The first Beatles feature film, written by Alun Owen and directed by Richard Lester, seems to be regarded as a surreal masterpiece and after seeing the later Help!, I could believe it. Now IFC gives me the chance to find out for myself. It's certainly a witty script and the lads from Liverpool are great at being both surreal and dry with it, beginning with a chase scene as they attempt to escape their (real) screaming fans and board a train. Once there they get into the expected trouble, but have the aid of Norman Rossington as their road manager Norm, John Junkin as his assistant Shake and above all, Wilfred Brambell as Paul's grandfather. Given that this is 1964 so Steptoe and Son was already on its third season, there are plenty of jokes about how clean he is.
On they run from the train to the car to the hotel to the casino to the studio and so on, escaping not just from their fans but from their manager and grandfather McCartney from them. Of course they all get up to hijinks wherever they go, though not all the jokes hit. However they're thrown out in such quantity that it's hard to keep up with all the good ones. Every time one comes along that's not quite up to snuff, there's a peach right behind it.
I think it reaches the point of genius about halfway through when the lads find their way to a TV studio. John gets into a surreal conversation with a woman who thinks that he looks just like him, which works on so many levels without ever actually saying anything. Then George Harrison gets mistaken for a youth to be interviewed about future trends by a clueless fashion guru. Nothing else holds up to those two scenes but they're pure genius.
There's a huge amount of talent backing them all up, not least Brambell who's highly memorable here, not least in his ravings to the police who he, as a Irish republican, thinks are thugs. The first character they meet on the train at the beginning is Richard Vernon, who looks scarily younger than he did as Slartibartfast in the original Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. There's Derek Nimmo, Robin Ray and Deryck Guyler, all in bit parts as odd characters here and there. Victor Spinetti is a memorable TV director.
There's even Phil Collins though I didn't couldn't find him even after due searching. He was only 13 years old, so probably still with hair, and he got a close up because his mother was responsible for hiring the extras for the concert scene. On a closer to reality front, there's real manager Brian Epstein and a few appearances from a young Pattie Boyd who would later become Mrs George Harrison (and future Mrs Eric Clapton, the girl that he wrote both Layla and Wonderful Tonight for). Apparently George met her while filming this movie. She and the supporting actors come and go as quickly as the gags, so many that Frank Thornton and Isla Blair got deleted.
There are also songs, of course, though only a few are played around with that much. The surrealism is reserved for the gaps in between them. We get the title track, of course, and a memorable She Loves You, complete with inevitable bevy of screaming girl fans. There's All My Loving and Can't Buy Me Love and then what I'd see as a bunch of filler, though Beatles fans would probably skin me alive as a heretic for saying that. And at the end of the day it's that bunch of songs framed within a fun, bubbly, fluffy romp but it's hardly the riot that Help! was.
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