Monday, January 21, 2019

SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND 1978

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band  movie - 1980
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
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 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 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 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
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.
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 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 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.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - 1978
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
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 Manager of the Bee Gees, Peter Frampton's manager was given an executive producer credit, record label distribution deals affected choice of artists signed, etc.). Deals that have everything to do with assembling the most marketable commercial elements, 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. 


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.

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 which emphasized their metaphorical and allegorical properties. Too often the 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 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).
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.

PERFORMANCES
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.
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 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.
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 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
Billy Preston as Sergeant Pepper
Having grown up in a household with a dyed-in-the-wool Beatle maniac (my older sister), I 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 absolute 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 full 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 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.


BONUS MATERIAL
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.


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: SFTrips.com)

Dianne Steinberg and Sandy Farina Album Covers
Dianne Steinberg in 1977 and Sandy Farina in 1980 each recorded
an album that charted for years in remainder bins 

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - 1978
Standing 6'3'' and made of plaster over a fiberglass frame,
 the Sgt. Pepper weathervane was sold at auction for $1,265 in 2012.  
SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND       1978
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. 
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6 comments:

  1. Oh my gosh... I have been dying to (threatening to) profile this movie for years and never got around to it. There's no reason to now! Your spot-on assessment and HILARIOUS references render any further attempts moot. You even captured one of my favorite moments of lunacy (when the boys are taking Farina's coffin down the steps as the soundtrack blares, "you're gonna carry that weight..."!!) I couldn't help cackling at the Sid and Marty Krofft and variety show comparisons.

    I was eleven when this came out and didn't see it. In fact, I was in my mid-30s before ever seeing it!! My jaw, needless to say, hit the floor. I picked up the DVD later and a friend of mine and I BROKE my DVD player from repeatedly watching the finale in super-slow motion, trying to pick out and name each star as they went through the ridiculous posturing and "choreography." I still scream with laughter over the enthusiasm that Helen Reddy was demonstrating (and there is, of course, our recently deceased Carol Channing in there swinging, too!) As an example of how lackadaisical the whole thing was, I was told by Margaret Whiting's daughter Debbi that her mother was in L.A. shopping with a friend when someone casually asked her if she'd like to be in the finale of SPLHCB and she was basically like, "Okay, what the hell..." but then after standing there for take after take lip-synching to the prerecorded number she grew bored and wandered off! LOLOL

    I was too young to know or appreciate The Beatles in their years together as a band, though I can appreciate their legendary place in music history, so The Bee Gees' take on their songs never bothered me the way it did many others. I think their harmony is so wonderful it actually takes some of the music to a new level. I was never too hot on the other "vocalists" in the movie like George Burns, Steve Martin, those hideous robots and even Alice Cooper, but I do agree that Earth, Wind & Fire, Aerosmith and even Ms. Farina acquitted themselves well.

    Thanks for the hooty take on this crazed film.

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    1. I’ve been wanting to write about it for a long time, too. Once it came out in Blu-ray (who’d a thunk it?) I couldn’t resist.
      However, my piece on it just scrapes the cocaine-dusted surface of all the nuttiness this film contains. And we share a fondness for that misguided musical cue accompanying Strawberry’s burial party! When I watched the film with my sister she cracked up when the pall bearers began walking down the steep stairs of the bandstand. Poor Strawberry is practically on her head at this point and my sister imagined her corpse sliding grotesquely forward in the glass coffin.

      Much like with Xanadu and Can’t Stop the Music, Sgt. Pepper seems to play pretty well with little kids today. These films are a vision of a crazier, unfamiliar world.

      I laugh at the idea of your breaking your DVD player replaying that Heartland finale! What an atrociously edited bit that is! They gather all those wildly divergent “stars” and then the camera swoops around like it’s been strapped to a frisbee. The camera lingers far too long on some folks (Connie Stevens, Tina Turner, Carol Channing, and the way too into it Helen Reddy) and those on the end get little to no coverage. Then someone puts the 7-foot-tall actor who played Mr. Mustard’s henchman in front of some poor lost folks in the last row. Your Margaret Whiting story confirms everyone’s suspicions: they simply asked anyone who was free that day.
      Also, isn’t that the worst rendition of Sgt. Pepper to have some of these rock greats sing to? They sound like those nondescript singers who used to accompany those nightmarish Ice Vanities sequences on The Donny & Marie Show.

      By the way, thanks for reminding me that, independent of their not having much onscreen pizazz, The Bee Gees did have lovely harmony.
      Thanks, Poseidon! And by the way, the tribute to Carol Channing on your site was really wonderful.

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  2. When I was a teenager and starting to get an obsession with watching really bad movies, I tried a couple times to watch this all the way, failing both times. The furthest I got was Sandy Farina's embarrassingly literal performance of "Strawberry Fields Forever."

    It has always amused me that Olivia Newton-John turned down both this film and later, CAN'T STOP THE MUSIC to eventually star in XANADU. Talk about a real lose-lose situation! All roads lead to shit. (However, I do share your affection for XANADU, so yeah.)

    Great write-up, as always.

    P.S. What did you think of ACROSS THE UNIVERSE? I remember really enjoying that one when I saw it on DVD at the time it came out, but I haven't watched it since.

    P.P.S. This podcast I used to listen to talked about this film in one of their episodes (in the same episode, they also talked about CAN'T STOP THE MUSIC and SKATETOWN, U.S.A., so you can imagine what kind of movie podcast it was, sort of) and they made a small critical error in their talk-up, but it has me convinced: if I ever get my hands on the RICK AND MORTY portal gun, I want to go to an alternate timeline where a version of this movie exists featuring 82-year-old George Burns singing "When I'm Sixty-Four."

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  3. Hi Joel
    Seems there comes a point in the life of every bad film aficionado where they have to decide what makes a film so awful you can’t stop watching it vs. what makes a film so awful you can’t get through it (I’m facing that now with the 1977 disaster movie “Tentacles” …I stopped watching it hallway and don’t yet know if I care to resume).

    After the success of Grease, it IS a shame that Olivia Newton John was in demand, but was offered only a Grinch-like assortment of three films to choose from (stink, stank, stunk). I’m sure it made sense that she accepted the film which provided her with the least-subordinate role, but that also meant she had to carry the film (and face the critical brickbats) on her own. I’ve never seen the film ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, maybe it’s worth a look?
    And re: the podcast, you mean the speakers made the mistake and said it was George Burns who sang “When I’m Sixty-Four”? HA! I’m with you…it actually would have been a riotously funny (and too witty for this film) to hand the famously ancient actor the song. A cleverer director could have done something very wry with it.
    (By the way, I had to Google "Rick & Morty"... how did I not ever hear of this show?)
    Joel, I’m happy you liked the piece and I’m grateful for your taking the time to read and comment. From one Xanadu fan to another.

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  4. Ken!! You have perfectly captured the strange appeal of this movie which has always been a guilty pleasure. So splashy and messy and all over the place visually, have to give props to a lot of the musical numbers...there really were some great Beatles covers in there by Frampton, Billy Preston, Earth Wind and Fire, Aerosmith and of course the harmonic perfection of The Bee Gees. Barry was so fine!!!

    You are right, this mess of a movie doesn’t hold a candle to a filmic and musical masterpiece like Ken Russell’s Tommy, but it is engaging in a goofy way. I even liked farina and Steinberg, though no one ever heard from them again.

    I didn’t seek it out, but the minute I saw this dvd in the bargain bin years ago, I snapped it up lickety split and have forced multiple people to watch it with me. I have seen this one even more times than Xanadu...and that is saying something.

    Your eclectic taste in film and the wonderful way you write about it gives us LIFE, Ken Anderson! Happy new year!!

    - Chris

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    1. Hi Chris
      I guess we all should embrace the bad movies we love, but SGT. PEPPER really does qualify as a guilty pleasure. It’s a movie whose appeal for me is positively baffling. I thought I had tucked it away as one of those movies I liked in my younger days, never needing to be revisited. Then the Blu-ray came out and I fell for its kitschy charm all over again.
      Like you, I thought hairy Bee Gee was attractive (my sister’s name for Barry Gibb), but I might have been swayed by that blow-dry hair sculpture on his head. I also see eye to eye with your fondness for Steinberg and Farina, they have good voices and really aren’t bad in my book, even though some society saw fit to nominate Steinberg for a worst supporting actress award at the time.
      I’m impressed you’ve seen this film more times than XANADU! If you tell me you’ve seen ROLLER BOOGIE more times than XANADU, I may have to stage an intervention.

      Thank you for reading this and commenting, Chris. That our tastes so often intersect perhaps helps to convince other readers I’m not really as “out there” as my eclectic choices of movies may suggest. Happy New Year to you, too!

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