You've got four protagonists- more or less joined at the hip- none of whom are actors. You've got to give them equal screentime and make them look good. It's a problem.
Richard Lester's solution is to treat them as if they were the Marx Brothers and give them silly things to say and do- But if the Beatles really are the Marx Brothers the question immediately arises, which one is Groucho?
It should have been Lennon, of course, because Lennon was Groucho in real life, but Lennon turns out to have a surprisingly weak screen presence. So does McCartney. Harrison does sardonic and silent but that's all. Lester has directed them once before and knows their limitations, so he gets them to deadpan in the hope that the lack of skill and experience will come off as dandified cool- which it mostly does.
Which leaves Ringo. Ringo actually has some natural acting talent. So Ringo is "the star". Sort of. It's an odd arrangement. A reversal of the natural pecking order.
So the film's a disaster? No, actually it's not. It's remarkably funny. It's a key work in the development of British comedy- coming midway between the Goons and Python. It's in the same vein of surreal silliness, displaying the same obsessions with race and class and uniforms and the end of Empire. Richard Lester had directed the Goons. George Harrison would go on to produce the Python movies. It's a marvel really that Spike Milligan doesn't turn up among the ageing, second division comics and thesps of the supporting cast.
It's too long of course. For all the inventiveness and brilliant one-liners, it's a half-hour TV special that's been stretched. But then there are the songs.
And they're the heart of the matter. We wouldn't tolerate the Beatles as actors and comedians if- well- if they weren't the Beatles. But here's an odd thing; the songs strain against the movie. The movie is stupid and the songs are not. The songs are about the things in a young man's life the movie refuses to countenance- like girls and relationships- and one of them is about a nervous breakdown. It's curious; as the Beatles' music becomes more serious and personal so the films become more cartoony. A Hard Day's Night is semi-documentary, this one is absurdist nonsense, the next one will be set in Pepperland. The best of the songs in the present set- the nervous breakdown song- even though it's also the title song- gets thrown away. Where all the others are treated as set pieces (the music vid is being invented before your very eyes) Help! gets to play as background music over the not very funny, climactic punch-up. You don't hear the lyrics because you're too busy watching people being biffed and bopped and falling in the water. And you don't need to hear them; they're too raw. There's real madness in the air- it's to do with wives and groupies and dealers and music industry sharks- and the merest tincture of it would muddy and destroy the fantasy madness on screen.
I was too young when they were released to have seen them, so my perspective doesn't properly place them in time. There are elements of them that do remind me of 'Don't Look Back' with Bob Dylan and 'Head' which featured 'The Monkees'. Since Lester's films pre-date the other two, it seems he must have crafted the genre at that time and influenced the others. I've wondered if 'Help!' was influenced by the 'Batman' US television series...
The above mentioned are far and away better than other contemporary offerings such as 'Mrs. Brown, You've Got a Lovely Daughter'.
Funny you open with this today. I caught 'United States vs. John Lennon' on television last night. I have John and Yoko on my mind this morning.
What I love about them is that they were completely formulaic and artificial. What I love about the film 'Head' is that it came from their desire to satirise their existence as something artificial. 'Head' was released as the tv series ended and didn't do well in the US. They loved it in France, however. It is a fun period piece to watch now.
Another film that is a cult classic that's fun to watch is Russ Meyer's 'Beyond the Valley of the Dolls'. The Austin Powers films borrowed heavily from it. Here's one of the trailers:
You may be right, and I've always thought I should have been born just a few years earlier. The openness and the optimism of that time cannot be paralleled.
One of the things I was liking about John Lennon in the documentary was the footage of him from around 1972 when he was saying, "Flower Power didn't work, but that doesn't mean we have to give up on the revolution". I wish he could have lived longer. He contributed so much.
Lennon is one of those people who just won't go away. He was a saint and a monster and he never stopped exploring. Even though he's been dead now for nearly 30 years he's still got urgent things to say to us.
When they burst on the U.S. scene in the sixties, everything about them was so quaint and cute, with their little mod suits and their little twee haircuts and especially their semi-unintelligible accents, that they really didn't have to do much on film to be endearing.
They looked a lot different on this side of the pond. And we didn't get as much of them in the flesh...
I had an 'almost' encounter with George Harrison and Patti Boyd Harrison, and Eric Clapton. AFter John Lennon and Yoko Ono got together, her *art happening* 'this is not here' was at the Everson. They were all here, I'm pretty sure I saw them. Of course, it was probably wishful thinking...
Yes, the Monkees (tv series) were indeed a ripoff of the Beatles movies, with quite a bit less musical talent.
I remember to this day standing in line starting at 7 a.m. to get a ticket when that movie opened in Washington, D.C. I was third in line, wearing a black and white stripped shirt a la Mick Jagger (circa 1965), a black mini skirt, patterned tights and white go-go boots. My hair and eyes looked like Jean Shrimpton's and I had a John Lennon cap on. I sat through it three times before I had to leave to catch my bus home. Still remember all the lyrics to all the songs as well!
I've never seen Help myself, though your post naturally makes me want to do so. As for the later Beatles movies, I've always thought Magical Mystery Tour was badly underrated--its amateurish quality is charming and goofy--and Let It Be has been too often called a downer when it's not. Both of those movies I think give us more of the real Beatles than Hard day's Night, and in the end I prefer them to it. I've heard good things about the Dave Clark Five's movie (Catch Me If You can, aka Having a Wild Weekend), which was directed by John Boorman, so I'll have to check that out soon too.