This month marks the 40th anniversary of Paul McCartney’s 1970 announcement that he had left The Beatles, effectively signalling the foursome’s end. To fans at the time, this was the darkest day in Fab Four history. It turns out, however, that it wasn’t even the darkest of the ’70s…and I’m not talking about when the lads turned down Lorne Michaels’ generous $3,000 offer for a 1976 reunion on Saturday Night Live. No, the moment that Beatlemania truly packed it in, jumped headfirst into a waiting grave, and started shovelling dirt on itself came in July of 1978, when film and record producer Robert Stigwood–who helped bring The Who’s Tommy to the big screen and was riding high on the box-office hits Saturday Night Fever and Grease–looked to repeat his success with the premiere of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Problem was, Tommy had all four Who members starring and performing in it, the next two films had John Travolta’s screen presence, and Sgt. Pepper’s had…Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees!?
That’s right, Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees. You younger readers may not believe it, but these were two of the biggest acts in music at the time, thanks to the Frampton Comes Alive! album and the brothers Gibb’s songs on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. True, they all had next to no acting experience, but what acting had The Beatles done before A Hard Day’s Night? Who better, then, to play a fresh-faced foursome from the small town of Heartland, U.S.A. than…an Englishman and three British siblings raised in Australia? Okay, there’s the first problem this movie faced: What if your lead actors can’t do American accents? The “ingenious” solution was to eliminate nearly all the dialogue and tell the story through more than two dozen unconnected Beatles songs from the titular album and others, plus some expository narration from George Burns, who plays Heartland’s mayor, Mr. Kite.
The film opens with Burns’ raspy verbiage telling how the original Sgt. Pepper and his bandmates helped win World War I by playing the title song on the battlefield, which makes the soldiers all happy and peaceful. The combo comes back to Heartland and performs through a montage of musical styles up to 1958, when poor Sarge drops dead during a farewell concert. Twenty years later, the band’s mantle is taken up by Pepper’s grandson Billy Shears (Frampton) and his boyhood pals the Hendersons (the Gibbs)…all of whom look at least a decade too old to be young musicians just starting out. No sooner do they get through “With a Little Help from My Friends” than a shady record mogul (a bewigged Donald Pleasence) lures the boys to Hollywood and uses booze, drugs, and a girl group called Lucy and The Diamonds to get them to sign with him.
While the fellas are in California on “a grueling week’s trip towards superstardom” that includes recording sessions, TV shows, and a blatant tie-in appearance at the long-gone Sunset Boulevard Tower Records, mean old real estate tycoon Mr. Mustard (British comic Frankie Howerd) arrives in Heartland and steals the original Sgt. Pepper’s band’s instruments, which possess some ill-defined mystic powers. As the once-wholesome burg devolves into a den of saloons, casinos and pinball arcades, with a giant cheeseburger in the town square, Billy’s girlfriend Strawberry Fields (Sandy Farina…say, isn’t that what the residents at a seaside nursing home get for breakfast?) leaves home to rescue him and his chums from their lives of fame and pleasure.
Setting out to recover the purloined instruments, the boys must battle deranged plastic surgeon Dr. Maxwell (Steve Martin, making his feature film debut) and brainwashing guru Father Sun (Alice Cooper) before a final showdown with the evil Future Villain Band that would, as Burns puts it, “poison young minds, pollute the environment and subvert the democratic process”…Aerosmith!? (Rumor has it they tried to get KISS for the role). Those of you who always wanted to see a no-holds-barred brawl between Peter Frampton and Steven Tyler get your wish here, but our hero’s win comes at the cost of Strawberry’s life. Luckily, the Sgt. Pepper weather vane in downtown Heartland is able to magically turn into a gold lamé-clad Billy Preston, who brings her back to life, turns Mustard and his minions into nuns and priests (don’t ask), and saves the day for decent, non-threatening pop music.
Ah, but just when you think that’s the end, your senses are assaulted with an “all-star” assemblage of musical talent joining Frampton, The Bee Gees and company on the set for a reprise of the title song. This gathering, meant by Stigwood to be a “Who’s Who” of the rock world, boasts a roster that includes the famous (Heart, Tina Turner, Frankie Valli), the once-famous (Yvonne Elliman, Leif Garrett, Al Stewart) to the “What the heck do they have to do with rock and roll?” (Carol Channing, Harry Humphries as Dame Edna Everage, Gwen Verdon). Supposedly Paul and Linda McCartney and George Harrison were in the studio when this scene was shot and were offered the chance to appear, but wisely turned it down.
Where to begin critiquing this Tragical Misery Tour? The very idea of doing a Beatles musical without The Beatles seems incomprehensible (although it didn’t stop Broadway director Julie Taymor from taking a crack at it in 2007 with Across the Universe), and yet I have to confess some of the songs here are not that bad. Martin brought the goofy, high-energy shtick that marked his early work to his manic take on “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” there’s a soulful performance by Earth Wind & Fire of “Got to Get You into My Life” that’s not only effective but became a hit single, Aerosmith acquit themselves nicely with their version of “Come Together,” and a suitably funky rendition of “Get Back” comes courtesy of Preston as Sgt. Pepper (who, strangely enough, wasn’t black in the beginning of the movie). As for Frampton and The Bee Gees…well, their singing is not unbearable. That’s a word I’ll leave for “Fixing a Hole” as crooned by George Burns.
A film, of course, is not a soundtrack album (although you could find copies of this one’s many years after its debut in record store dollar bins). The lack of dialogue means that everyone is on mugging-for-the-camera overtime, with Frampton trying to look like a sensitive romantic lead and the Gibbs just looking like they don’t know what to do without microphones in front of them. Howerd hams up his part shamelessly, and fellow Brit Paul Nicholas’ character (Frampton’s brother and the band’s manager) gets lost well before the climax. The fact that this was singer Farina’s first and last acting job says all that needs to be said about that.
Add to this a woefully disjointed storyline to try and link the songs together and some once state-of-the-art technology and effects (from Howerd’s computer and robot aides to the Star Wars-inspired “lighthammer” duel between Frampton and Martin) and the result is an unfunny musical mish-mash that audiences were happy to get out of their lives. Sgt. Pepper’s less-than-fab box-office performance put the careers of its four stars on the skids for years and left producer Stigwood scrambling to regain his mojo with bad sequels to his earlier hits–Grease 2 and Staying Alive (now there’s a weight he’ll have to carry a long time).
With all this going against it, it’s not surprising that people thought Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band would be the final nail in the coffin of the big-budget Hollywood musical. Well, the people were wrong again, because that nail would come along two years later and will be the subject of our next case file. I don’t want to give anything away, but I’ll leave you with four little letters: Y, M, C, A.