yes, thank you for asking, the 70's did have a dark side. Those
of you who have seen the movie Boogie Nights know a little
about this dark side; but I'm not talking about petty human darkness,
here. I'm talking about soul-destroying, cosmic darkness. I'm talking
about Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
seemed to be a strange, small vogue in re-creating Beatles songs in
the latter half of the decade. I remember the day my roommate- who
seemed to listen to the Fab Four to exception of anything else - came
home with a boxed set of records, which purported to be the soundtrack
to a movie, All This And World War II, which was apparently
a collection of war footage accompanied by various rock worthies covering
Beatles tunes. I have never heard of this movie since. Never came
to our theaters, never saw it on video. I would normally chalk the
whole thing up to hallucination, but at this point I had not yet discovered
then there was Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
is ample proof this movie existed. I remember when it first came out,
because I was working in a record store at the time. As the new guy
on staff, to me was relegated the duty of being familiar with disco
music, because nobody else wished to subject themselves to it (talk
about your dark side). Nevertheless, I spent most of my shifts blaring
either the first Blues Brothers album or the Ramones over the system
while endlessly restocking the bin that held whatever Rod Stewart
album it was that contained "Do Ya
Think I'm Sexy". I bring up this period in my life only to point out
that doubtless one of the major reasons this movie got made was someone
had the bright idea to cast two of the biggest money makers in the
recording industry at the time, the BeeGees and Peter Frampton, as
the Beatles' surrogates... and despite that, our distributor wound
up eating a ton of soundtrack albums (a two-record set in a fancy
gatefold package, no less). For a reason.
begin with the Universal logo, which is cleverly used - the old logo,
with the airplane flying around the globe, with explosions erupting
on the globe's surface. You see, we are starting during World War
I, in a pitched battle fought in the tiny French village of "Fleu
de Coup". Everyone is trying to kill each other until music is
heard - to be exact, a brass band version of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely
Heart's Club Band" - and the war grinds to a halt as a marching band
passes through the smoke and carnage. A Narrator - instantly identifiable
as George Burns - tells us that this is the titular band, and wherever
they went, the fighting stopped.
then follow the band through the intervening decades, a well-done
montage during which "Sgt. Pepper" changes with the musical style
of the period, until we reach the present day. In their home town
of Heartland, Sgt. Pepper prepares to retire; his band's near-magical
instruments will be ensconced in the Heartland Museum, with the newly
coined legend that Heartland will prosper as long as the instruments
remain there (we smug writer folk like to call this sort of thing
foreshadowing). Alas, the Sarge dies during his farewell concert,
but not before passing the baton to his talented grandson, Billie
Shears. Now let's see how many Beatles songs they can assault:
the present day (or 1978), Billie Shears has grown up to be Peter
Frampton, and decides to reform the band with his lifelong friends,
the Henderson Brothers (The BeeGees). Billie's brother, Dougie (Paul
Nicholas), a tad bitter about being left out of the Sarge's
musical heritage, manages the new group. The announcement of the Band's
rebirth is accomplished by the singing of Sgt.
Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Brothers Gibb at
the bandstand in the center of Heartland. Billie takes leave of his
girlfriend (conveniently named Strawberry Fields) and runs through
the crowd, hitting the mike just in time to sing A
Little Help From My Friends.
we find one of the major problems with this movie: The BeeGees, with
their habitually tight harmonies, serve the music very well. Frampton,
however... well, his voice is rather thin, and has a lot of vibrato,
which sneaks into the lyrics at the oddest times. Once, when I was
directing a musical, I watched my musical director patiently break
my young actors of this habit, which they learned from listening to
pop music; it's a bit of a cheat, making your voice seem more colorful
and interesting, but it detracts from the music and what you are saying.
In 95% of pop music, the lyrics are not all that important; in musical
theater, the lyrics are vitally important. And Sgt. Pepper's Lonely
Hearts Club Band is not a pop record - it is a musical movie.
Well, most of the time, Frampton will be singing with the BeeGees,
so let's just cross our fingers and hope.
narration continues... and will be the only spoken dialogue during
the movie... telling us that the boys have gotten a telegram from
Big Deal records, asking for a demo tape. They retire to a nearby
farm to record it, as Burns - incidentally playing Heartland's mayor
and museum proprietor, Mr. Kite (wait for it...) ponders, who else
better deserves stardom? Why himself, of
course, and Burns begins to sing I'm Fixing
is the point where it would be far too simple to begin the easy job
of deriding this movie, but the truth is, George Burns started his
lengthy show biz career as a song and dance man, and he's too much
the pro to make himself look stupid, even though the only backup he
is given is two little girls playing near the bandstand. The old coot
comes out of this with his dignity pretty much intact, and my hat's
off to him.
new Club Band records their demo tape: Getting
Better. We use this song to get introduced to other dramatis
personae, like the villainous real estate agent (wait for it) Mr.
Mustard (Frankie Howerd), who drives about in a tricked-up schoolbus,
filled with kitschy furniture, two robots, and a high tech big screen
TV that connects him to his boss, who only makes himself known with
psych-o-delic spinning text bites, like those outlining their bad
guy philosophy; "We hate love/ We hate joy/ We love money".
It's only 1978, so we can't assume they're yuppies or anything like
the song continues, we also meet the record magnate, B.D. Brockhurst
(Donald Pleasence!) and his other superstar group, (wait for it!)
Lucy and the Diamonds. Frankly, I could have done without the sight
of Donald Pleasence dancing about in disco clothes.
calls for the boys to make the trip to L.A., and Billie spends one
last night in the arms of Strawberry Fields (Sandy Farina). The next
morning comes all too soon, and Strawberry awakes him by singing Here
Comes The Sun. Now, Ms. Farina has a very nice singing
voice, and she knows how to sell a song - she's one of the very few
pleasant surprises in this movie. So what happened to her?
our boys climb into a hot air balloon - remember that Roger Ebert
claims that no movie featuring a hot air balloon can be any good -
and head for the City of the Angels. They are met by BD in a outrageous
convertible limousine, with Lucy (Dianne Steinberg) acting as chauffeur.
And it is here that we can at last kick our derision machines into
gear, as the song is I Want You (She's So
Heavy), and the first verse is sung by... Donald Pleasence...
sorry, I slipped into a horrified fugue state there. After this, the
verses are taken up by various people - Lucy to Billie, Dougie to
Lucy, Prostitutes to everybody - until the Diamonds (played by Starcade,
and for the love of God, do not ask me what hit song they might
have had to get this gig) sing it to the boys, and begin their seduction
- literally - into the dark side of show business, and a coerced signing
away of their lives to BD Records. It's a lengthy song, and they cover
a lot of ground with it.
next day, the bedraggled, hungover boys begin "a grueling week's
trip towards superstardom" to the tune of Good
They hit the studio - fortunately singing the same song - and then
the road, appearing on the Big Disco show (note the initials), singing
a very abridged version of Nowhere Man.
Then comes one of the better uses of the Beatles music, as the medley
of Polythene Pam/ She Came In Through the
Bathroom Window is used to signify different venues, finally
ending up on the "Sgt. Pepper Special", which is watched
on a projection TV in Heartland. The lonely Strawberry retires to
her room as Carry That Weight
plays in the distance.
we've almost forgotten the villain of the piece - Mr. Mustard, who
is commanded by his TV to steal the original Sgt. Pepper's instruments
- which he does, with the aid of his giant henchman The Brute (Carel
Struycken). He is then instructed to take the trumpet to Dr. Maxwell
Edison (wait for it!!), the tuba to Reverend Sun (?) and the saxophone
to whoever's sending those flying letters... "F.V.B." The
drum he keeps for himself. All this is accomplished to the tune of
Mean Mr. Mustard (and now you
don't have to wait for that, anymore, at least), sung by the
robots. As the song continues, Mustard works his diabolical mojo on
the helpless Heartland, turning a farmer's market into a video arcade
filled with punks and Road Warrior rejects, and the bandstand
into a burger stand.
has developed himself a yen for Strawberry Fields, and when the plucky
girl climbs aboard the bus from Heartland to LA early one morning,
the robots try to awaken Mustard by crooning She's
Leaving Home. Thankfully, these singing chores are soon
taken over by the actual Mr. and Mrs. Fields (John Wheeler and Jay
W. Macintosh). This song always makes me cry, but this time it was
certainly the content, and not the execution.
disembarks in front of the BD Records Bldg, where enormous billboards
feature SPLHCB (you try typing that over and over again)and
Lucy and the Diamonds. Gazing at these, Strawberry begins to hear
Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds (another
song you won't be waiting for anymore), as she has a vision of The
Boys being seduced by Lucy and Stargard - er - the Diamonds. Despite
the fact that she is obviously hallucinating, Strawberry manages to
break in on a recording session where SPLHCB is laying down Robin
Gibbs' version of Oh Darling (one
of the very few songs from this collection that charted). Hearing
the sad tale of Heartland's slow demise, the boys abandon the studio
- much to the ire of BD, Lucy and Dougie.
has followed Strawberry to the building, and as he searches for her
fruitlessly (Strawberry! Fruitless! Get it? Ha! Ha ha! Aw, never mind....),
the Boys and Strawberry jack his bus and manage to figure out the
Big Screen enough to find out that the instruments have been split
up, and their first stop is the Edison Institute, and Dr. Maxwell
Edison (Steve Martin).
or so Burns tells us, is a plastic surgeon who makes the filthy rich
young again. He accomplishes this by waving around a big silver hammer
that shoots lightning bolts. Why? Because he's singing Maxwell's
Silver Hammer, of course. Martin did this movie while still
stuck in his Wild and Crazy Guy persona, so this is what we get a
lot of here, as he capers about with Happy Feet turning old people
into young folk wearing Boy Scout uniforms (?). SPLHCB arrives, and
being skinny-ass 70's rock stars, they get said skinny asses kicked.
But Edison and his staff panic for some reason and run away, so our
heroes get the trumpet by default.
stop: the temple of Rev. Sun (Alice Cooper!), who brainwashes an army
of youth (in those uniforms again) for the mysterious "F.V.B."
This brainwashing consists of a roomful of youth watching psychedelic
images on TV screens while Alice sneers his way through Because.
There are certainly other Beatles songs more appropriate to his vocal
style, and shoehorning Cooper into one of the Fab Four's more sedate,
melodic numbers is - well, kinda stoopid. '78 wasn't a good
year for Cooper, as he also humiliated himself in the Mae West vehicle
Ah, but he wasn't alone there, and he certainly isn't alone here,
learned their lesson during the Edison Institute ass-kicking, the
SPLHCB sneaks into the control room and sets a feedback loop to screeching
in the auditorium, causing everyone to convulse and shake. Frampton
sticks his hand into a high voltage box and gets electrocuted. Yay!
shouts an elated nation. But he is revived by Strawberry singing Strawberry
Fields Forever to him. Have I mentioned Ms. Farina is quite
pretty? I probably would have woke up, too. Alas, one of the Brothers
Gibb was abusing a robot and it bursts into sparks, taking down the
Big Screen, so SPLHCB has no idea where the magic sax may be hidden.
greedy Dougie has an idea to help save Heartland, though - the Boys
will host a benefit concert there, and all manner of celebrities will
appear! Thus SPLHCB marches into town accompanied by a low-rent circus
in a charmingly chaotic version of Being
for the Benefit of Mr. Kite (and this gets the last of
the character songs out of the way, thank God). Tickets sell well
- unlike certain movie soundtracks - but Dougie has other ideas, and
his attempted seduction of Lucy finally bears fruit as he reveals
to her that he intends to take off with the box office receipts. The
song, as if you didn't know, is You Never
Give Me Your Money. They load their ill-gotten gains onto
Mustard and the Brute have made their way back to Heartland just in
time to see Earth Wind & Fire do the single biggest hit
from the movie, their version of Got To Get
You Into My Life. While the crowd is grooving to this (and
we are wondering why we were putting up with the BeeGees and Peter
Frampton when we could have had Earth Wind & Fire). Mustard kidnaps
Strawberry and takes off in the bus, which still contains Dougie,
Lucy, and the instruments the Boys had managed to retrieve.
the Brute pilots the bus towards a rendezvous with F.V.B., and SPLHCB
pursues in their hot air balloon (see, there it is again), Mustard
serenades Strawberry with When I'm 64.
Is your skin crawling yet?
the Boys are unable to keep up with the speedy schoolbus in their
balloon, Mustard beats them to FVB Headquarters and offloads the instruments
and his prisoners. At last we find out what FVB stands for: Future
Villain Band, played by Aerosmith. Legend has it that the original
FVB was KISS, but they bowed out, fearing it to be a bad career move
(instead, they made KISS
Meets the Phantom of the Park - no further comment is necessary).
KISS would certainly have been more visually appropriate, but the
Aerosmith appearance has a certain resonance of its own: Steve Tyler
has always impressed me as a Mick Jagger runner-up. So what we have
is ersatz Beatles running up against stand-in Rolling Stones. Or am
I desperately searching for meaning in my two hours of suffering?
launches into their cover of Come Together
(the third charting tune, though it never hit the heights of the others)
and SPLHCB makes its move. If you have any sense at all, in the matching
of Peter Frampton vs. Steve Tyler, your money is on Tyler - and you'd
be right. Frampton would be pretty boy paté were it not for
Strawberry Fields, who intercedes at the cost of her life.
I thought, at last: an interesting twist, as we fade to Strawberry's
funeral - she lies in state in a glass coffin in Heartland's black-bedecked
bandstand. The music swells, Frampton sings Golden Slumbers, and here we hit a major problem in
what we ardently hope is the home stretch, even beyond Frampton's
vocal stylings, as he is called upon to act. Yes, twin tracks
of glycerin run down his face, but that's the only thing going on
in his face, in his eyes. It doesn't help that we cut from him to
George Burns, looking grief-stricken by simply doing nothing, then
Jay Macintosh, acting her little heart out, then back to Frampton.
For God's sake, tremble your lip or something, man!
lads pick up the coffin, a rather inappropriate time to start singing
Carry That Weight, but hey, I
didn't write this thing. Cut to Frampton sadly walking down a Long
and Winding Road. Oddly, the song starts on the second
verse or so, which does not begin with "The long and winding road..."
Frampton winds up at Strawberry's house; he walks through the rooms,
and we note that the film crew is starting to get desperate about
making Frampton look sad - he now sports sheets of glycerin
down his cheeks. Outside, ONE OF THE BeeGees tries to cheer up his brothers by
singing A Day In The Life, perhaps
not realizing that this is not the ideal song for that purpose. Upstairs,
Frampton bites his lip.... Hey, acting!.... and steps out the window
onto the roof. As the song builds to the climactic note, Frampton
jumps (and my response: "Idiot! You're not high enough to do any good!")
hopes were roundly dashed as Billy Preston appears in a sparkling
gold Sgt. Pepper-type uniform, bearing the magical trumpet, and shooting
lightning from his fingers which deposits Frampton safely back on
the rooftop, turns the bad guys into priests and nuns, and returns
Heartland to it's old home-town-iness. He is, of course, singing Get
is identified in the credits as playing 'Sgt. Pepper', but as those
of us who were unfortunate enough to be here since the beginning of
the movie know, Sgt. Pepper is an old, grizzled white dude; ergo,
it is my theory that Preston is playing none other than God. Now,
I like to think that God is beyond such concepts as skin color, but
if He happens to wear a sparkly gold suit and is given to spontaneously
breaking out in funky dance, well, so much the better. Sign me up,
I'll be in church next Sunday. Preston also zaps back Strawberry Fields,
hale, hearty and unharmed, which only proves my point.
with everything in place for a happy ending, it must be time to sing
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
again (although Getting
Better might have gone here, too). In an attempt to recreate
the famous cover of the original album, as many famous people as possible
are stacked behind the Boys: Carol Channing, Tina Turner, Robert Palmer,
Jim Dandy, Johnny Rivers, Connie Francis, Keith Allison, Minnie Ripperton,
Keith Carradine, Wolfman Jack, Heart, Sha Na Na, Johnny Winter, Seals
and Croft.... Hell, even I'm in there*.
in a logical, analytical manner, the separate segments of Sgt. Pepper
are not that bad - well, okay, some of them are, but we've already
chewed them up good. Parts use the Beatle songs to good effect. But
it's very rare that any of them examine what the songs are actually
about - She's Leaving Home
is about more than than a girl, well, leaving home; Lucy in the
Sky With Diamonds is not about seducing rock stars; and let's
not even get into Maxwell's Silver Hammer.
heart of the songs are ignored so much, and they are used so often
simply as sonic background, or dropped into the soundtrack on the
flimsiest of excuses (what? No trip to Sea World, so we can hear Octopus'
Garden as interpreted by KC and the Sunshine Band?)- we
can accept separate segments as being good-intentioned, or well-produced,
but the whole is much, much less than the sum of its parts. Actual
production numbers, when they appear, seem to want to remind you of
Busby Berkley, but only serve instead to remind you how truly lacking
is what you are watching. This movie fails as a musical, it fails
as a rock fantasy, it even fails as a celebration of Beatles music
(not with the horrendous versions visited upon us by Messrs. Martin
and Cooper). And at 113 minutes, it is simply way, waaaaaay too long.
of the individual performers acquit themselves well, except for the
aforementioned. This is not the proper forum to fully express my hatred
of Frampton; suffice to say that I feel if not for the novelty of
an instrument called the Golden Throat, we would have no idea who
he is today. The BeeGees come out particularly well; every now and
then, they are allowed to show a sort of anarchic, self-deprecating
humor, the sort the Beatles themselves often displayed, and the movie
could have benefited greatly from more of that.
who to blame? Director Michael Schultz? Perhaps. But he has also done
a number of other entertaining films, such as Car Wash and
Barry Gordy's The Last Dragon. I think you can only apply
so many layers of paint to cowflop before you have to admit: I was
given cowflop to paint. Producer Roger Stigwood? Perhaps. But I note
a small credit in the final crawl, "Adapted from the stage by..."
Oh my God, I realize. Somebody first invented this as a stage show,
some sort of horrifying cabaret revue, and enough money was pumped
into it to cause it to snowball into the monstrous, bloated thing
which is Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
We could track this further, trying to obsessively bring the guilty
to justice like Olivier in The Boys from Brazil. But no, I
have already devoted too much of my life to this misfire; I would
like to get on with things now. Play with my boy. Go back to watching
old monster movies. And maybe one day feel a sense of peace again
when Strawberry Fields Forever comes on the radio.
if I ever again go back to the legitimate stage, and if I entertain
thoughts of stitching together a bunch of songs to form a musical
revue, I swear to you I will hit myself on the head with a brick.