Only in the 70s: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978)
THERE is a movie based on The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Let me repeat that. There is a movie based on The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It stars, among others, the Bee Gees, Peter Frampton, Alice Cooper, Aerosmith, Steve Martin, Donald Pleasance, Earth Wind & Fire, George Burns and Billy Preston. It involves the theft of musical instruments from Heartland (yes, really) by a roving gang of Frankie Howerd and his creepy sex robots. It features a character named Strawberry Fields singing ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. It is also absolute shite. I am not making any of this up.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a trainwreck, and not in the classic Lisztomania sense. This is the 70s at its most indulgent and malignant, taking the treasured musical summit of the 60s and mutating it into a clanging, cocaine-fuelled, disco-flecked monstrosity, systematically draining it of every solitary shred of dignity it had left. Not content with killing Sgt. Pepper, arguably the most beloved of the Beatles’ discography, Robert Stigwood and Michael Schultz besmirch a good half of Abbey Road and a few choice snippets from Magical Mystery Tour, Let it Be and Revolver.
The film is uniformly dreadful and one of the hardest I’ve managed to sit through in quite some time. The cast look like they wandered on-set and spent the remainder of the film trying to find the exit. The music is rubbish with weak harmonies, over-the-top production and unedited lyrics; this is especially poor considering it was all produced and overseen by George Martin himself. Even at a relatively trim 113 minutes it feels bloated and exorbitantly long, an obvious problem when considering it’s stretched to nearly triple the original album’s length.
It’s a film propelled entirely by an ego running rampant. Said ego – codename: Robert Stigwood – was coasting on the recent success of Grease and Saturday Night Fever; on paper, a cinematic version of Sgt. Pepper seemed like a perfectly sound idea. Never mind the fact that the original album is about as much a rock opera as Bruce Willis’ Return of Bruno, we’ll staple a slipshod narrative on top of the classic songs and call it a movie.
Chuck in a few from Abbey Road, dispense with conventional dialogue, tell the ‘story’ entirely through song and clumsy George Burns exposition and, golly gosh, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band! It writes itself! After all, the Beatles themselves had done hastily put-together, narratively inconsequential films, right? And since we couldn’t get that lot to share a room together if we put a gun to their heads, why not get the next best thing – the Bee Gees?
It turns out that the Bee Gees have about as much screen charisma as a sponge in an ocean comprised entirely of sponges and wet blankets. The Fab Four have more charm in the broom handles of their cameo at the end of Yellow Submarine than the Brothers Gibb are able to exhibit in the entirety of this two hour car crash. Peter Frampton, himself riding the crest of Frampton Comes Alive!, at the time the most successful live album ever, fares little better. All of them look adrift and decidedly embarrassed in their roles as the titular band; the Bee Gees, indeed, tried to walk out of the production halfway through before contractual obligations disagreed. It shows.
Paul Nicholas – another Stigwood understudy and former Zombie Antichrist Wagner Hitler – shows up to do approximately jack shit before duetting ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ with Dianne Steinberg. Steve Martin looks like he’s actually having some demented fun as Dr. Maxwell singing, you fucking guessed it, ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’, prefiguring his Little Shop of Horrors dentist routine. Alice Cooper does an eerily weird ‘Because’ just… because, while Aerosmith inexplicably show up as Future Villain Band (no, really) to sing ‘Come Together’, which ended up becoming a staple of their live shows.
Frankie Howerd pops up in his only U.S. film role to gurn as Mean Mr. Mustard (…), flanked by two sex robots who sing ‘She’s Leaving Home’ (I don’t know why). Finally, gloriously, the weather vane dedicated to the memory of the old Sgt. Pepper (who single-handedly ended both World Wars, by the way) magically comes to life in the form of Billy Preston! He proceeds to sing ‘Get Back’ verbatim (including the references to “Loretta”, who is not a character in the movie) as he zaps the villains with lightning bolts, turning them into clergymen, all while bringing the dead back to life and foiling a suicide attempt. I am not making this up. This happens. This actually happens. Billy Preston is, literally, God out of the machine.
The rock opera format, obviously, makes absolutely no sense with the basis of an album that is quite patently not a fucking rock opera. Tommy and The Wall, for instance, were originally rock opera double albums, justifying their film adaptations’ running times. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is 113 minutes long – the album is 40 minutes long. A standard jukebox musical, with or without a daft cobbled-together story would have made, you know, sense. Edited lyrics would also have gone a long way to masking the fact that this wafer-thin concept is a non-starter whichever way you hack it.
Here’s a non-Billy Preston example: Sandy Farina sings ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ to Peter Frampton. The song includes the lyrics, “Let me take you down / ‘Cos I’m going to / Strawberry Fields.” Farina’s character is named Strawberry Fields. Strawberry Fields is, essentially, singing “Let me take you down / ‘cos I’m going to / me.” She’s going to herself? Is that deep? Is it a thinly-veiled oral sex reference? I don’t know. The film doesn’t know. Neither of us care.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is what happens when a man on top decides to piss on everyone’s day. It’s a film so monumentally atrocious that it actually manages to forever ruin the album’s title track, a song that gets played at least five times throughout the film. Only Billy Preston, Earth Wind & Fire (who scored a massive hit with ‘Got to Get You Into My Life’ from their appearance here) and Aerosmith escape with any shred of integrity, somehow transcending the mess beneath them. It’s horrid, exploitative garbage that rightly got critically savaged and it could only have been made in the 70s.