The saying goes that no one starts out intending to make a bad film; which sounds fine in theory, but the reality is more in line with: no one starts out intending to make a flop. All one has to do is look at the lazy output of an Adam Sandler, Kevin James, or Rob Schneider to be convinced that none of these guys cares a whit about whether or not their films are any good, only that a significant number of the moviegoers remain apathetic and undiscerning enough to bankroll the next filmed vacation disguised as a movie.
Hollywood has done a remarkable job of getting the public to embrace its own business-based aesthetics standards. Especially the standard which deems boxoffice performance to be the accurate and unequivocal determiner of a motion picture's overall quality.
When you have a business that defines a "good" film as one that's raked in a lot of money, then you get filmmakers using "moneymaking-potential" as the inspiration for every creative decision. And just as there is a subtle, yet significant, difference between someone embarking on an acting career with the ambition of being a great actor vs. someone embarking on an acting career with the ambition of being a famous star; a movie that sets out with the intention of being a good movie 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|
|Sir Barry Gibb as Mark Henderson|
|Robin Gibb as Dave Henderson|
|Maurice Gibb as Bob Henderson|
|Dianne Steinberg as Lucy|
|Sandy Farina as Strawberry Fields|
|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|
Drench in a garish, cocaine-color-palette reminiscent of a Sid & Marty Krofft kiddie show; blend in diluted, American Bandstand-friendly arrangements of a catalogue 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 voilà-- Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: The Movie.
|"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 film 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) that somehow play a role in keeping the town peaceful and happy. Conflict, such as it is, disrupts the band’s bucolic braying when the boys are whisked away to Los Angles by oily music producer B.D. Hoffler (Donald Pleasence) and corrupted by the temptations of sex, drugs, and money. 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 home town.
|Paul Nicholas as Dougie Shears|
Thrown into the mix are Strawberry Fields as a love interest (Sandy Farina, a kind of discount-bin Ronee Blakley); pop group Lucy and the Diamonds as seductive sirens (newcomer and just-as-fast newgoner Dianne Steinberg and that ’70 R&B girls group you forgot to forget, Stargard); a double-crossing band manager (Paul Nicholas, who sort of made a career of playing creeps); a magical weathervane (Billy Preston as the apotheosis of the Magical Negro trope); a pair of curvaceous female robots called The Computerettes (yep, you read that right); and sundry “guest villains.”
Even by ‘70s standards, this was some weird shit.
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 in evidence.
|Frankie Howerd as Mean Mr. Mustard|
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 Russell’s film. Likewise, I’m sure it took considerable ingenuity to rally enthusiasm around the 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.
|The logo 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’ve 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) because SPLHCB the film is so undistinguished in execution and so indifferently shot, I’m at a serious loss to know what director Michael Schultz (Cooley High, Car Wash), brought to the mix. The film has the look of a Kaptain Kool & the Kongs TV special.
|Steve Martin as Dr. Maxwell Edison|
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
In fashioning a musical with no spoken dialogue but extensive voice-over narration, SPLHCB is something of an unhappy-alliance hybrid 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 catalogue 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. Certainly, one that music journalist turned first-time screenwriter Henry Edwards wasn’t able to overcome in fashioning the story for SPLHCB.
The classic, Candide-like structure of The Who’s Tommy was perfectly 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. 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 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 amazing lot. I can see why this film has become a favorite of little kids, preteens, and those born long after the days of Beatle-mania/idolization. The songs are really good and well—if not memorably—performed (George Martin, producer of all but one of the Beatles’ original records, was the film’s musical director).
|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 appear together on a 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. Every time I ever saw them on TV, they came across as relaxed, quick to laugh, and likeable. None of these are in evidence in SPLHCB. Uncomfortable and self-conscious appearing, the obvious 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 natural charm and relaxed rapport of the brothers. Even their vocal performances sound hemmed-in.
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 looks as though 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 a stark-white, tapered overalls embroidered with a big red flower and the name “Billy” …he looks like the world’s tallest, lankiest toddler.) 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.
|Dianne Steinberg and Paul Nicholas make a fun pair of double-crossers, too bad the |
over-busy script never gives their villainy an opportunity to take root.
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
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 positively enormous, and it was hard not to get swept up in the circus-like atmosphere. It the summer of 1978, disco was king, the Bee Gees were riding high on the phenomenon that was Saturday Night Fever (it opened a mere six-months earlier), Frampton was all over the radio, and Steve Martin as THE up and coming comic sensation.
|A Sunset Strip billboard for Sgt. Pepper overlooks Tower Records|
(also visible is 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. I actually had to stand in line to get in, and the audience was so hyped they laughed readily and even applauded for Billy Preston’s number.
|Billy Preston as Sergeant Pepper|
|Steven Tyler and Aerosmith as Future Villain Band|
|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 Grease. When hired for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Schultz became the first African-American to direct a big-budget musical. His feature film career took a hit when SPLHCB flopped so tremendously (taking several other careers with it) but he continues to work in television, and in 1991 Schultz was inducted into The Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.
|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: SFTrips.com)|
|Dianne Steinberg in 1977 and Sandy Farina in 1980 each recorded|
an album that charted for years in remainder bins
|Standing 6'3'' and made of plaster over a fiberglass frame,|
the Sgt. Pepper weathervane was sold at auction for $1,265 in 2012.
|Your patience for making it to the end 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