In 1965 I was living in a magical place known as Atlantic City. Although the city remains, much of the magic is now gone. In that city was an equally magical place called Steel Pier. It was a place where horses flew from a 40 foot tower to waiting pool below; a place where you could go down in a diving bell to view the mysteries of the sea; and a place where in 1966 I saw the Rolling Stones play in a ballroom at the end of the pier, a mile out in the Atlantic Ocean.
The pier also offered a variety of stage shows, and first-run movies. The movies ran continuously and if you were the right age, and the right movie came along, you might just sit there all day and watch it over and over. That’s what happened the first time I saw Help! I’m not sure how many times my friends and I sat through it that day, but certainly enough times to leave an indelible impression on our young minds.
It was the Beatles second movie. The first, A Hard Day’s Night, had come out a year earlier and was a black & white documentary style look at the lives of the Beatles at the height of Beatlemania. Help! was very different. For a start, it was in color. Like the first film it featured the Beatles playing themselves, but this time out instead of looking at a typical day in their lives, it put them in the middle of a zany plot involving a sacred ring that, guess who, Ringo couldn’t seem to remove from his finger.
You know those great Marx brothers comedies and how they grind to halt when the musical interludes happen? When Harpo plays the, guess what, harp, or Chico sits down at the piano, that’s about the time I drift off. And yet the films are so crazy funny that we keep watching. Help! is like that, except for the crucial fact that the music is as great as the comedy.
I’ll be honest, I know that critics adore A Hard Day’s Night, and over the years I’ve come to fully appreciate its charms, but at the time, I preferred Help! I think I’ve owned nearly every version of the film that’s ever been released from VHS to DVD. If I’d had a Laserdisc player I would have bought it in that format too.
Now, on the heels of the 2007 restoration and DVD release comes the first Blu-ray edition of Help! Do you need it? That depends. If you’re a die-hard Beatles fan and you have to have it all, of course you do. If you’re interested in the best possible film viewing and listening experience outside of a movie theater, you’ll want it too. If somehow you’ve never seen the film, this is a great place to jump in. For the casual fan, it’s a toss-up. You can upgrade, but you might be just as happy with your 2007 DVD.
A few things struck me about the Help! Blu-ray. First of all, it sounds great. The 5.1 mix has never sounded better, with every instrument clearly identifiable in the mix. The film looks great too. Colors that have seemed somewhat drab in the past such as the colors of the four doors that the Beatles use to enter their shared flat, are now vibrant.
I’ve seen Help! many times so I try to look for something new to focus on each time I watch it now. This time I was struck by the performances of the brilliant character actors who populate the cast including the Welsh actor Victor Spinetti (who was also in A Hard Day’s Night and Magical Mystery Tour) as the mad scientist Foot, Roy Kinnear as his inept assistant Algernon, Leo McKern as the wicked but lovable cult leader Clang, and Patrick Cargill as the Scotland Yard Superintendent.
Do you know the long distance swimmer? The guy who emerges through the ice in Switzerland and asks directions to the White Cliffs of Dover? The same guy who turns up at the end of the film on the beach in the Bahamas, still lost? The swimmer was played by none other than Mal Evans, a Beatles road manager.
Let’s get the special features out of the way. There are none. That is, there are none that weren’t included with the 2007 release. Those that are here are of varying interest. They include:
The Beatles In Help! – a 30 minute documentary on the making of the film featuring comments from director Richard Lester, and Beatles road manager Neil Aspinall among others.
A Missing Scene featuring Wendy Richard – Well Wendy is here, as is Lester. What’s not here is the actual missing scene except for a few stills.
Memories of Help – More reflections from those involved including actress Eleanor Bron, who played the seductress Ahme, who as we all know is not what she seems.
The Restoration of Help – If you’re technically inclined, this is for you. It provides all the details about how the film was prepared for the 2007 DVD release.
There are also three theatrical trailers, one in Spanish, and a couple of radio spots from the time.