine after the motion picture’s summer premiere. “It must have cost, as the British say, a packet. It will certainly make, as the Americans say, a bundle.”
Spitz is not surprised by the jab. “What we have,” he says, “really isn’t the greatest film in the world. But it’s one of greatest soundtracks ever made.
“The music represents a real turning point for the Beatles artistically,” Spitz explains. “It was an upgrading. They had stopped, for the most part, doing ‘I love-her-she-loves-me-yeah-yeah-yeah’ songs, and had turned from lovable moptops into real musical artists. They created a new sound we had never heard come out of a rock group before.”
To complement the daily screenings of “Help!” at the Rock Hall, a range of artifacts is also showcased, including movie premiere ticket stubs and theater posters in French, Italian and Polish; shooting schedules (the Beatles hated the fact that they often had to rise before noon to get to the set), scripts (initial suggestions for the film’s title included “Beatles Two” and “Eight Arms to Hold You”); handwritten lyrics; and Lennon’s 1964 Gibson J 160E acoustic guitar.
“Seeing these four icons of our culture never gets tiring,” says Spitz. “Even when the jokes are lame, what we really enjoy most about the movie is the Beatles themselves.”