Monday, September 10, 2012

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band (1978)

                                            Directed by Michael Schultz

Let's flashback to the year 1978. On the heel of mega successes with Saturday Night Fever and Grease, head of the entertainment conglomerate RSO Robert Stigwood conceptualized what seemed to be another surefire hit, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band. Uniting the at-the-time white hot Peter Frampton, straight off his double album Frampton Comes Alive, and the Bee Gees, the act he signed that ignited the disco sensation with Stigwood's Saturday Night Fever, for a musical fantasy based on songs by The Beatles seemed like another one in the win column for RSO. Add in a slew of other major players from that era, such as Aerosmith, George Burns, Steve Martin, Alice Cooper, Earth, Wind and Fire, Billy Preston, and many more, and this was a can't-miss prospect on paper. However, the success of Sgt. Pepper's supposed genius remained on the very paper it was printed on.

Over the decades, Sgt. Pepper with his magical musical instruments solved wars and world crises everywhere he went by making everyone happy and peaceful. Closer to then present day of the film, Sgt. Pepper dies in his town of Heartland during a statue raising ceremony in his honor and the torch is passed onto his grandson Billy Shears (Frampton), who along with the Henderson brothers (Bee Gees) form the latest incarnation of the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band. Why did the torch passing skip Billy's dad? Was he a strung out deadbeat? Perhaps he was a better shoemaker? Who knows? 

News of the band's talents reaches seedy L.A. record producer B.D. Hoffler (Donald Pleasance), so he recruits them to come to the city in an attempt to sign them. Billy's money grubbing brother and band manager Dougie (Paul Nicholas) jumps the chance to make some extra cash at the band's expense. Billy leaves the love of his life Strawberry Fields (Sandy Farina) behind in the confines of the protective, wholesome Heartland and travels to the unfamiliar territory of sin and temptation, where they are seduced in signing with B.D thanks to the advances of Lucy (Dianne Steinberg) and The Diamonds (Stargard). This leaves Heartland vulnerable to an invasion by Mr. Mustard (Frankie Howerd), led by the anonymous FVB (later revealed as Aerosmith), who steals the instruments and turns the town into a darker version of Fremont Street.
Seeing her Heartland in turmoil, Strawberry finds the boys and brings them back home to save the town. They steal Mr. Mustard's trailer-van hybrid and use it to locate the whereabouts of the instruments, all held onto by other FVB loyalists: Dr. Maxwell Edison (Steve Martin), Marvin Sunk (Alice Cooper) and FVB themselves. After finding the instrument Mustard was stashing in his van, the group ventures out to fight the evil forces for Sgt. Pepper's magical musical devices and bring order back to the universe. If the film wasn't already completely ridiculous enough, what proceeds throughout the rest of the film ups the silliness to the umpteenth degree. 

Whatever success the Fever and Grease brought the RSO empire, Sgt. Pepper destroyed it. In fact, the film negatively affected almost everyone attached to it, even those who showed up in the movie's grand finale chorus, like Leif Garrett and Sha-Na-Na. The Bee Gees' popularity dropped and disco started to die. Not that the latter effect was a bad thing. Frampton's career flatlined, Farina never made another film appearance, Nicholas went back overseas, Cooper was in rehab, Sha-Na-Na vanished, the promising talents of Steinberg and Stargard were never realized, and we all know what happened to Garrett. Even the planned Marvel Super Special Comic #7 based on the movie was canned in the U.S. and the only released copies materialized in foreign markets. The only people to crawl out of the ashes were Burns, Martin and Aerosmith. 

The movie was an absolute flop, panned by fans and critics alike. The only people that really enjoyed it were small children who had no idea what was going on, but that was not the intended demographic. It makes you wonder what the heck was going through the minds of those who wrote and produced the film as well as why anyone would have signed on to star in it in the first place - especially already famous talents who did not need the exposure. Besides being cinematic lunacy, the film's story is completely told via voiceover narration by George Burns. There is not one line of dialogue spoken throughout the whole film by anyone besides him. Every time Frampton, the Bee Gees or Nicholas spoke a line of dialogue, Burns' narration was the only thing heard. It was a really bizarre concept that just did not help matters in the least. The novelization fills in key scenes and dialogue to help things make sense, well at least whatever sense that could be pulled from a flick like this, but what is the point reading a book on a film filled with songs 90% of the time?

The only real success that Sgt. Pepper achieved was the double album soundtrack produced by RSO. It was a best seller and many songs were hits in the charts. In all honesty, the quality of the songs adapted from The Beatles are actually fantastic and are enjoyable to listen to. But that is only if you can block out what you remember seeing on the screen. Even Aerosmith's cover of Come Together often plays on classic rock stations nowadays and is viewed as being better than the original by many music critics. 

The other only interesting tidbits to stem from this film are the backstage dramatics that transpired at the time of filming. Besides Cooper's stint in rehab, there are rumors of rampant drug use on the set. Go figure. That probably answers the question of why so many people decided to participate in the project. Frampton and The Bee Gees feuded over who was going to get top billing in the credits. The winner was Frampton, but was he really the victor when you think about it? Since the film's release, Frampton flat out refuses to comment on anything concerning it. Meanwhile, the Gibb brothers have gone on record as to poke as much fun at it as humanly possible whenever they are questioned about it. Aerosmith threatened to walk out on the film when the script was changed to have Frampton kill off Steve Tyler's character. Therefore, it was re-written to have his demise be an accident. Finally, the original FVB (Future Villain Band) was to be KISS, who turned it down due to them feeling that it would hurt their image. Smart choice, but they also turned it down in favor of doing KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park. So that choice was actually like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

As bad as it is, you should all experience the cheesiness at least once so you can fully experience the WTF?-ness firsthand. It is guaranteed that you will not believe what you are watching and feel a little weird deep within your soul once the credits roll. A few beers should help your cause, but be prepared to take a trip down memory lane that many people who enjoy the nostalgia of the decade wish they could forget. 

2 out of 5 WTF?



Jonny Metro said...

I've never bothered to watch the movie, but I do have the double-album...ON VINYL. I like to pop it on the hi-fi every once in a while and revel in the mad, hot mess of it all.


allison said...

I have the double-album on vinyl, too! I listen to it often enough, but I've only seen the movie once or twice, years ago. I own it on VHS so I guess it's time to track down and VCR and give it another shot.

Jay Amabile said...

Suprisingly I've never watched this movie. I always wanted to though. Obviously, I think it would be better if KISS WAS in the movie!

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