The film had its Royal World Premiere at the London Pavilion Theatre in the West End of London on 29 July 1965 in the presence of Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon and the Earl of Snowdon. While not reviewed at the time with the same high level of admiration as their first film, the film is regarded a half century later as being influential, including in the subsequent development of music videos.
An eastern cult (a parody of the Thuggee cult) is about to sacrifice a woman to the goddess Kaili. Just as she is about to be killed, the high priestess of the cult, Ahme, notices that she is not wearing the sacrificial ring. Ringo Starr, drummer of the Beatles, has the ring and is wearing it; it was secretly sent to him by the victim in a fan letter. Determined to retrieve the ring and sacrifice the woman, the great Swami Clang, Ahme, and several cult members including Bhuta, leave for London. After several failed attempts to steal the ring, they confront the Beatles in an Indian restaurant. Ringo learns that if he does not return the ring soon, he will become the next sacrifice. Ringo then discovers that the ring is stuck on his finger.
The Beatles go to a jeweller to remove the ring, but the tools he uses all break. They then go to a mad scientist, Foot, and his assistant Algernon. In a lab full of British-made equipment, they attempt to expand the ring's molecules so it can slide off Ringo's finger. But the machines only manage to remove all his other rings. Astonished that his equipment has no effect on the ring, Foot decides that he, too, must have it. While they bumble with trying to get a laser together, Ahme crashes the lab and holds the scientists at gunpoint while she lets the Beatles escape.
Back home, Ahme tells the group that her sister's time has passed and she is now out of danger and Ringo is now the sacrificial victim. She prepares a special solution intended to shrink Ringo's finger so she can get the ring off. But then Clang and his henchmen crash the house, causing Ahme to drop the syringe on Paul's leg. While a shrunken Paul hides in an ashtray, the cult attack the other Beatles and pour red paint on Ringo (as part of the sacrifice). Foot and Algernon come in, shoots a warning shot with his Webley and scares the cult away, Ahme in tow. Paul unshrinks and John subsequently starts to swing a lamp at Foot who tries to shoot him, but his gun misfires. Blaming this on the fact that the gun is British made, Foot retreats. The boys are left to sort things out.
The band flees to the Austrian Alps for refuge but both thugs and Foot follow in pursuit. The Beatles practise skiing, then participate in a game of curling. Foot and Algernon booby-trap one of the curling stones with a bomb; George sees the "fiendish thingy" and tells everyone to run. The bomb eventually goes off after a delay, creating a big hole in the ice from which a Channel swimmer (Mal Evans) emerges and asks directions to the White Cliffs of Dover. The boys ski down a slope fleeing from Clang, directed by Ahme, who then misdirects Clang to the take-off ramp for a Ski jumping contest. Clang is the winner, and is forced to the winners' platform to receive a gold medal.
The group escapes back to England and they ask for "protection" from Scotland Yard; and get it in the form of a cowardly Inspector (Cargill). After being attacked while recording in the middle of Salisbury Plain surrounded by the British Army, they hide in "A Well Known Palace" (Buckingham Palace) until they are almost captured by Foot.
While on a walk with the police, the group step into a small pub, where Clang is disguised as a barman. After being served beer, Ringo cannot pick his glass up from the table, so George tips it over, unknowingly opening a trapdoor to the cellar that Clang set up. Inside the cellar is a door with a broken knob, a broken ladder and a tiger. They go summon the Inspector who tells them to sing the "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's 9th Symphony to the tiger in order to tame it; everyone inside and outside the pub joins in.
The Beatles put out in the press that they're going to the Bahamas to throw the cult off their scent, but Ringo wants to go there anyway. The Beatles arrive, followed by Scotland Yard officers, Foot and Clang. After Ringo is nearly captured, the other Beatles pose as him in order to lure the cult members, who are then arrested by the Bahamas Police. Despite their best efforts, Ringo is captured by Foot, who takes him on to a ship intending to cut off his finger to get the ring.
Ahme rescues Ringo from Foot by exchanging him for a vial of the "distilled essence of certain orchids". The two try to escape the ship by jumping into the water; however, Ringo cannot swim. They are captured by the cult and tied down on the beach where they are surrounded by two battalions of Kukhri Rifles. Clang begins the ceremony to sacrifice Ringo, with cult members prepared to attack the rest of the Beatles and police when they come to the rescue.
Ringo and Ahme manage to untie themselves, and the ring slips off his finger as he tries to wave to his band mates to warn them away. He puts the ring on Clang's hand, and Ahme declares Clang as the next sacrifice. A final brawl ensues between the Beatles, the cult, and the police. Clang manages to get the ring off himself and gives it to Foot and Algernon. They, however, leave the ring in the sand in favour of the shrinking solution. The ring ends up on the greedy Bhuta's finger and he becomes the target for sacrifice to the put-upon Clang's obvious glee; meanwhile, the Channel swimmer reappears on the beach and once again asks for directions to the White Cliffs of Dover. The movie ends with a dedication to "Elias Howe, who, in 1846, invented the sewing machine".
The credits feature the characters acting up in front of the camera, with the jewel of the ring being placed in front of the lens. The music playing during the credits is the Overture of The Barber of Seville by Gioachino Rossini, with The Beatles adding their own laughing and comments.
The Beatles said the film was inspired by the Marx Brothers classic Duck Soup; it was also directly satirical of the James Bond series of films. At the time of the original release of Help!, its distributor, United Artists, also held the rights to the Bond series.
The humour of the film is strongly influenced by the abstract humour of The Goon Show, in which the director had personal and direct experience in the conversion of the radio format to television, and personal working experience with Peter Sellers in particular. Beatles recording producer George Martin had also produced records for the Goon Show team. McCartney has always said that the Beatles style of humour was taken from the Goon Show. Many of the film's concepts are derived from Goon Shows, such as the presence of wild animals, music, and abstractions such as the closing statement that concludes the film.
The original working title for the film was "Eight Arms to Hold You." This title was printed on the single "Ticket to Ride" as an upcoming movie. Because of this, the phrase has been used as a title for an album by Veruca Salt and for songs by The Goonies and by The Brittles, a Beatles-pastiche band.
According to interviews conducted with Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr for The Beatles Anthology, director Richard Lester was given a larger budget for this film than he had for A Hard Day's Night, thanks to the commercial success of the latter. Thus, this feature film was in colour and was shot on several exotic foreign locations. It was also given a fuller musical score than A Hard Day's Night, provided by a full orchestra, and including pieces of well known classical music: Wagner's Lohengrin, Act III Overture, Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture", Beethoven's "Ninth Symphony" ("Ode to Joy"), and, during the end credits and with their own comic vocal interpretation, Rossini's "Barber of Seville" overture. The original title for the film – only changed to Help! very near to its release – was Eight Arms To Hold You.
Help! was shot in London, Salisbury Plain, the Austrian Alps, New Providence Island and Paradise Island in the Bahamas and Twickenham Film Studios, beginning in the Bahamas on 23 February 1965. Starr commented in The Beatles Anthology that they were in the Bahamas for the hot weather scenes, and therefore had to wear light clothing even though it was rather cold. Tony Bramwell, the assistant to Beatles manager Brian Epstein, stated in his book A Magical Mystery Tour that Epstein chose the Bahamas for tax reasons. According to The Beatles Anthology, during the restaurant sequence filmed in early April, George began to discover Indian-style music, which would be a key element in future songs such as "Norwegian Wood". Filming finished on 14 April at Ailsa Avenue in Twickenham.
The ski scenes were shot at Obertauern, a small village in Austria. One reason this location was chosen was that the stars of the movie were less likely to be recognized there than at one of the larger resorts with many British tourists. The Beatles were in Obertauern for about two weeks in March 1965 along with a film crew of around 60 people. Locals served as ski stunt doubles for the Beatles who stayed at the hotel "Edelweiss". Most of the crew were based in the hotel "Marieta", where one night the Beatles gave an impromptu concert on the occasion of a director's assistant's birthday. This was the only time they ever played on stage in Austria.
The Beatles did not particularly enjoy the filming of the movie, nor were they pleased with the end product. In 1970, John Lennon said they felt like extras in their own movie.
"The movie was out of our control. With A Hard Day's Night, we had a lot of input, and it was semi-realistic. But with Help!, Dick Lester didn't tell us what it was all about.
Ten years later Lennon was more charitable:
I realize, looking back, how advanced it was. It was a precursor to the Batman "Pow! Wow!" on TV—that kind of stuff. But [Lester] never explained it to us. Partly, maybe, because we hadn't spent a lot of time together between A Hard Day's Night and Help!, and partly because we were smoking marijuana for breakfast during that period. Nobody could communicate with us, it was all glazed eyes and giggling all the time. In our own world. It's like doing nothing most of the time, but still having to rise at 7 am, so we became bored.
A contributing factor was exhaustion attributable to their busy schedule of writing, recording and touring. Afterward they were hesitant to begin another film project, and indeed Help! was their last full-length scripted theatrical film. Their obligation for a third film to United Artists was met by the 1970 documentary film Let It Be. The 1968 animated film Yellow Submarine did not meet contractual obligations because it did not star the Beatles, and their only live appearance was featured for less than two minutes at the film's conclusion.
The Beatles later said the film was shot in a "haze of marijuana". According to Starr's interviews in The Beatles Anthology, during the Austrian Alps film shooting, he and McCartney ran off over the hill from the "curling" scene set to smoke a joint.
"A hell of a lot of pot was being smoked while we were making the film. It was great. That helped make it a lot of fun ... In one of the scenes, Victor Spinetti and Roy Kinnear are playing curling: sliding along those big stones. One of the stones has a bomb in it and we find out that it's going to blow up, and have to run away. Well, Paul and I ran about seven miles, we ran and ran, just so we could stop and have a joint before we came back. We could have run all the way to Switzerland. If you look at pictures of us you can see a lot of red-eyed shots; they were red from the dope we were smoking. And these were those clean-cut boys! Dick Lester knew that very little would get done after lunch. In the afternoon we very seldom got past the first line of the script. We had such hysterics that no one could do anything. Dick Lester would say, 'No, boys, could we do it again?' It was just that we had a lot of fun – a lot of fun in those days."
In the Beatles Anthology Director's Cut, Harrison admitted that they were smoking marijuana on the plane ride all the way to the Bahamas.
McCartney also shared some of his memories of when they were filming Help!:
"We showed up a bit stoned, smiled a lot and hoped we'd get through it. We giggled a lot. I remember one time at Cliveden (Lord Astor's place, where the Christine Keeler/Profumo scandal went on); we were filming the Buckingham Palace scene where we were all supposed to have our hands up. It was after lunch, which was fatal because someone might have brought out a glass of wine as well. We were all a bit merry and all had our backs to the camera and the giggles set in. All we had to do was turn around and look amazed, or something. But every time we'd turn round to the camera there were tears streaming down our faces. It's OK to get the giggles anywhere else but in films, because the technicians get pissed off with you. They think, 'They're not very professional.' Then you start thinking, 'This isn't very professional – but we're having a great laugh.'"
"John did once offer me a joint. And I obligingly tried to take a little puff. I knew there was some special way of doing it – but I don't smoke anyway. So I took a little puff and then thought, 'This is so expensive. I mustn't waste it!' And gave it back to him. So that's your definition of naïve, I think."
The photographer Michael Peto was commissioned in 1965 to take still photographs during the making of the film; these became known for their candid and expressive quality. During the digitisation of the Michael Peto Collection, which is held by Archive Services, University of Dundee, in 2002, 500 previously unpublished photographs of the Beatles taken during the making of Help! were reported to have been uncovered. Now These Days are Gone, a limited edition volume of Peto's photographs focusing on the Beatles images was produced in 2006 with deluxe editions of the book signed by Richard Lester. An exhibition of the photographs to mark the book's launch was held at Hoopers Gallery, Clerkenwell, in January 2006. Another exhibition of the photographs was held at the University of Dundee in 2007 as part of the University's 40th anniversary celebrations, with the exhibition then moving to the National Conservation Centre, Liverpool. In 2011 the photographs were exhibited in Dundee, as part of the Scottish Beatles Weekend, and at the Proud Gallery, Camden.
The songs played during the film are:"Help!"
"You're Going to Lose That Girl"
"You've Got to Hide Your Love Away"
"Ticket to Ride"
"I Need You"
"The Night Before"
"She's a Woman" (heard in the background, on a tape machine, and underground in the Salisbury Plain scene)
"A Hard Day's Night" (played by Indian band and as an instrumental)
"I'm Happy Just to Dance with You" (played by a band during the bike-riding scene)
"You Can't Do That" (played as an instrumental during the Austrian Alps sequence)
The seven main songs formed the first side of the British release of the Help! album. The second side consisted of other new Beatles songs recorded at the same time or shortly afterwards.
Critical opinion at the time of release was generally positive, but many critics feel that this big budget effort was not as strong as A Hard Day's Night. Leslie Halliwell describes it as an
[e]xhausting attempt to outdo A Hard Day's Night in lunatic frenzy, which goes to show that some talents work best on low budgets. The humour is a frantic cross between Hellzapoppin', The Goons, Goofy, Mr. Magoo and the shade of Monty Python to come. It looks good but becomes too tiresome to entertain.
Allmovie's Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr. describes it as
... a forerunner to music videos. ... Lester seemed to find the right tone for Help!, creating an enjoyable portrait of the Beatles and never allowing the film to take itself too seriously. His style would later be co-opted by Bob Rafaelson [sic] for the Monkees' television series in the '60s and has continued to influence rock musicals like Spice World in 1998.
In a contemporary review in The New York Times Bosley Crowther was not impressed:
... It's a fiasco of farcical whimseys that are thrown together in this film—a clutter of mechancial gimmicks and madcap chases. ... Funny? Exciting? Different? Well, there's nothing in "Help!" to compare with that wild ballet of the Beatles racing across a playground in "A Hard Day's Night," nothing as wistful as the ramble of Ringo around London all alone. ... The boys themselves are exuberant and uninhibited in their own genial way. They just become awfully redundant and—dare I say it?—dull.
A novelisation entitled The Beatles in Help! was written by Al Hine and published by Dell in 1965.
A sequence featuring Frankie Howerd and Wendy Richard was filmed but left out of final editing owing to its length. However, the sequence was left in the film novelisation.
Like A Hard Day's Night, Help! was originally distributed theatrically by United Artists – the company handled distribution from 1965 to the end of 1980. In January 1981, rights to the movie reverted from UA to producer Walter Shenson, and the movie was withdrawn from circulation.
Help! was released several times in different video formats by MPI Home Video and The Criterion Collection. A version was released in February 1987 in VHS and Beta through MPI, along with a reissue of A Hard Day's Night the very same day, and was followed by a special-edition release on 31 October 1995. MPI also issued a CLV laserdisc in 1995 and two releases on DVD, the first as a single DVD release on 12 November 1997 and the second as part of The Beatles DVD Collector's Set on 8 August 2000.
LaserDisc releases include a Criterion CAV laserdisc and a Voyager CLV laserdisc in 1987, each of which had three pressings. The first pressings had no UPC on the gatefold covers while the other two had the UPC either as a sticker or printed directly on the jacket.
The film's transfer on the CAV laserdiscs was done correctly so that no blending of frames occurs and thus movements are not blurry. The supplemental section, which, with few exceptions, has never been available on any other home video release, contains the following:original theatrical trailer (which includes deleted scenes)
silent home movie footage of the film set and of the world premiere
still photos, some of which are introduced by text describing the production history of the film
radio ads (on audio during the silent footage)
an open interview, originally designed for disc jockeys. By reading prompts on the screen, one can pretend to talk to the Beatles.
In June 2007, a version of Help!, sub-titled in Korean, became available on Amazon.com. However, by July 2007, all home video versions of the film were pulled from the market because of rights issues involving Apple Corps – now the full rights holders to the film. The rights issues were eventually resolved and Apple Corps/EMI/Capitol released a new double DVD version with a fully restored film negative and newly remixed in 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround sound of the film. This came in standard 2xDVD packaging and 2xDVD deluxe edition box set on 30 October 2007 in the UK and 6 November 2007 in America. This latest release contains new featurettes, three trailers (one of which is in Spanish), and the aforementioned radio ads carried over from the Criterion LaserDisc issue. The film was released on Blu-ray format in June 2013 by Universal Music, current owners of Capitol Records, using the 2007 restoration.