I sat down last night to watch Help! on the TV, and about two minutes in I realized…I’ve never seen this movie before. I don’t know how that’s possible, but in searching my memory banks for data on this film, all I could come up with were some vague images of the lads cavorting in the snow, which I think were put there by the Beatles Anthology.
Help! is a truly odd piece of work, a combination of old-fashioned slapstick and a mid-60s proto-psychedelic sensibility. A little research revealed that it was originally written as a vehicle for Peter Sellers, whose life intersected the Beatles’ in a strange number of ways. Sellers chose to make What’s New, Pussycat? instead, and Help! was hastily rewritten for the Beatles. This is one reason why, though engagingly good-natured, it is so incoherent; another is that the Beatles were apparently stoned to the bejeezus throughout its making. Quoth John:
We were smoking marijuana for breakfast during that period. Nobody could communicate with us, it was all glazed eyes and giggling all the time. In our own world. It’s like doing nothing most of the time, but still having to rise at 7 am, so we became bored.
And quoth Ringo:
A hell of a lot of pot was being smoked while we were making the film. It was great. That helped make it a lot of fun…In one of the scenes, Victor Spinetti and Roy Kinnear are playing curling: sliding along those big stones. One of the stones has a bomb in it and we find out that it’s going to blow up, and have to run away. Well, Paul and I ran about seven miles, we ran and ran, just so we could stop and have a joint before we came back. We could have run all the way to Switzerland. If you look at pictures of us you can see a lot of red-eyed shots; they were red from the dope we were smoking. And these were those clean-cut boys! Dick Lester knew that very little would get done after lunch. In the afternoon we very seldom got past the first line of the script. We had such hysterics that no one could do anything. Dick Lester would say, ‘No, boys, could we do it again?’ It was just that we had a lot of fun — a lot of fun in those days.
That doesn’t hurt the music, which is really quite stupendous. At this time the Beatles were under the influence (in more ways than one) of Bob Dylan, whose artistic ambition inspired them to want to be more than just a pop band. Songs like “Ticket to Ride” and “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” display a tastefulness and depth that seems at odds with the goofy triviality of the movie; but then that’s the Beatles for you, innit?
(By the way, the essence of certain orchids will make you small…see also Steve Martin and the Jefferson Airplane.)