Often one goes into a bad movie asking — to borrow the name of a highly entertaining podcast — how did this get made? Or worse, you have to stop and ask yourself, in the case of a film that ends up offending both target audiences, such as 1972s The Pink Angels, who exactly is this movie being made for?
Let me reiterate: In 1978, a movie version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Band — starring the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton — probably made all the sense in the world.
The Brothers Gibb had just come off Saturday Night Fever (1977), a movie that transcended the screen and spawned a movement. Or at least a fad. But between that and Barry Gibb producing Grease’s title song (and I just want to throw in that the Bee Gee’s also wrote and arranged 1979’s Dolly Parton/Kenny Rogers opus, “Islands in the Stream”), the boys from Manchester via the Isle of Man were on the top of the world. It truly does not get any higher a mountain and the fall, we’ll soon see, does not get any further.
Peter Frampton — after a journeyman career of playing in bands and being seen as a viable solo artist — had finally scored big with Frampton Comes Alive! in 1976. The album spent 97 weeks on the charts, selling 8 million copies. That number today is well nigh impossible to reach today; it equals around 13% of the overall records sold in 2016.
So this ersatz Fab Four — if you will or won’t — had star power, at least on vinyl. The Bee Gees had also covered the Beatles for a BBC doc in 1976, despite years of critical derision that they were simply clones of the boys from Liverpool.
Stars were aligning. Even better, Saturday Night Fever and Grease came out on Robert Stigwood’s RSO Label. Stigwood purchased 29 of the Beatles’ best songs for use in a Broadway play and then had the brainstorm to create a film, using the aforementioned big music stars. He got Beatles’ producer George Martin and Abbey Road Studios on board. And even worked with Paramount — the same studio who launched Saturday Night Fever — to get the movie greenlit. Add in what I editorialize was the kind of cocaine mountain that only the ’70s and Martin Scorsese could concoct and…ladies and germs, we got ourselves a motion picture!
So up until now, until that first shot of the film, this all makes sense. It’s when reality allows its ugly head to intrude that we see just what an epic failure of a movie this is. Writer Henry Edwards had never written a script before. And oh, does it show.
Whereas the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds directly influenced and made the audio Sgt. Peppers an aural feat, there was no such film to inspire this outing. In fact, there isn’t even a story, unlike the Who’s Tommy. So to get across the tale — such as it is — George Burns would be the only person to speak (he’s the Mr. Kite, he of whom the song For the Benefit of… is about) with every other bit of dialogue being sung.
That’s right, kids! It’s the hip sound of today, as frogingly croaked out by the star of Oh God! Meanwhile, the Bees Gees play Mark, David and Bob Henderson. Why those names? Don’t ask! And in the starring role, Peter Frampton is Billy Shears (and not the man who took the place of the headless Paul McCartney if you believe in urban legends)!
At some point in the proceedings, my sainted wife asked if we could shut the movie off. I maniacally cackled in her face and began laughing so hard that my sides began to hurt. I had been overtaken by the delirium of this paean to excess. To wit:
Every single frame is as loud and garish as possible (and not in an Alejandro Jodorowsky way). Yes, Michael Schultz, the famed director of the Fat Boys’ Disorderlies (1987), Car Wash (1976) and The Last Dragon (1985) made this movie with all the technical brilliance of your father with a Super 8 at the theme park.
Each song replaces the beloved guitar, bass and sitar of the Beatles with a synthesizer that only plays human farts.
Every song that you adored will be personified by singers and/or actors you will grow to despise. Did you love Maxwell, of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” fame? Then you’re going to hate Steve Martin as the dentist version of him! Yes, years before Little Shop of Horrors (1986) and at the height of his stand-up fame, even Steve Martin is rendered unloveable by this fecund monstrosity of a film. Donald Pleasence is a music exec that sings poorly! They took Alice Cooper out of the asylum where he would fitfully write Welcome to My Nightmare (1975) and had him appear as the Sun King. Nobody you love is unscathed, save Aerosmith, who play the evil Future Villain Brand. A footnote here: The Bee Gees were to defeat Aerosmith in unarmed combat in the film, leading Joe Perry to walk off the set until cooler heads prevail. They are killed by the female Strawberry Fields instead, which I guess is some sort of compromise.
The Bee Gees and Frampton’s acting ability and chemistry make Rex Reed in Myra Breckenridge and Mariah Carey in Glitter (2001) look like Mercury Theater cast members. They mostly look emaciated, as if they were denied trips to craft services unless they got it finally right this take.
By the merciful end, when a deus ex machina Billy Preston shows up to play the horn — saving the day — after Barry Gibbs decimates Golden Slumbers, you’ll hate England, poofy hair, chest hair, motion pictures, actors, actresses and even your trusty DVD player. If this movie is your introduction to the Beatles, you will hate them, popular music and all music, when you come to think of it.
But wait — there’s more! The last scene of the movie builds the album cover of “Sgt. Pepper”, but instead of Buddha and Aleister Crowley showing up, the most famous stars of the late 1970s were all invited, offered free travel and the most elite of accommodations. And who exactly showed up? Big stars, that’s who! Carol Channing! Peter Allen – first wife of Liza, not Lily’s dad! Keith Carradine! Nils Lofgren! Legendary fifth Beatle (when you don’t count the aforementioned Billy Preston) Cousin Brucie! Sha-Na-Na! Pre-Thunderdome Tina Turner! The co-creator of Captain America, Joe Simon! Bocephus! Wolfman Jack! Obviously, the stars did not shine so brightly that day on the Culver City backlot of MGM Studios.
The reviews — and box office for this film — were not kind. I first witnessed it at 3 AM on a Saturday night in 1980. I was 8 years old, so I figured that this movie would age like a fine wine. However, it has aged like a bad piece of steak, left out in the cold and rained on for over 30 years.
Look — you know you’ve got a turkey when Marvel Comics cancels their adaption, George Perez artwork and all. But I still say, you should totally watch this movie. After all this pain it put me through, I need a support group. And this is the only way I’m going to get new members.
This article originally appeared on That’s Not Current. You may read the original article at http://www.thatsnotcurrent.com/movie-review-sgt-peppers-lonely-hearts-club-band-1978/
Be sure to join us for our three part “The Beatles: Influence on Film” series as we look at Sgt. Pepper and 33 other films dealing with the legacy of the Beatles.
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Still the best movie to feature a Alice Cooper dunking his face in a pie while watching a boxing match. I feel sorry for Frampton, who got fooled into thinking he’d be working with Paul McCartney in this movie. Despite not becoming a big star, Dianne Steinberg doesn’t regret doing this movie one iota, so maybe I shouldn’t feel sorry for her. Wonder who won that boxing match?