The Bad Movie Report

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

Why 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.

There 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 drugs.

And then there was Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

There 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 "Hey!  Let's goof on the Beatles!   It'll be fun!"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.

We 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.

We 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:

In 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 GAZE into the bland face of insipid HORROR!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.

Herein 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.

Burns' 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"Disco is dead.  STOP.  Suggest you find new meal ticket. STOP.  " course, and Burns begins to sing I'm Fixing A Hole.

This 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.

The 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 that.

As 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.

Donald Pleasence - in his most evil role yet!BD 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?

So 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...

I'm 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.

The next day, the bedraggled, hungover boys begin "a grueling week's trip towards superstardom" to the tune of Good But that's only 26 nights!Morning. 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.

Well, 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.

Mustard 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.

"Cor!  I wouldn't 'arf mind gettin' me 'ands on some of that!"Well, um.... *ahem* .... yeah.  Strawberry 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.

Mustard 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)."LOOK!  I'm FUNNY!"

Edison, 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.

Alice auditions for the next B-Masters crest.Next 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 Sextette. Ah, but he wasn't alone there, and he certainly isn't alone here, either.

Having 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.

The 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's bus.

But Mustard and the Brute have made their way back to Heartland just in time to see Earth Wind & Fire do the single biggest When Disney films go terribly, terribly wronghit 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.

As 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?

As 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? Do it, Steve!  Do it!

Aerosmith 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.

Yes, 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!

The 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!")

My 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 Back.

Billy Preston throws lethal ninja stars of death!Preston 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.

Gosh, 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*. The end.

Examined 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.

The 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.

Most 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.

So 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 Farewell, SPLHCB!  Write if you get work!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.

And 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. Hard.


A Magical Misery Tour.

- April 23, 2000