Rating: Are you kidding me?
I don’t think you have really lived until you’ve watched the Bee Gees engage in a disco kung-fu battle against poorly choreographed nurses while Steve Martin, gyrating in the corner and performing a rather freakish Peter Lorre impression, dodges blows from a silver cane swung by Peter Frampton.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. With this review of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — the movie — there is a myriad of mirth and merriment to maintain our meticulous melange!
(I think I’m about to be sued by Stan Lee…)
I’ll start off this review with a bit of blasphemy (to some): The Beatles landmark 1967 album of the same name is probably the most overrated rock album of all time that isn’t Pet Sounds, and I say that as a longtime, near lifelong raving Beatlemaniac. After retiring from touring in 1966, the Fab Four were freed from the frantic and frankly fictitious frivolities (sorry Stan!) of life on the road and spent months in the studio crafting the Sgt. Pepper’s album. Utilizing (for 1967) state-of-the-art recording techniques, lush orchestral arrangements, and some of their trippiest lyrics to date, as well as evoking an atmosphere that fuses a psychedelic symphonic performance, a mad carnival, pulsating pop art, and a madcap helicopter ride with the Maharishi, the Beatles emerged with such pop classics as… She’s Leaving Home, Fixing a Hole, For the Benefit of Mister Kite, and Good Morning, four of the most forgettable loads of donkey doots ever pressed to vinyl.
Now don’t get me wrong, there are some true classics on the record. The title tracks are still as infectious as ever (both the opening and reprise), With A Little Help From My Friends is Ringo’s diamond moment in his eight years as a Beatle, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds remains the greatest accidental nod to hallucinogens ever, When I’m Sixty-Four and Lovely Rita Meter Maid represent Paul at his pop-catchy best, and, thirty-six years after it was recorded, A Day In The Life is still one of the greatest damn songs ever made… period. Yes, the Sgt. Pepper’s album certainly was a good album. Often a great album. Even an influential album. But pure Beatle perfection? Feh. Give me the trifecta pop craftsmanship and musical confidence of Help, Rubber Soul, and Revolver , the eclectic madness and studio genius of The Beatles (a.k.a. The White Album), or the majestic perfection of Abbey Road any day of the week.
(Yes, we’re getting to the movie. I promise!)
The Beatles broke up in the spring of 1970, surprising no one who had seen more than four seconds of the Let It Be movie, but the greatness of their legacy had only just begun to bloom. No, I’m not talking about Wings or the Plastic Ono Band, but rather the near mythic quality that the music of the Beatles had rightfully achieved. This brings us forward to 1978, a time in which album oriented rock and disco reigned supreme over the musical landscape. Big-time producer Robert Stigwood, who guided the rock-opera behemoths Tommy and Jesus Christ Superstar into fruition and was flush off of the slam-bang twin successes of Saturday Night Fever and Grease, apparently felt that the time was right for a big-budget musical featuring many of the Beatles’s timeless classics. Apparently, someone felt that this was a good idea, even without the slightest iota of participation from the Beatles themselves (save for fifth-Beatle George Martin, who was brought in to tweak some of the music.)
Despite the fact that The Beatles’s songs don’t exactly lend themselves to a single coherent story, or that the Sgt. Pepper’s album itself was a “concept album” only in spirit rather than in narrative (anyone who can draw a prosaic flow between Getting Better and Within You Without You gets
no-prized my heartfelt admiration in perpetuity), producers Stigwood, Bill Oakes, and Dee Anthony hired screenwriter Henry Edwards to craft a story framework around two-dozen late-era Beatles tunes. They then signed 70s superstars Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees to play Billy Shears and the Henderson Brothers, the reborn “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, in an effort to lend the project an air of mainstream superstar credibility. They then threw in some hot rock and pop artists such as Aerosmith, Earth Wind & Fire, and Alice Cooper, cast various celebrities in key roles (George Burns as Mr. Kite, Steve Martin as Dr. Maxwell Edison, and Donald Pleasence as B.D. Hoffler), secured $18 million to make the film, and sat back to watch the many-millions of Beatles fans worldwide fork over their hard-earned shekels to experience this four-color musical masterpiece!
Except that it didn’t quite happen that way.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a cinematic abortion, the type of which that simply has to be seen to be believed. It’s a bauble of badness, a mercilessly cheesy, completely overwrought and thoroughly misguided attempt to create the ultimate rock musical adventure, but instead ending up as perhaps the most singularly awful embarrassment to be ever associated with the Beatles, and I’m including the Magical Mystery Tour movie in that assessment. This is the type of horrific monstrosity that could only have emerged from the Seventies, a decade which propagated the supremacy of embarrassingly awful and insipidly cheesy Network Variety Hours; in fact, if you could possibly imagine of a two-hour episode of Pink Lady and Jeff, you can perfectly encapsulate Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
So what’s so abominable about the film? Well, let’s start with our principals. Frampton and the Brothers Gibb are certainly respectable singers/musicians, but as actors… well, there’s more shameless mugging going on here than after an Oakland Raiders loss. The musical adaptations are extremely spotty: Earth Wind & Fire bring the house down with their fantastic cover of Got To Get You Into My Life, and the members of Aerosmith acquit themselves very nicely with Come Together. But just when things seem interesting, they hand George Burns a guitar and have him sing Fixing a Hole, grab two drag-queen robots and make them perform an embarrassingly rancid rendition of She’s Leaving Home, and, during a segment which seems to go on for roughly six hours, appallingly misinterpret the classic I Want You (She’s So Heavy) in such a vile montage that it made one yearn for the nuanced subtleties of William Shatner’s timeless cover of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.
The film is so bad, so embarrassing, so shocking, so cringe-worthy, so unbelievably…. unbelievable… that it tops my personal list of must-see misfires. This is the type of bad movie that is so abysmal that, right before your eyes, it rewrites the living definition of “So bad, it’s outstanding!” I love this movie. I partake of its bright color gruesomeness like a shaman at a peyote ritual. It exists as some kind of permanently sealed relic of the late 1970s, a prism of sound and color that grew out of disco, roller-skating rinks, high school band rooms decorated with various rock album covers (mostly Boston and Pink Floyd), Battlestar Galactica in its first-run broadcast on ABC, an endearing innocence in the face of popular malaise, an attitude of embarrassingly cheesy goodness that simply doesn’t exist anymore. Maybe you just had to be there: I was seven in 1978 and this entire film just reeks with my memories of the era.
In any case, it’s as I mentioned before: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is without a doubt the most awful film I totally adore. Now… for those of you who are new to this
mountainous turdburger fantastical musical adventure, drop everything and rent this film as soon as possible. It has to be seen. It must be experienced. It’s a great big sweaty heapin’ helpful of everything that made the late 70s such a wonderfully embarrassing time. Big, loud, howlingly awful and deliciously cheesy, God bless Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
WAIT!! I haven’t even begun to rip apart that screamer of an ending! Right after we’re subjected to the appalling site of Billy Preston prancing around in a gold lamé jumpsuit, a few dozen second- and third-string singers, musicians, and celebrities get together to sing the film’s final farewell (“We’re Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band… we hope you have enjoyed the show…”), including such quizzical stalwarts as Peter Allen, Keith Carradine, Carol Channing (!), Jose Feliciano, Helen Reddy, Jon “Bowzer” Bauman, Wolfman Jack, and Hank Williams Jr… well, once you pick your jaw up on the floor and jab a fork into your eye to make sure that you’re not drowning in the midst of some nightmare, you just might find yourself admiring the sheer stones of everyone involved in this monstrosity. And that’s before this entire group starts breaking out in some of the most bizarre disco moves ever committed to screen.
Please see this movie. Just the fact that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is out there in popular awareness gives me hope for the future of mankind. It’s just about the most watchable, lovely, and endearing atrocity ever filmed.