Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Sgt. Pepper - The Movie

35 years later and, yes, this actually happened.

My God, there is so much to love here. I mean, yeah, this movie is pretty much as bad as bad gets, but somehow that badness makes it really kinda beautiful.

Well, OK, not beautiful. Maybe “awesome” is the better word, in the truest definition. The sheer breadth of awfulness that emits from the 1978 movie Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is awe-inspiring. With one felt swoop, Robert Stigwood created an ever-expanding mushroom cloud of awful.

I’ve been wracking my brain for awhile to come up with the perfect analogy here, but the best I can do is this: watching this movie is like watching two circus clowns fighting to the death with lawnmower blades. Horrifying and nightmare-inducing, sure, yet it's still something you really feel the need to tell people about after witnessing it.

Where to begin?

Oh sure, there are the obvious reasons why this landfill of a movie is so bad. Reasons like:

1)      The “actors” (Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees) were reportedly so bad that Director Michael Schultz actually dubbed out every second of their dialogue and replaced it with George Burns’ narration.
2)      There is a 10-minute scene based around the song “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” sung by the doctor from Halloween. Yes, that is true.
3)      The female lead’s name is Strawberry Fields. (Apparently, this movie was made long before ironic parlor games like “What would you porn name be?” were created.)
4)      Billy Preston, legendary enough to have actually played with the Beatles, plays a character named Sgt. Pepper, who wears a gold lame suit and bandleader cap and possesses human resurrective powers. Read that sentence again.
5)      It inspired maybe the single greatest Internet Movie Database (IMDB) “Trivia” note in the website’s history: “Aerosmith was the second choice to play the Future Villain Band. KISS was approached first, but turned down the role fearing it would hurt their image. They instead opted to star in KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park.”

Mind you, this wasn’t Billy Jack or even The Room, both made (particularly in the splendidly putrid case of the latter) on shoestring budgets by relative unknowns. This was a big budget movie –it cost nearly $20 million in 1978. It was made by the biggest producer of the moment (Robert Stigwood became something of a god with Saturday Night Fever and Grease, both of which immediately preceded Sgt. Pepper), and starred not only the biggest band in the world at the time (the Bee Gees), but also one of rock-n-roll’s biggest pop stars too (Peter Frampton), along with other notable stars like Aerosmith, Earth Wind and Fire and Alice Cooper. It also had Steve Martin in his first film role and, lest we forget, starred George Burns. Who might have been the most recognizable man in America in 1978.

Oh, and lastly? George Martin himself – yeah, that guy who produced the Beatles – was the film’s musical director. And all I can say to that is that I hope whatever fiends were holding Mr. Martin’s family members hostage at the time and forcing him to do this have since let them go.

In short, this was not a movie that was made just for mockery, or for camp purposes. It was very real and was meant to be taken seriously. It just, in glorious fashion, turned out the exact opposite.

What it was, I guess, was an attempt to make a story out of 25+ Beatles songs, including most of the epochal Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road albums, as well as a few other Beatles classics thrown in, like “Get Back” and “Got to Get You Into My Life” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” And while it's hard to specifically point to any one part of this suckfest and call it out for not making sense, the choice of “Strawberry Fields Forever” was particularly bizarre, as it seems to be chosen only because it’s also the name of the female lead. And to have a character named Strawberry Fields sing "Strawberry Fields Forever" is just a logical step. Huh? Couldn’t she have been called “Lovely Rita” instead? It’s on the freaking Sgt. Pepper album! There's a fully fleshed out character, right there! Hell, she even has an occupation! And yet this was one of the only songs off the album not used in the movie!

Yeah, Dan, because THAT would have made all the difference.

Fair point. Moving on.

So the “plot” to this thing is, I think, that this hot young band out of the town of Heartland is making it big but has to fight the evil, seductive forces of the music industry. Which aim to steal their instruments and thus do away with their music. Because apparently there are no music stores in Heartland. While at the same time they are being seduced into signing a big record deal with the aforementioned Michael Myers-pursuing doctor from Halloween. Who as best I can tell shows up for one mind-bendingly silly scene and is never seen again.

Anyway. That’s the plot. And while it’s being executed we get to see such memorable things as George Burns performing “Fixing a Hole” while playing a white Les Paul, the character of Strawberry Fields getting killed and then brought back to life by the magical Billy Preston, and some astonishingly bad acting from, well, everyone. There are literally too many to count, but check out Robin Gibb’s performance here, starting at the :47 second mark, where he genuinely seems confused as to whether the camera is off or on.

So, yeah. Awful movie, awful everything. I could go on and on. And I kinda have. But three things I particularly want to point out. Because honestly they need to be seen/heard/both to believed.

1) "She's Leaving Home," sung by robots.

Sung. By robots.

(Unfortunately I have not found any video footage of this, but audio...yeah, it's here.)

2) The previously mentioned Strawberry Fields (played by the simply lovely Sandy Farina, who if I am not mistaken was whisked away in the Witness Protection Program shortly after the filming wrapped up)

3) Finally, the coup de grâce. The funeral scene for Miss Strawberry Fields.

This one needs to be explored a little more in-depth.

  • The clear glass casket. The Clear. Glass. Casket. Which allows for Peter Frampton's acting tour de force from the :25 - 1:22 mark. 
  • Paul Nicholas' wardrobe for the funeral, first revealed at 1:23. Would you like to say a few words while you're here, Rabbi?
  • Barry!!! Check out the way he tosses his lustrous mane at the 3:08 mark. I have watched this about 15 times so far and I am still not tired of it.
  • The return of George Burns' narration at 3:49: "The instruments were safely back in Heartland. But at what a cost." Hey, can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, right?
  • Starting at 4:12 and for the next 40 seconds or so, here's what best I can tell is happening:
    • 4:12 - Peter Sad. Peter so sad. And Sad Peter is making a mental note to have a serious sitdown with his agent when this is all over.
    • 4:13 - MAURICE: "Tough break, mate. Yer girl is dead, eh?"
    • 4:15 - ROBIN:  "Hey, good to see you! You take care and keep in touch, 'k?"
    • 4:18 - BARRY: "Would a hug from Mr. Barry Gibb help?!"
    • 4:20 - PETER: "No."
    • 4:22 - ROBIN: "Dude. WTF? That was BARRY EFFING GIBB you just sloughed away from!"
    • 4:24 - MAURICE: "Never mind them. I'll come with you."
    • 4:26 - PETER: "Please don't."
    • 4:27 - BARRY: "Did he just slough away from Mr. Barry Effing Gibb??!!"
    • 4:29 - ROBIN: "Hey Barry? If you flip your hair again, can I do it too?"
    • 4:30 - BARRY: (flips hair) "Whatever."
    • 4:32 - ROBIN: "Yes!" (flips hair)
    • 4:33 - DIRECTOR: "Screw this. How about a nice nature shot. Ah! There! A nice nature...Dammit Peter! DAMMIT PETER! You're in my shot!"
    • 4:42 - MAURICE: "Well, we're still the biggest act in the world, right? Wanna go count our Saturday Night Fever residuals?"
    • 4:45 - BARRY: (sigh)"Sure."
    • Exit Brothers Gibb. Cut to Peter Frampton walking through some Douglas Sirk stock footage for a bit.
But there is still SO much more to love in what follows:
  • 5:30 - FLASHBACKS! HAPPY TIMES!  Oh MAN! They had a DOG??? Now I'm really sad.
  • 6:35 - "Hey! My lifesized Frampton Comes Alive cutout!"
  • 6:37 - "Stupid lifesized Frampton Comes Alive cutout!"
  • I'm pretty sure that around 8:27 we are literally watching Barry Gibb walk off the set, finally fed up.
  • 8:55 - 10:35 - So, we're just, like, done with the whole Peter Frampton/funeral thing?
  • 10:37 - Ah, there we go.
  • 10:50 - If you can, pause it at exactly 10:50. You won't be disappointed.
  • 10:59 - "I AM A GOLDEN GOD!"
  • 11:04 - Will it go 'round in circles?
  • 11:05 - Yep, that's what happens. The wind blows hard enough to turn the weathervane into Billy Preston. Oh, and shortly after this he zaps the dead Strawberry Fields back to life. Because ending it any other way would just be stupid.
So, well, there you go. Pretty amazing, huh? And just to remind you once more...this movie was designed to be huge. HUGE.

How huge?

Yep. They made trading cards for it. And I am fairly certain I even had some.

There is just so damn much to love here. So damn much.


  1. I know of several people who have watched this movie, me included, who find it FAR from awful. It is one of the most entertaining movies and sensical of musicals, ever. Way better than Across the Universe (which is still pretty good, but, not as well presented), Rock of Ages (which horrified me, in many ways, but, was saved by Tom Cruise - whom I hate to see, at all, but, I have to admit, whom acts quite well), or that other thing with Tom Cruise's ex-wife, where she is directly named after the cloth that is directly named after Satan - if that was his name, which, in point of fact, it isn't; but, most people don't know that, even his worshipers.

  2. My favorite movie! I watched this as a young child on laserdisc. It increased my love for the Beatles, although at a young age I didn't understand that they weren't the Beatles themselves. The Soundtrack rocks and I too know certain scenes far too well and knew when to pause, back up, watch again. Ha ha
    Lots of great overemphasized facial expressions.
    I want my funeral to be like Strawberry's, heck I used to want to BE Strawberry and have that handsome hunk as my beau. Lovely Rita is one of my favorite Beatles songs, that would have been awesome!