Help!, the second film starring the Beatles, hit theaters on July 29, 1965. 50 years later, it’s still an effervescent onslaught of off-the-wall comedy, innovative moviemaking, and one wondrous classic song after another— all resulting in ninety-six minutes of pure joy.
Director Richard Lester, who oversaw the Beatles’ big-screen debut, A Hard Day’s Night, also returned for Help! For their first collaboration, Lester shot in black-and-white, using an almost documentary style to chronicle one London day in the life of the humanity’s most explosive pop phenomenon. It is flawless.
Help!, while also perfect, is an entirely different undertaking. The movie launches the group into a splashy, madcap, full-color, globetrotting series of adventures, utilizing wild gags and flights of surrealism to spoof James Bond, Western interest in Eastern spirituality, avant-garde film techniques, and, of course, Beatlemania itself.
In terms of influencing other films, the difference between A Hard Days Night and Help! is, interestingly, akin to something Bruce Springsteen once said about one key difference between Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
“Watching the Beatles on Ed Sullivan,” Springsteen said, “you felt like there were only four guys in the world who could do that—and they were doing it! When you saw the Stones, though, you thought, ‘Okay, maybe I could give that a try!’”
A Hard Days Night is pure Beatles. With Help!, Richard Lester is as much a star of the film as the band. It’s easy, then, to picture up-and-coming creative figures from musicians and filmmakers to art directors and costume designers watching Help! and thinking, “Okay, maybe I could give that a try!”
As a result, Help! immediately changed the look, sound, and feel of mass media, directly impacting everything from commercials to kiddie shows to underground art pieces. NBC’s The Monkees was essentially Help!: The TV Series. And as mid-’60s popular music conquered human consciousness as nothing had since the dawn of cinema, rock movies became all the rage.
In honor of Help!’s 50th anniversary, here’s a look at ten movie musicals that share either direct ties to the Beatles or aesthetic connections to the band’s fantastically fanciful second movie. Some are brilliant, some are brutal, and some are just blah. Each, in its own way, will make you cry Help!
Hold On! (1966)
Starring: Herman’s Hermits
British Invasion popsters Herman’s Hermits send themselves up in Hold On!, a flimsy but pleasant cobbling together of Beatles movie tropes and Hermit charm on a cheap “teensploitation” budget.
Hold On! mostly focuses on the Hermits keeping it together while Herman Hysteria rages in Los Angeles. In the meantime, a NASA scientist tails the group for some cockamamie rocket project. The big climax involves the band flying via hypersonic jet from Hollywood to Cape Kennedy and back again for a Rose Bowl concert.
Oddly, the squeaky-clean Hermits got to make a second movie two years later, after acid rock and confrontational uncensored cinema took hold. Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter (1968) is about Herman and the boys’ misadventures at a dog-racing track. So perhaps they weren’t entirely immune from the chemical influences of the time, either.
Starring: Olivia Newton-John and Toomorrow
Fledgling Aussie songbird Olivia-Newton John stars in Toomorrow as (wouldn’t you just know it!?) Olivia. It’s a cosmic romp produced by record biz mogul Don Kirshner, who also served as musical overlord to bubblegum phenoms the Monkees and the Archies.
Olivia fronts a pop group at the London College of the Arts called (again, no surprise) Toomorrow. Their sound is so far out that it gets picked up across vast galaxies by an alien race who believe the music of Toomorrow holds the key to their future. Naturally, they kidnap Olivia and her mates.
Toomorrow artlessly fuses together sunshine-pop lip-synch performances, zany shenanigan music montages, and jolts of slightly too serious sci-fi to a point that it all almost becomes kind of fascinating. Almost.
Alas, Kirshner’s gambit to hit pink, chewy AM-radio pop gold yet again crapped out. He had far better luck a few years hence when he switched to FM airwaves and signed hit-making prog-stompers Kansas.
The Ghost Goes Gear (1967)
Starring: The Spencer Davis Group
The Spencer Davis Group, featuring dynamic young keyboardist Steve Winwood on vocals, agrees to spend the night in a haunted mansion inherited by their stuffed shirt manager Algernon Rowthorpe (played by popular UK media personality Nicholas Parsons).
To steady their nerves and appease the spectral presence of the title, they play music. Later on, Spencer Davis, Steve Winwood, and the gang hold a concert to refurbish the beat-up spook manor, and they’re joined by the Paramount Jazz Band, the Three Bells, St. Louis Union, and the Lorne Gibson Trio.
Yep, that’s what happens in The Ghost Goes Gear. That, and nothing else. Gear, no?
Having a Wild Weekend (AKA Catch Us If You Can) (1965)
Starring: The Dave Clark Five
Amidst the first wave of the British Invasion, the Dave Clark Five provided the closest (pre-Stones) thing the Beatles had to a real rival.
Thus, when the DC5 got to make their own movie, they went the black-and-white route of A Hard Day’s Night, but from there the resemblance between the two films veers off in entirely unexpected directions.
To begin with, the Dave Clark Five don’t play themselves, or even a rock band, in Having a Wild Weekend. Instead, they’re professional stuntmen. Dave Clark plays Steve, a cynical crash-and-tumble pro who takes off from a meat commercial gig with Dinah (Barbara Ferris), the ad’s Swinging London fashion model star, in tow.
En route to their spontaneous countryside getaway, Steve and Dinah come across beatniks, potheads, soldiers conducting war games with live ammunition, and other living signs on the times. Satirical barbs are launched at the middle class, the advertising industry (cool people really hated billboards back then), and, as usual, pop stardom; in addition, Wild Weekend boasts unexpectedly moving dramatic passages and bold flourishes of original filmmaking.
Director John Boorman went on to a brilliantly eccentric career, making Point Blank (1967), Deliverance (1972), Zardoz (1974), Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), Excalibur (1981), and Hope and Glory (1987).
Gonks Go Beat (1965)
Starring: Lulu, the Nashville Teens, the Graham Bond Organisation
A “gonk” is a furry doll sporting googly eyes and flat feet that became a staple of the 1960s British mod scene. Gonks Go Beat taps this toy fad and filters a standard Romeo and Juliet scenario through some (charmingly) inane science fiction that tweaks establishment mores and stands with the (also charmingly) lamest of touches.
In the future, Earth is split into Beatland, where everybody dresses cool and listens to rock-and-roll; and Ballad Island, where they’re all pent-up squares who still play crooner records. Romance is forbidden between denizens of the opposing districts, under penalty of banishment to Planet Gonk, which is overrun with fuzzy toys who really dig Dixieland jazz.
Naturally, a Beatland Boy falls for a Ballad Island gal (and she for him), prompting each one’s warring homeland to wage a battle through music.
On-screen performers include Lulu (“To Sir With Love”), the Nashville Teens (“Tobacco Road”), and, in a casting move way more curious than any of those plot details, the heavy blues Graham Bond Organisation, featuring Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce who, just a few years later, would rock the planet off its axis as two/thirds of Cream.
Cucumber Castle (1970)
Starring: The Bee Gees, Lulu, Blind Faith
In between their first breaking big as the Australian front of the ’60s British Invasion and their late-’70s stint as Saturday Night Fever’s disco stud-gods supreme, the Brothers Gibb took quite the bountiful psychedelic side trip.
One result was magnificent: the Bee Gees’ masterful 1969 two-disc concept album, Odessa. The other was Cucumber Castle.
Airing on TV over two nights at Christmas, Cucumber Castle stars only two Brothers Gibb, Barry and Maurice, as Robin temporarily quit the group before filming.
The story takes place in a medieval fairy tale milieu, with Barry and Maurice playing the songs to a dying king (UK comic Frankie Howerd, who went on to be Mean Mr. Mustard in the Sgt. Pepper movie—which is coming up).
Barry declares himself the King of Cucumbers. Maurice announces he’s the King of Jelly. Their slapstick rivalry involves playing tennis in full suits of armor. Lulu co-stars as a maid. Blind Faith jams in Hyde Park while the regal siblings are dressed as chickens, and the camera provides peeks at Mick Jagger, Donovan, and Marianne Faithfull in the crowd.
Whatever everyone involved was smoking, it likely wasn’t cucumbers and/or jelly.
All This and World War II (1976)
Made for a turned-on “head” movie circuit that had revived golden oldies like Reefer Madness and was launching new classics like the Rocky Horror Picture Show, the jarring, feature-length All This and World War II consists of nothing but actual 1940s military footage intercut with golden age Hollywood moments, all of which plays out over a continuous roll out of Beatles songs covered by other famous musicians.
That soundtrack is where the movie goes from grotesque to groovy. Among its highlights are Elton John’s hit version of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” along with “When I’m Sixty-Four” by Keith Moon; “She’s Leaving Home” by Bryan Ferry; “Come Together” by Tina Turner; and “Get Back” by Rod Stewart. It also contains multiple tracks by the Bee Gees, the Four Seasons, and Leo Sayer.
For of-its-moment musical curiosities, check out “Help!” as done by Henry Gross, founding member of Sha Na Na and warbler of the 1976 lost dog hit, “Shannon;” and “Magical Mystery Tour” by Ambrosia, yacht rock balladeers best known for “Biggest Part of Me,” “How Much I Feel,” and “You’re the Only Woman.”
Beatlemania: The Movie (1981)
“Not the Beatles, but an incredible simulation!”
So declared the posters for Beatlemania, a long-running 1970s Broadway hit in which Fab Four imitators worked their way through the group’s hits amidst a multimedia stage show that used sophisticating lighting and projected images to acclaimed effect.
The posters for this inevitably cheeseball movie version proclaimed the same thing, but, up close on a movie camera, the four Beatlemaniacs look like dudes in costumes and the ’60s images that came off powerful as ethereal projections look clumsy and dull when they fill the entire screen.
Nonetheless, Beatlemania is a nifty relic and well worth a gander for completists and curiosity seekers.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978)
One of Hollywood’s all-time most notorious mega-bombs casts the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton as the titular figures who were immortalized on the Beatles’ most famous album.
Here, Sgt. Pepper and his merry band are buried under mounds of movie and record industry hubris, topped only by the tsunamis of late-’70s bad habits that blew through of every aspect (and up every nostril) of this mammoth disaster’s crash-and-burn inferno.
Sgt. Pepper’s plot regards the Lonely Hearts Club band leaving idyllic Pepperland, where the town center is dominated by a giant, drippy cheeseburger for Los Angeles, where they fall prey to evil corporate overlords (the irony was indisputably lost on the film’s makers).
Along the way, A-list guests perform Beatles songs in elaborate production numbers, Pepperland falls from grace, Billy Preston as the good sergeant himself restores order, and, for the grand finale, a hodgepodge of almost entirely unrecognizable rock stars and oddball celebrities “recreate” the original album’s famous cover.
Everyone—from Steve Martin as Dr. Maxwell Hammer to Alice Cooper as the Sun King to George Burns as Mr. Kite—is ghastly, save for the two groups who generated enduring hits from the popular soundtrack album: Aerosmith (stepping in when Kiss bowed out) performing “Come Together” and Earth, Wind, and Fire playing “Got to Get You Into My Life.”
Starring: The Monkees
The Monkees was essentially television’s weekly half-hour version of the Beatles’ Help! It was an immediate hit, generating a rapid-fire succession of radio smashes and even bona fide “Monkeemania,” while the TV series itself proved to be a fertile visual incubator of cutting edge ideas that later fully flowered during the heyday of music videos.
Of course, rock purists griped that the Monkees were a fake band that relied on outside writers (albeit the very best in business, including Neil Diamond, Harry Nilsson, and Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart) to churn out pop product for mainstream nincompoops. Mostly it was kids that dug the Monkees, but still.
The four performers hired to play the band were each uniquely talented and even artistically serious individuals who immediately resented the devil’s deal they felt they’d made. They were the biggest group in the world for a while, with millions screaming for them, but their high-minded rock-and-roll friends shunned them as traitors and sell-outs.
As Monkeemania ebbed in 1968, the group’s members—Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, Davy Jones, and Peter Tork—teamed with screenwriter Jack Nicholson (yes, that Jack Nicholson) and director Bob Rafelson (who’d go on to Five Easy Pieces) to give the Monkees a proper Viking funeral by way of the freakiest, heaviest, goofiest, angriest, most amazingly off-the-goddamned-wall rock musical to ever scorch movie screens.
Head begins and ends with the Monkees committing suicide. In between, a relentless succession of scenarios set up jokes that come with no punchlines—but they just keep coming.
Frank Zappa walks a talking cow. Mousekateer Annette Funicello shows up as “Minnie.” Sonny Liston k.o.’s Davy Jones. A tough cop go-go dances. Peter Tork unlocks the meaning of life from a nelting ice cream cone. Stanley Kubrick favorite Timothy Carey teaches the Monkees, “Boys, don’t never, but never, make fun o’ no cripples!” Real footage of Vietnam atrocities gets intercut with frantic images of fans tearing apart fake Monkees. The entire group gets trapped as particles of dandruff in Victor Mature’s hair.
Nothing in all of cinema is like Head. In addition to its flawlessly constructed destruction of the Monkees’ mythos, the soundtrack is flush with many of the greatest tracks in the band’s canon. Just marvel at the opener-and-closer, “The Porpoise Song.”
Both the movie and the record bombed, of course, which could be set to have been part of the design and which, when you see it, was certainly inevitable.
The only unfortunate aspect of Head finally freeing the Monkees to de-Monkee-fy themselves is that the team never assembled for a proper follow-up. All involved longed for a movie that could boast the tagline, “From the people who gave you Head….”