Dr. Strangefilm Case #012: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

s1This 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.

s2Setting 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.

  • Jim

    This movie came out when I was in college and working at a movie theater. Back then, when there was a new film coming out that we wanted to see, the projectionist would give us a sneak preview after hours on the night before it opened. I remember when we did this for “Sgt. Pepper.” We all sat open-mouthed and aghast at how bad it was. I think the projectionist cut it off before it was even over!

  • RICHARD ABNEY

    I FIRST SAW SGT PEPPERS WHEN I WAS TWELVE YEARS OLD.IN OAK BROOKE THEATES IN ILL.I THOUGHT IT WAS A OK MOVIE AT THE TIME.THE THEATER ITS WHAT MADE THE MOVIE.THEY HAD A SOUND SYTEM LIKE YOU WOULDNT BELIVE.AND SPEAKERS ABOUT AS BIG AS AN AVERAGE HOUSE DOOR ALL THE WAY AROUND THE THEATER.AND THEY HAD IT CRANKED UP.IT SOUNDED AWSOME. I THINK THE MOVIE WAS MORE FOR LIKE PINK FLOYD THE WALL.U HAD TO BE HIGH IN OREDER TO REALLY ENJOY IT.IT WILL TAKE YOU FOR A RIDE. I THINK THE THEATER MAKES A DIFFERENCE. IVE SEEN OTHER MOVIES IN THEATERS AND THEY CAN COMPETE LIKE THE OKABROOKE THEATER IN ILL.

    • Steve

      I was twelve when I saw it in the theater, and I liked so much I saw it again in the theater . . . and collected the bubble gum cards – I even made a calendar out of the extra copies! I had the soundtrack on vinyl AND cassette! But something funny happened . . . I got the Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper and ‘Abbey Road’ LPS and heard the songs from the movie as originally done by the Fabs. I stopped liking the movie and I stopped liking the soundtrack, and I have spent my adult life warning neophyte Beatles fans to stay away from this movie. i couldn’t get rid of the soundtrack LP fast enough. I now HATE it! But I kinda like Frampton, I guess I feel sorry for him. Why did I like it? I was brainwashed by Father Sun. :-D

  • Dennis

    More drug soaked scenes, sounds and addled lyrics that personified the Beatles. You had to be stoned, (or stupid, but I repeat myself), to enjoy it. Too bad they ever fouled the stage with their drug glorifying songs and movies. I wonder how many young lives they were responsible for ruining? Too bad we can’t turn back the clock. That would have been one plane I would not have mind going missing in the “triangle”.

    • Firaziera

      I’ve been saelxluy assaulted by cicadas for weeks. WIth their big red eyes, if THEY can’t tell the dif between their species and me, why should biblical spies on Canaan be expected to know a grasshopper from a Jew?!

  • Dennis

    “minded” going missing

  • Gaiking6

    I saw this movie when I was about five or six years old. I thought it was fun… then! It served as my introduction to the Beatles, so it wasn’t all that bad. I still think of Aerosmith as the “Future Villain Band”.

    • Vandana

      ps: bitaueful, bitaueful cats(one of mine is on my lap as I type btw). He’s managing extremely expertly to lean his head all over my left hand and forearm of course . . . it’s his way of saying get away from that keyboard.

    • Steve

      Look for professional geezer Pat Crenshaw – who played the hilariously lecherous old codger Andy on CBS-TV’s “Alice,” always trying to bribe Alice Hyatt with candy bars – as a Western Union messenger. Yes, people apparently still sent telegrams in 1978! :-D

  • Michael Schweitzer

    You wrote precisely what I would have said – word for word – if I had your skill. Right on!

  • http://www.facebook.com/Twistr54 Brad Adams

    I know I’ll have to face the hounds of hell for saying this, but…. I really liked this movie, its super loud Dolby soundtrack,(awesome in the theatre ) and flashy strange sequences. I was never a big Bealtes fan, but really dug the soundtrack with new updated lyrics and new singers,The Bee Gees and Peter Frampton.
    Your not supposed to figure this movie out, your just supposed to sit back and take it all in,enjoy the ‘trippyness’ that was used in making a FANTASY MUSICAL. People seem to forget, this is a FANTASY, Sgt. Pepper can be white at the begining and black at the end, The full cast at the end was the people celebrating Sgt. Pepper and his music and ideas.
    I hope this comes out on Blu Ray, the sound will be awesome with home theatres, the Dolby at home can be as loud as we want, just like at the theatre.

  • poseidonfan57

    I saw the film at an invitation-only screening back in 1978. I ran into a friend who was a die-hard Beatles fan and she sat there through the whole film sighing, and shaking her head like she couldn’t believe how bad it was! I really enjoyed it myself. In fact, I’m a big Robert Stigwood fan. I enjoy all of his wild, over-the-top films. You do know who arranged and directed the music, Mr George Martin. I recently watched the DVD on my Blu-Ray player and it looks and sounds great with my HD sound system. But, I would also like to see the film released on Blu-Ray.

  • Trish

    While it’s a horrid movie, there’s one thing I do like about this movie – Peter Frampton kills himself in it. Well, until someone makes Frampton come alive.

    I’m just sayin’, I hated Peter Frampton at age 7, when this pile of stink came out. It helps to make the movie’s hurt go away, seeing him jump off a barn, possibly because he realised he was at the end of his career.

  • Evan

    I saw this movie in the theaters with my older sisters when I was 8 years old. I didn’t know who The Beatles were at the time, so as far as I knew, these were all great new tunes. Of course, I knew the Bee Gee’s from Saturday Night Fever, but I got Peter Frampton confused with Roger Daltry cause I saw Tommy with my sisters too, and one blond long hair dude looked like another to me when I was 8. LOL! Anyway, this movie made an impression on me, and I am now a HUGE Beatles fan because of it, and the fact that my sister got me the Red and Blue Albums when I was a kid didn’t hurt either. I do have the DVD, and if you have surround sound you can change the audio to DTS and it sounds great. YES, it’s a goofy movie, but so was Tommy even with The Who in it, it’s a pretty bad movie too. Take it for what’s it worth, and it’s great for kids.

  • BadGnx2

    This movie can probably best be called a BIG, HAPPY MESS. Although a fantasy, it doesn’t have the wonder or scope or vision of true fantasy musicals such as “Mary Poppins”, or “Wizard Of Oz” or “An American In Paris”.
    Having non actors like the Bee Gees in such pivotal roles was a big mistake as was making the film with little to no dialog.
    George Burns was also badly miscast.

    The director, Michael Schultz had previously made a few pictures with Richard Pryor including “Car Wash” – a very good film.
    But the premise of this film and its direction was all wrong.
    The ONLY saving grace IS the music. And some good songs came out of this including Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Got To Get You Into My Life and Aerosmith’s “Come Together”.
    Without a better story and execution, its too bad we’ll never know how this film could have turned out.

    • Steve

      Schultz directed 1981′s ‘Carbon Copy,’ an earnest film about race that starred an unknown actor named Denzel Washington.

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    • Deakin

      Hi,Maybe we can offer to help our neiohbgr put in a new tree. While we may not be able to have the lush view we had dreamed of, our children will.Peace

  • Steve

    George Martin reported that, before Kiss was offered the role given to Aerosmith, Robert Stigwood wanted Mick Jagger to play the Future Villain. HE also reportedly tried – unsuccessfully, of course – to get Paul McCartney to play Sgt. Pepper himself, but had to settle for Preston as Sgt. Pepper’s spirit, plus two guys as the young and old Sgt. Pepper – Scott Manners and Woodrow Chambliss, respectively. Who??