A Hard Day's Night being one of the most profitable movies of the 1960s, it was a matter of necessity that there was going to be a second Beatles feature. It's to the band's credit that it was no mere retread, though a retread might have ended up making a bit more sense than Help!, a fascinatingly manic adventure-comedy that doesn't always work as well as it might, but has worn much better than some of the other films made in the same vein at the same time; what we might call the "films influenced by The Pink Panther and its particular blend of location shooting and zany physical comedy" subgenre, which despite its specificity is actually quite a common sight throughout the second half of the decade.
The early ad campaign, parodying Psycho, entreated the viewer, "Please do not reveal the beginning of this movie to your friends (they'd never believe it, anyway)." The parenthetical is accurate, for Help! opens with a failed human sacrifice to the Hindu deity Kali (poor Kali. Never gets a fair shake in Western movies - not here, not in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). Which, minimally, is not where A Hard Day's Night left off. For reasons of ritual and tradition, this sacrifice requires the victim, a lovely young girl, to be painted red and given a giant red jeweled ring - but as she is a young girl, the moment she received this gewgaw, she sent it off in a fan letter to famous ring-wearer and teen idol Ringo Starr. When the high priest of Kali, a portly and oddly British gentleman named Clang (Leo McKern) learns of this, he and priestess Ahme (Eleanor Bron) travel with a retinue to the UK, where they intend to retrieve the ring from the befuddled Beatle, or sacrifice him if it proves to be easier.
Thus begins a lot of running around, including a visit with a mad scientist and self-loathing Englishman, Foot (Victor Spinetti, the only actor besides the Beatles to appear in both this and A Hard Day's Night), with trips to the Alps, the Bahamas, and a well-known palace. Music is performed along the way.
There's a hell of a lot to love in Help!, an energetic dollop of pop-art candy that at 90 just barely manages to avoid feeling too long: whereas the first film was a probing comic commentary on pop culture and celebrity iconography from the inside-out, the follow-up is a parody of pop culture ephemera from the outside-in. Explicitly a goof on the brand-new James Bond pictures, it goes far beyond that, to grab just about every brightly-colored trope in cinema, toss it in a blender, and see what happened. Mostly, what happened was omnidirectional absurdity, whether it's the playground-cum-museum in which the Beatles all live together, Ahme's frequent breaking of the fourth-wall, or the weird details crowding every frame. Richard Lester's direction drifts from the audacious straight into the insane, putting in odd cutaways for nothing but the sake of a gag, and inserting boldly ironic title cards for the sake of making odd plot turns that much odder. The film is the clear ancestor of the epochal television series Monty Python's Flying Circus, beating it to the punch by four years; that special flavor of wry surrealism and dead-end absurdity and staunch Britishness is very nearly the same in both projects, though Help! has a more withered cynicism to its dialogue.
The biggest problem with Help! is, in fact, it's weakness as a Beatles movie. Compared to A Hard Day's Night, the balance is skewed considerably towards John and especially Ringo (though George remains the best actor out of the four of them), and even that isn't as big of a concern as the fact that the band itself is no longer the focus: by replacing the plotlessness of the first movie with a whole damn lot of plot, Help! relegates the group to the sidelines for long stretches, or as Lennon pointed out sourly, the Beatles were made extras in their own movie. One can argue that you don't cast Leo McKern and then fail to use him; one can also argue that the tension between the need to be a Beatles vehicle and the desire to be a Blake Edwards-style wacky comedy is damaging (as is, for that matter, the tension between the absurdist comedy that Lester wanted to do and the wacky comedy that screenwriters Marc Behm and Charles Wood gave him). At any rate, there is no smooth flow, but a jagged series of disconnected scenes which all function in their own way, but do not essentially need to be put together in any order, or indeed to all be present (there is a famous, now-lost deleted scene, in which the Beatles stumble across an acting school and tease a girl playing Lady Macbeth, and it's telling that, besides the detail of its Bahama's setting, it's easy to imagine this scene taking place anywhere in the last 65 minutes of the film). This structure has its own appeal: but the half-baked story also leaves Help! with little to it other than comedy, and nothing cogent to say. This is, perhaps, what happens when you let your cast get a pot-addled as the Beatles were during the shoot: it leaves little time for anything other than silliness.
At least Help! works as a Beatles musical: Lester stages nothing so magnificently here as "Can't Buy Me Love" from A Hard Day's Night, but he is also freed from the tyranny of realism, and thus does not have to shoot as many numbers as simple stage performances. Even more than in the first film, then, the numbers in Help! play like early music videos, telling a story that has nothing to do with the movie that surrounds them, full of imagery that means nothing except in that it looks cool (the skiing adventure of "Ticket to Ride", and the girls 'n beaches of "Another Girl" are the most prominent examples of what I mean). They are, without a doubt, good music videos, all the more because the songs are of course brilliant.
Still and all, Help! feels a bit empty, lots of flash, lots of humor, and most of it doesn't linger once the movie is done. It is the Richard Lester who directed the creaky and badly dated sex farce (and undeserving Palme d'Or winner) The Knack... and How to Get It that is responsible for this film, not the Richard Lester behind the innovative and brilliant Hard Day's Night and The Running, Jumping & Standing Still Film (though it could be worse yet: it is also not the Richard Lester who shat out Butch and Sundance: The Early Days or Superman III). It is distinctly hollow, presenting a version of the Beatles entirely divorced from reality - one can't even argue that it's part of the PR machine that co-created A Hard Day's Night - all in the service of pretty good jokes. As '60s pop cinema goes, it's aged well; but it falls so far short of its brilliant predecessor, and looks so flimsy next to another 1965 pop-art adventure such as Godard's Pierrot le fou, it's a bit easy to regard it as somewhat more disposable than it honestly is. This kind of silliness is shallow, but it is a great pleasure nonetheless. The Beatles' next film would be even sillier, and infinitely less pleasurable - so let's not quibble over good breezy fun.