I Saw a Film Today, Oh Brother! The 1978 “Sgt. Pepper” Film Folly Re-visited

pepper poster

The $1 VHS Film Festival continues with 1978’s misbegotten Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I first got interested in the film (I had only seen bits of it on TV) after a lengthy and absorbing look-back piece by Clark Collis in a 2001 issue of Mojo magazine (discussed below). At the time it was unavailable on home video and down to its last couple of prints. So I figured if I ever came across a used tape it would be priced at either fitty cents or $30, depending if the seller knew what he had. So I when I spotted it for a buck at a used record store, I did not feel hard done by. It has since been issued on DVD and is available on Amazon for $6.66, a perfect price point for that company, if you catch my drift.

At this late date, it doesn’t seem that the status of Robert Stigwood’s white-elephant film musical of the Beatle’s most famous album will ever change much. Sgt. Pepper the movie seems forever suspended between being a forgotten fiasco and a potential cult classic, with little momentum left to nudge the needle either way. The Mojo article tracked the utter hubris of impresario Stigwood and his top-drawer clients who were recruited to star in the film and sing most of the numbers: Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees. In 1977 these were musical artists who were riding very high, the former with his blockbuster live LP Frampton Comes Alive and the latter with the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. All involved apparently believed that Beatles’ generational game-changer (all of ten years old at that point) was already forgotten by younger kids and that their film version would replace it in the minds of future generations. Moreover, Frampton said at the time that his role would likely lead to his becoming a movie star on the level of a Robert DeNiro. Along with this unearned arrogance, this work also comes across as a by-product of a sort of collective cocaine psychosis that gripped certain sectors of the movie and recording industries during that era. It didn’t seem like anyone was straight enough to have a coherent vision about the final product, instead they just rode the Beatles’ military-style coattails right down into a ditch.

sgt-peppers-prance
If you think these clothes are painful to look at, just try prancing around in them!

With its candy-colored costumes, overstuffed production numbers and fructose-encrusted goodies-vs.-baddies storyline, Sgt. Pepper is so icky-sweet that I felt a tummy ache coming on before the end of the first act. But once your eyes adjust to the gaudiness and your brain dials down to the film’s bottom-scraping sensibility (Mean Mr. Mustard is stealing the original Sgt. Pepper heart-shaped flugelhorn that ended World War One!) it’s not all bad. After all, you have a bumper crop of stellar Beatles tunes (mostly from Pepper and Abbey Road), many sung by a trio of brothers who, before their disco phase, were bona fide purveyors of 60s progressive pop. And the wacky visual effects are a guilty pleasure, even if they look like they were conceived by someone who was dosed with some of that bad brown acid left over from Woodstock.

Problem is, aside from the ongoing narration of Heartland mayor Mr. Kite (an amiable George Burns) it’s all music. Somewhere, a decision was made that the Brit and Aussie accents of the four stars made dialogue a no-go. That leaves them to otherwise mug and mime between singing parts and Charlie Chaplin these guys are not. Without any speaking lines, what plot there is gets cobbled together by creating scenes to fit the lyrics of disparate songs, a tricky task that the hapless director Michael Schultz is not often up to.

steve dance
Tonight you did not swing successfully.

Watching Steve Martin applying his wild-crazy-guy shtick to “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” or Alice Cooper over-enunciate “Because” from inside a God bubble are one-and-done experiences. Obscure R&B singer Diane Steinberg does fine with “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and various duets but squeaky-clean newcomer Sandy Farina as Strawberry Fields, the girlfriend of Billy Shears (Frampton), croons “Here Comes the Sun” and her namesake tune to little effect. (The utter lack of romantic chemistry between her and Peter doesn’t help matters).

pepper 5
As soon as they let him out of the bubble, Alice headed back to the golf course.

Nowadays, the only songs from the soundtrack you’ll hear on the radio are Aerosmith’s “Come Together” and Earth Wind and Fire’s slinky funkification of “Got to Get You into My Life.” George Martin, the film’s musical director and only real connection to the Fab Four (unless you count Billy Preston), regretted afterwards that they didn’t take more chances with the material. They had the Bee Gees play it too safe, though there are some occasional treats, like Robin Gibb’s pensive “Oh! Darling.” But after our heroes have dispensed with a succession of silly-ass villains (whose brainwashing motto “We Hate Love, We Hate Joy, We Love Money” was later purchased by a Wall St. consortium) and we get to a “Sgt. Pepper” reprise finale featuring dozens of movie and music stars brought onto the Hollywood backlot, many filmgoers must have been wondering why they didn’t just stay home and play a few Beatle records instead.

pepper 2
By this time, it was too late to call the whole thing off.

The movie opened to a withering volley of contemptuous reviews (Paul Nelson in Rolling Stone: “a film upon which every major decision is wrong”) but did make back it’s $18 million production budget and then some, largely thanks to foreign distribution and impulse purchases of the soundtrack album. While Robert Stigwood did end up making a profit, the film’s pariah status with the press and US/UK audiences set back him back as a producer until 1996’s Evita. Sgt. Pepper also effectively ended the “acting careers” of Frampton and the Gibb brothers, while poor Sandy Farina never ate lunch in that town again. A similar cinematic exercise, Julie Taymoor’s 2007 Across the Universe, may have had a more talented director and a more plausible look, but also suffered from an awkward literalism and left behind a trail of mixed reviews and red ink. Consider this as an object lesson to “leave well enough alone,” a favorite old adage of mine that seems to have fallen out of favor in modern times. Fact is, the Beatles’ music is so vivid and timeless that it carries its own inner-eye visual legacy in the minds of both baby boomers and many others in generations that followed. Just “Let it Be” already.

2 comments

  1. I forgot Robert Stigwood was behind this fiasco. He partnered with Brian Epstein’s NEMS organization in January 1967, a move which angered many NEMS staffers who were aware of Stigwood’s autocratic managerial style. Moreover, the Beatles were upset, especially since Brian had broached the possibility that Stigwood would take over managerial duties of the band. They threatened a recording mutiny should the change in management ever take place. Then Brian Epstein died in August and Clive Epstein took over the company. By December, Stigwood had left to form his own company, taking with him the Bee Gees and Cream. (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Stigwood ) Stigwood may have seen the movie as a way of making money off of his former partner’s golden goose, having been thwarted in his attempts to gain ownership – but ended up laying a rotten egg. Curious, too, was the involvement of Frankie Howerd, who had originally been part of the cast of Help! but whose character (and footage) was cut from the film. Did his being excluded in Help! spur him to take the part of the chief villain in this one? Not exactly revenge in the proper sense, but in this movie his role was secure – and the Beatles could not change that. But the conceit that these new versions would become the benchmark versions for a new generation – only the Aerosmith and Earth, Wind & Fire songs have any potential of making that claim.
    This is probably the only movie I have seen where I wanted to have a paper bag to put over my head in case anyone saw me exiting the theater. The audience had moved beyond disappointment to contempt by the end – people started shouting encouraging to Frampton to jump to his death with the hope that this would bring a quick end to the movie. He didn’t but the quick ending did come – mercifully.

  2. Your comments remind me of why it was such fun to write this post despite the film being such a stinker. There are so many fascinating levels to it behind the scenes. I also heard that Aerosmith refused to have their villainous characters defeated by the likes of Peter Frampton. In the end, I think Steven Tyler falls from the tower after an inadvertent knock from Sandy Farina. Oh, to be a fly on the wall during that production meeting!

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