Saturday, May 30, 2015

Objects of Love/Targets of Hate: The Fiftieth Anniversary of Help! (1965)

This summer marks the fiftieth anniversary of The Beatles' second feature film, Help!, which never quite achieved the acclaim of their debut, A Hard Day's Night (1964), perhaps due to its being a James Bond pastiche. But maybe the antic nature of the picture was also a harbinger of the turmoil to follow in 1966. Here is an edited and revised piece on Help! from my book, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream (Greenwood-Praeger, 2009).

In early February 1965, before heading off to the Bahamas with Richard Lester to film their next feature, Help!, The Beatles began the New Year with a radical new single. "Ticket to Ride" which was released in April, and provided a heavy beat decorated with happily ringing guitar arpeggios. Composed and sung by Lennon, "Ticket to Ride" was initially mistaken as a reference to a British Railways ticket to the town of Ryde, but it's actually about a girl who is taking a ticket out of her life with the singer. If the promise of love and affection, with all its implications, were resoundingly affirmed on "From Me to You" and "All My Loving," "Ticket to Ride," illustrated that unconditional love was just the start of something. In the composition, the singer knows he's sad that his lover has left him, but he also knows that she's leaving because his whole lifestyle is bringing her down. The promises he's made have become promises that he can't keep. His appeals ultimately have become more desperate  even as vindictive as in "You Can't Do That"  when he demands that she simply do right by him. He has nothing to offer her but the aching sound of his voice.

On "Yes It Is," the B-side to "Ticket to Ride," Lennon makes sure you know that he's been abandoned. In one of his most haunting performances, Lennon revisits the melody of "This Boy," only this time the boy has lost any hope of getting his loved one back. In "Yes It Is," you feel the weight of her absence, just as James Stewart felt with Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958), where he's obsessed by her loss. But where Stewart's fixation drove him to re-make his current lover in the image of the woman he believed he'd lost, Lennon wants no evidence reminding him of her. He wants his present lover deprived of the colours that suggest her memory  especially the colour red. The effect is eerily gothic. "'Yes It Is' is positively 19th Century in its haunted feverishness, its Poe-like invocation of the colour scarlet, and its hint that the lost lover of its lyric is dead," wrote critic Ian MacDonald of "Yes it Is." "The fantasy figure conjured here is probably a transmutation of Lennon's dead, red-haired mother, Julia." Lennon's ties to his tragic past, the ghosts he once believed rock & roll might finally exorcise, have become the bedrock of his strongest work. As he desperately tries to shake off the power that this lost woman has over him, Harrison's whining guitar, affected by a newly purchased volume pedal, provides the tears that Lennon himself can't shed.

In early February, with the ghostly beauty of their recent single still shimmering, the group began work on their new film that was being prepared for an August release. Director Richard Lester was back at the helm, hoping to recapture some of the fun and magic of A Hard Day's Night, and their second movie, Help! ended up needing it. Besides operating from a more labored script, The Beatles were so wasted on grass that they were a pretty giggly lot to direct. "We couldn't have shot a film about what The Beatles got up to at night, as it would have been X-rated," Lester recalled in 2007 after remastering the picture for DVD release. Unlike in the plot for A Hard Day's Night, which was a celebration of The Beatles' success, in Help!, they were young men now basking in their middle-class suburban bungalow. Like A Hard Day's Night, Help! shows the group still being obsessively pursued. Only the people chasing them here are not the excitable crowds from A Hard Day's Night, but instead an Eastern religious cult. After a sacrificial ring was given to Ringo by a fan, the cult goes on the hunt to retrieve it  even if it means killing the kindly drummer. The movie, which ironically started The Beatles' interest in India, also foreshadowed the death threats ahead in 1966. In Help!, The Beatles are stalked by those who wish to do them harm, rather than the adoring fans of A Hard Day's Night. All through the film, the group is subjected to a different kind of idol worship. As Devin McKinney reminds us in his book, Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History, The Beatles get electrocuted, shrunk, strapped to operating tables, blow-torched, and shot at by tanks. "They become the target of everyone's animus, and spend the movie trying to survive," McKinney writes on Help!.

Help! begins with the cult about to perform a sacrifice on a young woman only to discover that the ring is missing  and that Ringo possesses it. When the opening credits suddenly begin, in black & white, with the band playing the song "Help!," we're thrown back to the pristine glorious image of them on stage during their television special in A Hard Day's Night. But along with their familiar smiles, we can see that they have grown a little heavier, and not quite as light on their feet. As the song propels us along, the shock of coloured darts hitting George in the head and Paul in the leg jolts us out of basking in The Beatles' glory. Within moments, as the credits continue to roll, we realize that we're watching the cult viewing the same movie footage of The Beatles performing as we are. Instead of enjoying what they see, though, they perceive nothing less than corruption and indulgence. If Beatles fans once affectionately threw jelly babies on the stage, the cult's offering are darts to pierce the singers on the screen. Obviously intended by Lester as a clever sight gag, the opening scene begins to unravel how The Beatles, who began as objects of love, were now quickly being turned into targets of hate.

The original script, by American writer Marc Behm, had even more lethal implications. In that story, Ringo unwittingly signs a death warrant and gets hunted down by a serial killer played by Peter Sellers. When it was discovered that Italian director Phillipe de Broca (King of Hearts) was filming Up to His Ears (1965), which featured Jean-Paul Belmondo as a wealthy young man who decides to hire a hit man to kill him before suddenly changing his mind, Behm altered his story. The final script, called The Indian Giver, was rewritten by Charles Wood to suit a more British vernacular. Help! essentially became a comic-strip James Bond pastiche, an endless chase, with little personality, and plenty of slapstick satire. "Help! was a strait-jacket of a film for The Beatles," said Victor Spinetti, who had played the TV special producer in A Hard Day's Night, and now portrayed the mad scientist out to cut Ringo's finger off and possess the ring. "A Hard Day's Night was basically the truth about them coming to London. In Help!, they had to act out parts and weren't really happy about it."  Help! is a Cuisinart blending spare parts from other popular action genres. Even film composer Ken Thorne wove together a musical tapestry of Beatles songs from A Hard Day's Night, a touch of John Barry's Bond theme, tiny sprinklings of Wagner, Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," and some Indian sitar music. The India connection, however, became the most significant aspect of Help!. During the early portion of the filming in February, on his birthday, George Harrison met Swami Vishnu Devananda, a hatha yoga exponent. Devananda was from Montreal, but his ashram was located in Rishikesh, where The Beatles would eventually meet with Maharishi Yogi. Devananda gave Harrison his book The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga, his guide to yogic exercises and Hindu religion, which he'd written in 1960. This introduction to yoga, coming as Harrison grew more tired of the material world, would begin his sojourn into Eastern thought. From that new perspective, he grew to believe that the truth could finally be found when one surmounted the personal ego.

The title song became The Beatles' next single in late July. Written by Lennon, with some assistance from McCartney, it was described by John shortly before his murder in 1980 as a personal cry for help. In the song, Lennon portrays himself as in what he called his "fat Elvis" period, a star who's bloated by his own fame. "The whole Beatle thing was just beyond comprehension," Lennon recalled in one of his last interviews. "I was eating and drinking like a pig, and I was fat as a pig, dissatisfied with myself, and subconsciously I was crying for help." Only in 1965, Elvis had yet to enter his fat period. In 1980, Lennon actually used Elvis's death in hindsight to give his song a meaning he may not have intended at the time. Of course, Lennon was eating and drinking and getting high, but whether or not he wrote the song to specifically address his unsettled state of mind, is uncertain. What is certain is that John Lennon generally was starting to feel dissatisfaction with the life of being a Beatle. The controversial Lennon biographer and culture critic Albert Goldman believed that "Help!" accurately reflected the author's frame of mind. "[Lennon] had lost his way, lost his pride, lost his satisfaction, and, above all, lost his soul," Goldman wrote. "Hence, it wasn't just his looks but his whole condition that was reminiscent of the fallen Elvis. Like his old hero, John Lennon was a once-brilliant, rebellious, virile young rocker whom success had puffed up into a fat clown." Goldman's tone here, more churlish than his insight requires, is itself more than a little bloated. If you just listen to the song, you don't hear "a fat clown," or the gurgling, bloated Elvis of "My Way." "'Help!' isn't a compromise," critic Dave Marsh writes. "[I]t's bursting with a vitality that Lennon's less mediated solo albums never achieve. And John certainly doesn't sound like he's trying to spit the bit; he sounds triumphant, because he's found a group of kindred spirits who are offering the very spiritual assistance and emotional support for which he's begging." As urgently as Lennon cries out for help in the song, you never get the impression that the man is totally doomed to be "fat Elvis." As Marsh observes, The Beatles are there to back him up vocally, picking up his cries, indeed reminding him that help is on the way. Harrison even gets downright playful, "mickey-mousing" Lennon's cries on his guitar. By performing descending notes, as Lennon yells for help, Harrison parodies the sinister "dah-dah-dah-dah" cliches that often underscore suspense scenes in a movie.

As usual, McCartney answered his partner on the B-side, with his own mock cry of help. "I'm Down" is a good-natured ribbing response to John. McCartney may be crying that he's down, but his song kicks down doors with such a savage power that you know McCartney won't be on his back for long. "I'm Down" provides ample proof that The Beatles could rock as hard as anyone. With a vocal that's part Little Richard from "Long Tall Sally," part Larry Williams' "She Said Yeah," with a frenzied arrangement out of Jerry Lee Lewis's "Breathless," McCartney madly wails a hilarious tale about a guy who is indignant about being dumped. Yet as much fun as McCartney has unloading his misery, a rooster crowing his claim to be king of the pen, the band's performance cuts so deep you can feel the blood on the tracks. "[T]he tension of the performance increases so brutally it seems the group will get out of it only by exploding," Greil Marcus wrote of the impact of the song. "[Y]ou can almost feel George's fingers cutting into the strings, his playing is so hard." During their 1965 and 1966 tours, this intensely entertaining barnburner would close down the house.

When the soundtrack to Help! was released in early August, it was filled with both songs from the movie and some additional studio tracks to help fill out the album. In North America, Capitol continued to re-arrange their own versions of Beatles singles and albums. Help! had the songs used in the movie, plus some of Ken Thorne's orchestral soundtrack selections. The official British version would spend 11 weeks at #1. The album opens with the title track followed by McCartney's impressive "The Night Before," another of his unsung great tracks. Although it was composed independent of the picture, Lester wanted to use it once he heard the demo. He placed it in the scene where The Beatles are seen performing it in a field with military manouveres going on around them. "The Night Before" is a song of regret for a lost love. But where Lennon wishes to rid himself of memories of loss, as he did in "Yes It Is," McCartney wants to hold on to the happy thoughts of the night before, even if it means he's being abandoned. "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" is a lingering ballad where Lennon laments the agony of facing the world after you've been rejected by your lover  and everybody knows it. Essentially a simple song, "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" serves as an appealing warm-up for "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)." It's also the first number where someone outside of The Beatles' immediate core group plays on the track. Johnnie Scott, who doubles on tenor and alto flute, plays the beautifully mournful wind solo at the end of the song. Some assumed that "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" was about Brian Epstein's closeted homosexuality (in the Anthology documentary, an outtake of the track is played during the sequence when Brian Epstein dies). But it's really a song about losing your pride after you've been dumped, and then being left feeling the shame of abandonment. Lennon here pulls down his mask and reveals sides of his personality that he usually feels less comfortable revealing. "There were the moments when I actually saw him without the facade, the armor," McCartney recalled about his late writing partner. "But it was wonderful when he let the visor down and you'd see the John Lennon that he was frightened to reveal to the world." "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" is a small sample of how Lennon lets his visor down.

George Harrison wrote "I Need You" for his girlfriend Pattie Boyd. His first composition since "Don't Bother Me," on With The Beatles, "I Need You" sheds the dour hermetic spirit unveiled on that song. Harrison hints here at some deeper more companionable desires that he'd plumb later in "Something" on Abbey Road. "Another Girl" is a nice piece of country swing by McCartney, written during a holiday in Tunisia at Sebastian's Villa in the coastal resort of Hammanet. He composed the song the day after he came back from his holiday. While McCartney considered it a throwaway for the album  and the movie – it could also be read as part of the frustration that was now developing in his relationship with Jane Asher. While McCartney was expecting her to be a more traditional domestic woman, Asher was an aspiring actress who loved touring with the Old Vic. She was also very protective of her privacy, where McCartney, culturally deprived as a boy, was consistently hungry for a social scene. Therefore, given these thoughts of another girl, especially the kind The Beatles were likely to meet on the road, it may not be simply innocuous filler. "You're Going to Lose That Girl" is a terrific re-write of "She Loves You," begun by Lennon, but completed by McCartney at John's house in Weybridge. As they did in earlier tunes like "She Loves You," "It Won't Be Long," and "All My Loving," their voices jump out of the mix before the band begins to play. In many of their first songs, The Beatles make sure their voices with their stated desires connect with us immediately and directly before their instruments do.

The film Help! premiered in London on July 29, 1965, and it would be their last with Richard Lester. They did have a third film contracted, based on a book by Richard Condon (The Manchurian Candidate), with a screenplay by Joe Orton. But Orton died, his body discovered rather ironically by Lester's driver, and the film never came to pass. As The Beatles headed back out on the road, the anticipatory spirit they had invoked during those early concerts in 1964 was lost. The concerts were now a common routine and they began turning into human jukeboxes. The working relationship between Lennon and McCartney had also begun to change. A competitive tension was starting to replace the creative one that had shaped their early compositions. A tug of war soon started as both men sought to establish authority over the group, and the direction it would take. But, for now, what held The Beatles together was the dynamic relationship between the band and its audience. Playing in front of a live crowd, despite its hazards, kept the group's identity intact. As long as they stayed on the road, the inner tensions of each member, with all their individual differences, were sublimated into the greater good of the band and its music. By the next year, all that good will would be put to the test. In 1966, The Beatles became moving targets who faced a rage that was more lethal than coloured darts thrown at a screen.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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