The 1978 film musical “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is a mess…but it is a wonderfully fascinating mess, a mother lode of undiluted insanity. Rooted in one of the worst ideas ever to get the green light (a collection of 29 unrelated Beatles songs stitched together into a cornball musical starring The Bee Gees and Peter Frampton as the eponymous musical congregation), the film literally grabs this horrible concept and runs with it until all known traces of logic, intelligence and good taste are lost. A splendid time is guaranteed for all who have a warped sense of humor and an iron tolerance for the ridiculous.
In this film, Sgt. Pepper is the leader of a U.S. army marching band in World War I. Their heroics and bravery while marching through enemy territories in 1918 Europe and playing Beatles music earns them the undying adoration of the good people of Heartland, a typical happy American small town somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Sgt. Pepper himself died of a massive coronary attack during his 1958 farewell concert, to the surprise of his cheering audience. Jumping ahead to 1978, the band is revived by Sgt. Pepper’s grandson Billy Shears (Peter Frampton) and his friends The Hendersons (The Bee Gees).
Quicker than you can say “I heard the news today, oh boy,” the band is spotted and signed to a record contract by a sleazy Hollywood music mogul (Donald Pleasance, with his trademark chrome dome oddly disguised by an excessive toupee). Meanwhile, a demented realtor named Mean Mr. Mustard (British funnyman Frankie Howerd) sneaks into town and steals the original instruments used by Sgt. Pepper and his band during the war to end all wars. With the instruments missing, Heartland’s magic abruptly vanishes and Mean Mr. Mustard turns the town into a den of saloons and casinos. The current band configuration learn about this and rush home, tracking down the valued instruments to a band of bizarre villains who are part of a criminal league to take over the world. In the midst of the madness, Billy Shears’ girlfriend Strawberry Fields (yes, that is the character’s name) gets killed. However, a hitherto unknown messiah comes forward when a golden weathervane is transformed into a gold suited Billy Preston, who sings and dances a funky rendition of “Get Back” while raising the dead Strawberry Fields and turning the various villains into bishops, priests and nuns.
Compared to this film, “Magical Mystery Tour” is “Seven Samurai.” The film is a thorough madhouse on every imaginable level. For starters, there is no dialogue except for an occasional narration by George Burns as the mayor of Heartland, conveniently named Mr. Kite. Having George Burns push the story along (and pausing to sing and soft-shoe his way through “Fixing a Hole”) actually makes some sense, as it would be quite a task to explain how the All-American Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band acquired the British and Australian accents carried in conversation by its singing stars. Of course, not having dialogue creates a skein of illogical pantomime situations where songs are cued by the flimsiest of notions. Sometimes this is quite harmless (Billy and Strawberry awakening after a chaste night in a barn to sing “Hear Comes the Sun”) and sometimes it is astonishingly tactless (the pallbearers at Strawberry’s funeral are serenaded with “Carry That Weight”).
Clearly, the main problem is having a musical of Beatles songs without having the original Fab Four to perform them. And watching George Burns huff and puff through “Fixing a Hole” is actually the most sedate viewing experience. Consider Steve Martin (still in his wild and crazy days) steamrolling his way through “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” with an outrageous over-the-top nuttiness that recalls the best and worst of Anthony Newley. Or Earth, Wind and Fire turning “Got to Get You Into My Life” into a weird hybrid of funk and muzak. Or the positively awful Sandy Farina as Strawberry Fields, who tends to a wounded Billy Shears by promising to take him down to Strawberry Fields forever (and you thought The Rock was the only person who used the third person tense for self-descriptions). I don’t know who’s sister Ms. Farina was or how she got this role, but her screen presence is pure gruel.
One would imagine The Bee Gees could somehow put through a good show. Unfortunately, the trio look dreadfully pained throughout the film, as if they realized too late they were in the act of committing career seppuku. Their renditions of the Beatles classics actually call attention to the deficiencies of their singing, which fail to grasp the wit and rue of the golden Lennon-McCartney treasure chest. The result is a weird spectacle of emotional sterility and blatant discomfort with the material, which in turn creates some wonderfully moments of unintentional humor. Peter Frampton (who was never anyone’s idea of a top singer) tries to fuel this wobbly vehicle by being the required cutesy-poo teen idol, but his popping eyes and wide grins suggest a losing internal battle against a previously consumed aphrodisiac. The only oxygen to waft through the proceedings comes from the aforementioned hyper-cool Billy Preston (who seems to be in his own private “Soul Train” episode) and Aerosmith, who comes through with a perfectly respectable cover of “Come Together.” But that latter moment is dashed when the song is rudely terminated by a fistfight between Steve Tyler and Peter Frampton. (Sir George Martin, the Beatles’ producer, is credited with producing the music for this film…though perhaps he was too distracted counting his money to pay attention to the shenanigans on the soundtrack.)
In case you are wondering how this jolly debacle could possibly end, the producers truly saved the crowning touch for last. In a monumental attempt to surpass the brilliance of the art design on the original Sgt. Pepper album, the film gathers hundreds of celebrities for a grand sing-along finale of the “Sgt Pepper” reprise tune. While some genuine music legends wander into the mix (including Jose Feliciano, Hank Williams Jr. and Tina Turner), there are also some stars du jour from that distant era (Helen Reddy, Keith Carradine and Monti Rock III) and some whose presence in a rock musical makes no sense (Dame Edna Everage, Carol Channing and Connie Stevens turn on the charm).
Obviously, this is not a good movie. Perhaps it is charitable to proclaim it as a so-bad-its-good movie. Indeed, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” seems to float entirely in a class by itself. It is a hypnotic viewing experience, in much the way the aftermath of a train wreck or the denizens of a freak show carry a hypnotic power that demands attention when logic decries otherwise. Yet the film’s sheer audacity in wrecking the Beatles music with sadistic intensity makes it impossible to criticize the production’s air of utter nonsense. When the band reminds us in “The Benefit for Mr. Kite” that Harry the Horse dances the waltz, who should appear on screen but Harry the Horse himself? Or at least two men in a cheap vaudeville horse costume who roller-skate into the midst of the chaos and begin to perform a tap-dance on skates. How could anyone possibly hate such a thing?
Back in 1978, few people were sympathetic to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” The Bee Gees and Peter Frampton saw their careers slide wildly downhill when the film crashed at the box office, and producer Robert Stigwood would have gone bankrupt if not for the success of the two-record soundtrack. Sadly, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” has been out of circulation for so many years that few people remember it; some people born after the film’s run probably don’t even know it exists. This is truly a shame, as it has the potential from rising out of its grave and finding a new life as a camp cult classic for those who worship at the temple of 1970s kitsch. However, until anyone has the guts or nerves to dust this film off, we’ll just have to leave it rotting in obscurity and let it be.