Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Beatles! In Color!

According to the MSN News website, Beatles music is "this close" to being made available for digital download.


This means that those of us who bought their entire catalog on vinyl and then bought it again on tape (I think I still have an 8-track of Let It Be somewhere around here) and then bought it again on disc (several times), can now, at last, buy it yet again through iTunes.

The wait was killing me.

My cynicism aside, the important thing about this news is how it shows the enduring interest in the Beatles. I plan on devoting a couple of posts to that legendary quartet -- as you can probably tell from the purchasing history noted above, I'm a bit of a fan -- but today I want to focus on a (sort of) new release from them.

Just this past week (or ten days) (don't make me get my calendar out), the Beatles' 1965 film Help! was finally released in an official, loaded two-disc DVD. And this time, I'm not being sarcastic with the "finally." There had been a couple of hard-to-find bare-bones DVD releases previously, as well as some poor VHS transfers, but this is the first time the movie has received the care it deserves.

The general wisdom regarding the two films the band made with director Richard Lester is that A Hard Day's Night is the deathless classic and Help! is the weaker of the two. I can't argue that A Hard Day's Night is a brilliant movie and certainly the more historic of the two, chronicling as it does something near to what it was like to be a Beatle at the height of the mania.

But watching it again on the pristine new release, I think Help! is more fun.

It is certainly a goofy movie. For those who may not have seen it (and I pity you): The Beatles become targets of a murderous mid-eastern cult of religious fanatics, as well as an ineffectual mad scientist. They have to be protected by the army ("Get me protection!") and spirited all around the globe to stay one step ahead of their pursuers.

But the plot doesn't matter. What matters is the amazing music and the Beatles themselves with their outsized personalities and absurd senses of humor.

And I was struck by how totally, unflinchingly deadpan they play everything. Even for dry British wit, and taking into account the fact that a certain illicit herb was in heavy use during the production, these might be the most laconic performances since Buster Keaton's heyday.

Their film personae, already established in the previous movie, here go into overdrive: Ringo as the Everyman, working-class simpleton, ostensibly the star of the show; George cuttingly sarcastic and, ironically given his budding spiritualism, money hungry; John gleefully skewering experts and authority figures ("You've failed again scientist"); and Paul, the one who can't act.

AHDN had some fine supporting performances, but in Help! the cream of British comedy is on display: Leo McKern as the head cultist; Victor Spinetti, the put-upon TV director from AHDN, here a hilariously incompetent evil mastermind; Roy Kinnear, who would work with Lester again a decade later in the Musketeers films; and the indispensable Eleanor Bron ("I am not what I seem").

The cheerfully absurdist humor holds up well over four decades; the music seems likely to never fade. And here's a little something: watching this film where Ringo Starr, a beloved Western icon, is under constant attack by a small cadre of lunatic Eastern religious fanatics who use ("Dare I say it?") terrorist tactics on him ....

Well, I might well be seeing things, but Help! may turn out to be the relevant one after all.

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