Thursday, January 31, 2019


Price of Admission is Your Mind

I read Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf when I was 15-years-old. The year was 1972 and my family had moved across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco to Berkeley; a college town still so enmeshed in hippie-era philosophical exploration and the quest for spiritual enlightenment that Steppenwolf and Hesse’s Siddhartha were practically required-by-law reading in order to cross the border. Self-reflection of the sort encouraged by these novels was a big part of the appropriately-labeled “Me Decade,” novelist Tom Wolfe's name for the era of mass navel-gazing and spiritual introspection that coincided with my adolescence. 

For emotionally untethered teens such as I, adrift in a sea of inner conflicts and uncertain certainties (when our limited experience of the world tricks us into believing the truth of our feelings is truth itself), J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye was held up as the go-to novel of adolescent angst. Several of my classmates found something they could connect with in Holden Caulfield’s privileged-class bellyaching, but I came away with a strong dislike for the novel, finding nothing in it remotely relatable to me or my experience.
As was my custom in those days, I went to the local library to check out books I knew were adapted into films I was too young to see. In 1972 Siddhartha was made into a film whose provocative poster, R-rating, and arthouse cachet had captured my imagination. So, not knowing anything of the novel beforehand, I read the book and found the exotic chronicle of the trials and travails of its spiritually-disenchanted hero, if not exactly relatable, most certainly flattering to my Catholic School image of myself. My unexpected enthusiasm for Siddhartha led me to read Steppenwolf not long thereafter. And what a mind-blower that one turned out to be! At age 15, I won’t say I actually saw myself AS Harry Haller, the misanthropic and melancholy 49-year-old man/wolf protagonist of Hesse’s Jungian rumination on the dual nature of man...but I will say that I most certainly saw a great deal of myself IN Harry Haller.
Max von Sydow as Harry Haller
Max von Sydow as Harry Haller
Dominique Sanda as Hermine
Dominique Sanda as Hermine
Pierre Clementi as Pablo
Pierre Clementi as Pablo
Carla Romanelli as Maria
Carla Romanelli as Maria
Set in Basel, Switzerland in the 1920s, German author Harry Haller is the self-proclaimed Steppenwolf of the title. A bourgeois intellectual and pacifist suffering from gout, loneliness, and a lingering post-war malaise occasioning both his physical abandonment of his nationalist homeland and his spiritual dissociation from mankind. He is, both inside and out, a stranger in a strange land. A divorcĂ©, Harry reads a great deal, drinks to excess, treats his pain with morphine, and spends entirely too much time living in his head. His soul longs for the peace and tranquility of self-realization--things he’s long-believed attainable by living the life of an intellectual ascetic--but due to an indistinct restiveness within, his searching only makes his isolation and self-estrangement more keenly felt.

This is in part due to Harry’s fault-finding dissatisfaction with the world around him. For he is a man who holds the achievements of the dead in high regard—the lofty spirituality in the compositions of Mozart, the idealist principles in the literature of Goethe—while disparaging the modern, jazz-age distractions of the day (automobiles, gramophones, dancing) as idle and worthless as those who pursue them.
Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf - 1974
The other side of Harry's discontent is rooted in his lifelong belief that he is preternaturally a subhuman creature separate and apart from others. A creature of contrasting dual personality…neither wholly a man nor fully a beast…that exists as a primitive animal masked by the thin veneer of a cultured human.

Harry’s conformist side—nurtured and validated by bourgeois society—is ever at war with his wild, rebellious side, a side that has been vigorously suppressed since childhood. All would be fine if Harry were content to walk the centrist tightrope preferred by his peers, but in finding himself emotionally drawn to the hedonist and intellectually drawn to the spiritualist; Harry is, within his soul, unable to make peace with his conflicting sybarite compulsions and pious sensibilities.
For Madmen Only
Tractate on The Steppenwolf
Czechoslovakian artist Jaroslav Bradac contributed surreal cutout
art and animation reminiscent of Terry Gilliam (Monty Python)

In much the same way that the depressed spirit longs for the release of sleep, Harry’s beleaguered soul has come to idealize the possibility of suicide. Unfortunately, the notion of irrevocable escape by his own hand (in his 50th year, via “an accident while shaving”) only makes the pain of life easier to accept, not easier to endure.
Beset by dark, brooding feelings of dread, Harry aimlessly roams the desolate streets, seeking occasional solace on the stairs of neighbors’ homes—like an animal too wild to be allowed indoors, too domesticated to survive on its own in the wilds. In this middle world he sits, comforted by the clean steps, polished doors, perfumed window boxes, and warmth emanating from behind the closed doors; resigned to remaining alone and apart from the interactions of humans…a wolf residing on the steps...a Steppenwolf.
When it appears as though Harry has reached the point of seeing or feeling little else other than the pain of his own existence, spiritual deliverance materializes in the form of an enigmatic courtesan named Hermine. Hermine introduces him first to a razor (“You don’t have to use it, you know”); then an antithetical option to his thirst for rebellion (“Obedience is like sex: nothing like it if you’ve been without it too long”); culminating with a mocking castigation of his presumptuous world-weariness (“You’ve got a lot of nerve saying you’ve tasted life to the bottom and found nothing in it. You haven’t even found the easy, fun part yet!”).
Alfred Bailou as  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Alfred Bailou as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 
Allowing himself to be taken under the wing of this mysterious stranger who knows more about him than he's ever dared explore within himself, Harry embarks—through means both medicinal and metaphysical—upon a trippy, existential Magical Mystery Tour of spiritual discovery and soul realignment. A journey back to the eternal "home" of the self where beckons the unification of the physical and the spiritual.
Helen Hesse as Frau Hefte
Helen Hesse, Hermann Hesse's granddaughter appears as Frau Hefte 

To recognize Steppenwolf as a film that clearly bears the stamp of the ‘70s is to be grateful that Hermann Hesse’s illusive philosophical tome was adapted in the era when cinema freely embraced its inner weird. Fred Haines’ directorial vision (he also penned the screenplay) manages to be every bit as structurally bizarre as its source material and makes no effort to simplify Hesse’s inscrutable prose or make the wordy speeches sound less pedagogic. Steppenwolf is a film inherently meditative and somber, but it is not without wit, it is extremely gentle with its characters, and ultimately, its message proves to be both optimistic and joyous.

It’s a boon to a film like this that the ‘70s were also a time when movies felt free to pace themselves; developing character and employing editing methods to manipulate the concept of time (in this instance, fractured and stream-of-consciousness) for dramatic effect. Lastly, the look of Steppenwolf—so in step with the nostalgia trends of the day—atmospherically evokes the look and feel of the 1920s in tableaus stylized and shimmering in one moment, dark and distorted the next. 
Not a film without its flaws, Steppenwolf is nonetheless a faithful adaptation true to the tone of a sometimes-difficult book.
Pablo, a jazz musician, bandleader, and drug dealer, appraises Harry: "He is very beautiful." 

Steppenwolf may have had the distinction of being a film adaptation of a classic 1927 novel written by a Nobel Prize-winning author, but in the pop-cultural zeitgeist of the ‘70s, it felt as though it was at least the 900th movie released in the still-young decade about a nonconformist male in search of his true self.  With its emphasis on depicting the psychedelic states of mind-expansion, while exploring such then-popular counterculture themes as self-actualization (the EST movement was still in its infancy), spirituality, drug use, and free love; Steppenwolf at times feels like a film made a good four or five years earlier.
Henry Haller enters the Magic Theater
The first and only directing effort of screenwriter Fred Haines (Ulysses – 1967) and apparently a labor of love, Steppenwolf was released in December of 1974. And although I wanted to see it badly, in terms of publicity overload, Christmas '74 was so dominated in my mind by the debuts of both The Towering Inferno and The Godfather Part II, the modestly-budgeted Steppenwolf slipped past my radar. I didn't manage to see it until well after its initial run, practically waiting for it to fall into my lap when it was booked at the movie theater where I ushered on weekends. I wound up seeing it at least five times during its run.
A critic once observed that the character of Henry Haller seemed psychologically stalled at 14; the age he first caught sight of, but failed to speak to, his first love, Rosa Kreisler. I'm sure this was meant as a criticism of the perhaps superficial conflicts at the center of Haller's existential crisis. But it was an observation that explained (at last) why, at age 15, I found myself so completely relating to a character nearing his 50s. I was 17 when the film version was released, but no less overburdened with adolescent angst, so I was thrilled to discover Steppenwolf to be as affecting on the screen as it was on the page. Seeing it now, I know I feel much the same. I guess there's something elemental about the quest to find out who we are that changes very little, no matter what our age. 
Like Hesse’s Magic Theater itself, Steppenwolf is not for everyone. Full of bizarre images and curious rhythms, it’s a strange film in ways that suggest it is indeed intended "For Madmen Only." But there’s something so gentle about it…something so touching in its reaffirmation of the redemptive power of laughter and the importance of not taking life or oneself so seriously, that I found it to be an uncommonly engaging cinema experience. Steppenwolf didn't inspire in me my usual desire to forget myself and escape into a film's narrative; it encouraged me to constantly look for traces of myself in its characters and situations. 
Pablo and Hermine require Harry to confront and extinguish his
concept of personality before entering the Magic Theater 

Possessed of a Mona Lisa smile and an ethereal sensuality, Dominique Sanda’s enigmatic beauty graced many a European arthouse film in the’70s (The Conformist, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, 1900). Often cast as an unattainable dream girl or sphinxlike woman of mystery, the French-born actress has the gift of always looking as though she knows a great deal more than she’s willing to disclose. Steppenwolf was the first time I ever saw Sanda in a film, and in an instant, she won me over as the most ideal Hermine imaginable.

In a role requiring her to be more of an idea than a person, the actress’ years as a model prove an asset in bringing to Hermine a striking, vaguely androgynous bearing in her stillness (at times she resembles Mark Lester in Oliver!) that is at once open and yet impenetrable. Her intelligent, questioning eyes express wit and wisdom, her marvelous voice and sometimes unusual vocal inflections only contributing to her overall otherworldly allure. (Like a great many European films with international casts, Steppenwolf relies quite a bit on dubbing.)
As mesmerizing an entity as Dominique Sanda’s Hermine is for me (she has the same enlivening effect on me as she does Harry and the film in general), it is Max von Sydow’s agonized Steppenwolf who ultimately makes the film work. The Ingmar Bergman stalwart (11 films total) gives one of my favorite of his many outstanding screen performances as Hesse's alter-ego. Anyone reading Hesse’s novel is bound to picture Harry Haller differently, but I can’t think of an actor better suited to play the range of compulsions and conflicts raging war within Hesse’s straining-against-optimism hero.
Von Sydow, who was forty-four at the time, uses his rangy elegance and gentle, expressive eyes to create empathy for his character. A factor that prevents Haller’s internal and largely self-inflicted despair from ever coming across as self-centered.  

Steppenwolf did well in San Francisco where its then-vanguard imagery and visual effects made it a favorite of the college crowd (aka, young people who got stoned at the screenings). In addition to the many fantasy interludes and dream-logic lapses throughout the narrative (in one naturalistic scene a bicyclist is viewed moving in reverse in the background), the 15-minute Magic Theater sequence presents a surreal reinforcement of the philosophical themes of Hesse's novel pertaining to identity, the psyche, and the spirit.
Harry enters the Magic Theater
Life's Options
Jaroslav Bradac
The Metaphysical Struggle of Modern Man
The Magic Theater of the Mind
The Fragments of Harry's Personality

When Steppenwolf (book and film) came into my life, I was every bit as rootless as Hesse's hero. Like a great many teenagers, I carried around an image of myself as being too smart and too sensitive for this world. Perceived by others as a kid who “kept to himself”; inside me, there wasn't actually much of a real “self” to keep to…being painfully shy, I merely felt isolated and apart. These feelings were intensified by my home life (the only boy in a household of women with a loving but old-fashioned dad); burgeoning self-awareness (onset puberty as a gay teen); my environment (a Black male in an all-white neighborhood); a spiritual crisis (a Catholic school kid, growing ever more disillusioned with organized religion); and the times in which I lived (I never knew a U.S. that wasn’t at war, and it was Nixon’s second term, to boot). 
Hermine introduces Harry to the joys of contemporary culture 

As a way of dealing with my shyness, I read a great deal, often gravitating to works by Black authors that fed my rage and abhorrence of injustice. Even more often I was caught off guard by the works of white authors who engaged in the erasure of my existence and/or experience. Out of instinct more than intent, films became my own personal Magic Theater of self-examination and discovery. A means by which my mind could be surrendered...all the better to explore what lay within my soul.

Like Hesse's Harry Haller, over time I learned to appreciate the aspects of my own nature (cerebral/emotional) that once felt at odds with the person I thought I wanted to be.
And it was then I discovered the frivolous joy of good/bad films. My life changed the moment I realized absolute truth and beauty could be found as authentically in the sight of Jane Fonda doing a zero-gravity striptease as could be found in the haunting image of a medieval knight playing chess with the specter of Death. It taught me that life is simultaneously sacred and profane, crass and astute, nightmarish and glorious...and none of it is to be taken too seriously.
Movies taught my adolescent self to lighten up, and in accord, open up. In the end, this is what saved me. Just as it did Harry Haller.
Laughing with the Immortals
Learning to laugh with the Immortals

For Madmen Only
Steppenwolf - 1974
"As a body, everyone is alone. As a soul, never."

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2019

Monday, January 21, 2019


Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band  movie - 1980
The saying goes that no one starts out intending to make a bad movie. This sounds fine in theory, but the reality is more in line with--no one starts out intending to make a flop. Hollywood makes bad movies all the time. Sometimes willfully (looking at you, Adam Sandler, Kevin James, & Rob Schneider). They just care when their bad movies don't make money. Who's going to call the blatantly lousy (to me) Fast & Furious movies bad when they rake in so much at the boxoffice? 
When boxoffice success becomes the defining standard by which a film is deemed good or bad, creative decisions are ultimately ruled by their marketability and moneymaking potential. And just as there is a subtle, yet significant, difference between someone wanting to be a great actor vs. someone wanting to be a big star; a movie that starts out intending to be a good film is not (necessarily) coming from the same creative mindset as one that sets out to be the next blockbuster boxoffice success. 
Which brings us to Robert Stigwood's $18-million boondoggle, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Peter Frampton as Billy Shears
Peter Frampton as Billy Shears
Sir Barry Gibb as Mark Henderson
Sir Barry Gibb as Mark Henderson
Robin Gibb as Dave Henderson
Robin Gibb as Dave Henderson
Maurice Gibb as Bob Henderson
Maurice Gibb as Bob Henderson
Dianne Steinberg as Lucy
Dianne Steinberg as Lucy
Sandy Farina as Strawberry Fields
Sandy Farina as Strawberry Fields
In early 1978, Robert "Midas Touch" Stigwood was the man who could do no wrong. Producer of the hits Jesus Christ Superstar, Tommy, Saturday Night Fever, and Grease, Stigwood (via his lucrative RSO enterprise) had his hand in theater, film, recording, and personal management. His track record of success was such that when he decided to reconfigure his flop 1974 Off-Broadway Beatles-themed musical Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band on the Road (starring Ted Neeley of JC Superstar and Alaina Reed of TV's 227) into a feature film rock-opera along the lines of Ken Russell's Tommy, no one was going to tell him it might not be such a good idea.
Donald Pleasence as B. D. "Big Deal" Hoffler
...or Brockhurst, if you go by the film's credits and bubble gum cards 
While it certainly could be argued that with Sgt Pepper, Stigwood was ahead of his time in presenting what amounts to being the first jukebox musical (Abba's Mamma Mia! was a good two decades to come), in this instance, the uniqueness of the film's structure proved considerably less problematic than its execution.
George Burns as Mr. Kite
George Burns as Mr. Kite
To illustrate: take the Las Vegas-y kitsch and celebrity clusterfuck lineups of '70s variety shows like Sonny & Cher, Donny & Marie, and The Captain & Tennille (they were all the same, weren't they?); top with a pop music trio projecting all the charm-free blandness of The Hudson Brothers forced into an oil-and-water collaboration with a soloist radiating a screen presence not matched in dynamism since Helen Reddy appeared as a nun in Airport 1975.
Drench in a garish, cocaine-color-palette reminiscent of a Sid & Marty Krofft kiddie show; blend in diluted, American Bandstand-friendly arrangements of a catalog of 29 Beatles songs culled from their most innovative albums: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Rubber Soul, Magical Mystery Tour, Revolver, Abbey Road. Ultimately mold into an inchoate fantasy adventure told entirely in song; tack on superfluous narration so soporific it makes Don Kirshner sound caffeinated by comparison, and voilĂ -- Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band: The Movie.
Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees
"A Splendid Time is Guaranteed for All!"
This lyric from "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" was used as the film's
promotional tagline and later came to bite the movie on the ass

Set in the fictional town of Heartland, USA, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (hereafter referred to as SPLHCB) is a musical fable about a wholesome boy band and their magical musical instruments (regrettably, Freddy the Flute fails to make an appearance). Conflict, such as it is, is introduced in the form of an oily music producer named B. D. Hoffler (Donald Pleasence), who interrupts the band's bucolic braying long enough to whisk them off to Los Angeles, where they are to be corrupted by the temptations of sex, drugs, and wealth.
The group's departure allows an organization called F.V.B. (Future Villain Band, played by Aerosmith) to steal the magical musical instruments, which in turn hastens the decline of Heartland, now taken over by an overacting real estate agent named Mr. Mustard (gay British comic Frankie Howerd, who makes Tommy Steele and Zero Mostel look laid-back). The rest of the film is devoted to the Heartland boyband's efforts to retrieve the instruments and save their hometown.
Paul Nicholas as Dougie Shears
Paul Nicholas as Dougie Shears
By way of a love interest and virginal heroine, we have newcomer Sanday Farina (a kind of bargain-basement Ronee Blakley with a lovely voice) as Strawberry Fields. For femme fatale contrast, there's newcomer and just-as-quickly newgoner Dianne Steinberg as Lucy, a sexy pop singer backed up by The Diamonds, portrayed that '70s R&B trio you forgot to forget, Stargard (their 1976 hit "Wear it Out" is really pretty good).
British actor/singer Paul Nicholas adds to his growing screen resume of unscrupulous creeps playing one of Pepperland's few rotten apples. Iconic "fifth Beatle" Billy Preston, cast as a magical weather vane, is saddled with what can safely be described as the apotheosis of the Magical Negro trope. And last but not least, we have a pair of curvaceous  female robots called The Computerettes (yep, you read that right) aiding and abetting Mr. Mustard and sundry "guest villains."
Even by '70s standards, this was some weird-ass shit.
Frankie Howerd as Mean Mr. Mustard
Frankie Howerd as Mean Mr. Mustard
But, as Ken Russell spectacularly proved in bringing The Who's equally bonkers Tommy (1975) to the screen, a hallucinatory rock-opera with no spoken dialogue and a preposterous plot can be made to work. Provided it's done with some talent and ingenuity. Alas, with SPLHCB, little of either is in evidence.
 OK, that's not really fair. I suppose it does take a special kind of talent to make a film as cheap-looking as this with a budget more than three times that of Ken Russell's visually dazzling film. Likewise, I'm sure it took considerable ingenuity for the producers to drum up much enthusiasm for the film's final cast when what was originally on the table was Olivia Newton-John as Strawberry Fields, Donna Summer as Lucy, Mick Jagger as Future Villain, Bob Hope as Mr. Kite, and Doris Day and Rock Hudson as Mr. and Mrs. Fields.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - 1978
The emblem of fictional record magnate B.D. Hoffler (r.) spoofs the logo of the Robert 
Stigwood Organization (which is a good luck Japanese toy cow called an akabeko)

I have a hunch that Stigwood had the same kind of micromanaging hand in this film's production as Allan Carr had on the similarly calamitous Can't Stop the Music two years later (you don't hand over a $20m-million production to Rhoda's mother because she's experienced, you do it so you can control her). I say this because SPLHCB is so undistinguished in execution and so indifferently shot, I'm at a severe loss as to know what talented director Michael Schultz (Cooley High, Car Wash) brought to the mix. The film looks like a Kaptain Kool & the Kongs TV special.
Steve Martin as Dr. Maxwell Edison
Steve Martin as Dr. Maxwell Edison
In virtually every aspect surrounding the development of SPLHCB...both in front of and behind the camera... you'll find an incestuous network of mutually-advantageous business deals and cross-promotions. Stigwood managed the Bee Gees, Peter Frampton's manager was given an executive producer credit, record label distribution deals affected the choice of which recording artists would participate, etc. Contract deals that have everything to do with assembling the most marketable commercial elements available, but precious little to do with entertainment, acquiring the best talent for the job, or (perish the thought) simply making a decent movie.
Lucy and the Diamonds in "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (1978)
The backup members of Lucy and the Diamonds are the all-but-forgotten R&B group Stargard, who sang the theme song to Michael Schultz's previous film Which Way Is Up? and, most importantly, were artists signed to the Universal Studios-connected MCA records. 

In fashioning a musical with no spoken dialogue but extensive, expository voice-over narration, SPLHCB is an unhappy-alliance hybrid. A combination of sung-through musicals like Evita, Hamilton, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and Jesus Christ Superstar, and jukebox musicals like Mamma Mia! (ABBA), The Boy From Oz (Peter Allen), and—ironically enough—the 1998 stage production of Saturday Night Fever, which combined songs from the Bee Gees music catalog with songs from the film's soundtrack.
Earth, Wind & Fire had a #1 Soul Charts hit with their version of "Got to Get You Into My Life" 
The stringing together of unconnected Beatles songs to form a narrative is a dicey endeavor at best (something accomplished with considerable charm in the 1968 animated feature film Yellow Submarine). But to attempt to do so without expressive actors able to convey complex emotions (Ann-Margret and Oliver Reed in Tommy) or forceful musical personalities who grow more vividly "present" and alive in performance mode (Michael Jackson and Mick Jagger come to mind) is a fool's errand. Indeed, one that music journalist turned first-time screenwriter Henry Edwards could not overcome in fashioning the screenplay/story for SPLHCB.

Strawberry Filed's funeral in "Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band" (1978)
Understandable given the era, but in the 1968 animated film Yellow Submarine, the Beatles' songs were presented in ways that emphasized their metaphorical and allegorical properties. Too often, the more literal-minded approach employed by Sgt. Pepper leads to moments of unintentional humor. Like when a coffin is hoisted unsteadily on the narrow shoulders of our heroes to the accompaniment of "Boy, you're gonna carry that weight a long time." 

The classic, Candide-like structure of The Who's Tommy was ideally suited to Roger Daltrey's blank-slate countenance, presenting him as a relatable everyman beset by harrowing encounters with bizarre characters on his journey to spiritual enlightenment. Unfortunately, SPLHCB takes a plot straight out of an episode of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (replace the stolen Sgt. Pepper instruments with a Mooseberry bush) but gives us heroes too bland to identify with, a low-stakes adventure that's hard to care about, and villains who shoot for outrageous and funny, only to land at embarrassing and hammy.
Alice Cooper as Father Sun, nee Marvin Sunk
This leaves all the film's heavy-lifting to the Beatles tunes themselves, which are a pretty fantastic lot, and generally well-performed...if not memorably. George Martin, producer of all but one of the Beatles' original records, was the film's musical director, but this didn't prevent the release of the double LP soundtrack album (arguably the only reason the film was made at all) from being a colossal flop. Copies of the soundtrack were found in remainder bins almost before the summer was over.
Strawberry Fields (Sandy Farina) comforts Billy Shears (Peter Frampton) in "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (1978)
The night I saw it, laughter greeted this scene where Strawberry Fields sings to Billy about taking him down 'cause she's going to...well, herself. Then proceeds to elaborate, not making one whit of sense.

Anyone who's ever seen the Gibb brothers together on a TV talk show knows how self-deprecating and engagingly funny they can be. On one such program, when asked to come up with Spice Girl-type names for themselves, they answered: Beardy Bee Gee, Teethy Bee Gee, and Baldy Bee Gee. They came across as relaxed, quick to laugh, and highly likable. Alas, none of these qualities are in evidence in SPLHCB. Uncomfortable and self-conscious, the constriction of their too-tight costuming seems to transfer to their performances. Granted, none of them are really given characters to play, but Schultz never finds a way to bring out the brothers' natural charm and relaxed rapport. Even their vocal performances sound hemmed-in.
Barry Gibb wardrobe malfunction in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - 1978
Positively Ripping
Gibb is bustin' out all over in this shot reminding us that wearing those form-fitting
disco shirts of the '70s (fine for dancing The Hustle) came at a risk
Frampton mostly looks uncomfortable and seems like he wishes Andy Gibb would step in at any moment and take his place. (He never really recovers from how he's introduced in the film: wearing a pink shirt under stark-white, tapered overalls embroidered with a big red flower and the name "Billy"…he looks like the world's tallest, lankiest toddler.) But, of course, I do love the scene where he's supposed to be distraught, and tears stream down his face from his temples and forehead.
Paul Nicholas as Dougie Shears and Dianne Steinberg as Lucy plot their getaway with Heartland's cash
Dianne Steinberg and Paul Nicholas make a fun pair of double-crossers.
Too bad 
the over-busy script never allows their villainy to take root.

As much as it pains me to admit it, there was a time I really loved this movie (I still do, but I'm speaking of a time when I actually enjoyed it unironically). In my defense, SPLHCB was released a mere four weeks after I'd moved to LA, and I was still heady with the degree of hoopla Tinseltown could unleash when promoting a movie. The publicity push for SPLHCB was enormous, and it was hard not to get swept up in the circus-like atmosphere. In the summer of 1978, disco was king, the Bee Gees were riding high on the phenomenon of Saturday Night Fever (it had opened a mere six months earlier), Frampton was all over the radio, and Steve Martin was THE up-and-coming comic sensation.
A Sunset Strip billboard for Sgt. Pepper overlooks Tower Records
(also visible is an ad for a Steve Martin comedy album and for the band KISS,
an early casting consideration for the Future Villain Band in SPLHCB
I saw the film the day it opened at the Pacific Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. Thinking back, it's remarkable to think I had to stand in line to get in. The hyped-up audience was really in the spirit and they laughed loudly and readily. Applause even broke out when Billy Preston made his appearance.   
Billy Preston as Sergeant Pepper
Billy Preston as Sergeant Pepper (the weather vane, anyway)
Having grown up in a household with a dyed-in-the-wool Beatle maniac (my older sister), I always loved the music but didn't revere it to the degree that I had a problem with other artists having a crack at it. To this day, Sandy Farina's rendition of George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun" is my favorite cover of the song. And I thought Aerosmith's version of "Come Together" was a major improvement on the original.
Steven Tyler and Aerosmith as FVB - Future Villain Band
Steven Tyler and Aerosmith as Future Villain Band
The theater was packed that first day, but by the time I saw the film for the 3rd time that summer, the house was nearly empty. As the years have gone by, the new-kid-in-town veil has lifted from my eyes, leaving me aghast that I had once found this largely clumsy enterprise in shameless commerce so entertaining. Happily, its plentiful cons have since morphed into pros, rendering SPLHCB so-bad-it's-good status in perpetuity.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - 1978
Careers and reputations were decimated by the film's flop reception, but by all accounts
the cocaine flowed freely, so at least I hope everyone involved enjoyed a splendid time.

Filmmaker Michael Schultz was Robert Stigwood's first choice to direct the film Grease. When hired for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Schultz became the first African-American to helm a big-budget musical. Unfortunately, his feature film career took a hit when SPLHCB flopped so tremendously, taking several other careers with it). But Schulz continues to work steadily in television and, in 1991, was inducted into The Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - 1978
One of two prop trumpets created for the film by Dominic Calicchio is housed at the National Music Museum in Vermillion, SD. An eBay auction purchase donated by Allan R Jones. (Image:

Dianne Steinberg and Sandy Farina Album Covers
The solo albums by Dianne Steinberg (1977) and Sandy Farina (1980) 
failed to cause much of a ripple in the music industry 

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - 1978
Standing 6'3" and made of plaster over a fiberglass frame,
 the Sgt. Pepper weather vane was sold at auction for $1,265 in 2012.  
Your patience for making it to the end of the film is rewarded by a WTF? cluster of "stars" from all walks of the '70s entertainment industry spectrum gathered to recreate the cover of the Sgt. Pepper Album. 

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 -  2019