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Beatles travelogue gets an upgrade

Times Staff Writer

IN the family of Beatles cinematic offspring, “Help!” has long been the easy-to-overlook middle child.

It lacked the explosive energy of the first-born “A Hard Day’s Night,” the train-wreck experimentation of “Magical Mystery Tour,” the sheer innovation of “Yellow Submarine” and the eye-opening cinema verite documentation of the world’s most popular band in the midst of disintegrating of “Let It Be.”

A newly restored two-DVD edition of “Help!” (due Tuesday) doesn’t dramatically alter its status in the Fab Four’s filmic canon, but it’s a charming reminder of just how engaging these individuals were on the big screen.

Director Richard Lester, who also handled “A Hard Day’s Night,” says in an interview that’s part of the extras disc, “We didn’t want to repeat ‘A Hard Day’s Night.’ The next logical step would have been to show them in their real lives. But by that point their real lives were X-rated, or what would have been considered X-rated at that time. So the only thing left was to have them become the passive recipients of an outside threat.”

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Far-fetched as the story was -- a religious sect’s plot to kill Ringo Starr because he’s wearing a sacred sacrificial ring -- “Help!” surrounded Starr, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison with fabulous character actors, including Leo McKern, Eleanor Bron, Victor Spinetti and Roy Kinnear. And it’s still head and shoulders above the kind of films exploiting pop stars that were commonplace at the time (think any of Elvis’ ‘60s films).

The most noteworthy aspect of the new edition is the gorgeously remixed and remastered 5.1 surround-sound mix on the movie’s seven original songs. With dynamic compression that was standard in the 1960s lifted for the digital age, the full range of the group’s musicality comes through -- it’s like several coats of dust have been cleaned off an old master’s painting.

Beatles fans should revel in the sonic improvement, as Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr recently downplayed any thoughts of similarly upgrading the sound on the remainder of the catalog, even if it is being prepped for digital downloading soon.

The texture of Lennon’s acoustic guitar strums in “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” the punch of Ringo’s drums in “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl,” the electric sting of Harrison’s Rickenbacker in “Ticket to Ride” and the bounce of McCartney’s bass in “Another Girl” are a joy to experience anew through a high-end, home-theater sound system.

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The visuals have also been spruced up, and there’s a section in the bonus disc recounting the lengths to which the tech folks went to restore them, most evident in the stunning cinematography shot in the Austrian Alps and the Bahamas for no other reason than putting the Beatles in exotic locations.

The extras disc also includes a bittersweet interview with actress Wendy Richard (subsequently a star of the long-running BBC working-class soap “EastEnders”) about her scene in “Help!” that wound up on the cutting-room floor. And the former head of the Beatles’ Apple Corps company, Neil Aspinall, talks openly about the effect that marijuana and other substances the band members and their entourage were experimenting with in 1965 had on the filming of “Help!”

Get high with a little help from their friends, indeed.

randy.lewis@latimes.com


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