Starring Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees along with Steve Martin, George Burns, Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, Billy Preston and Earth, Wind & Fire performing almost two dozen incredible Beatles covers, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a landmark of pop culture and an all-star musical spectacular for fans of all ages.
eyelights: the all-star cast. the songs.
eyesores: the performances. the renditions.
Did you know that, in 1978, a musical based on The Beatles’ landmark ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ album was released in cinemas? Produced by the same guy who did ‘Saturday Night Fever’, it starred Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees as the titular band, carrying the torch from the original Sgt. Pepper, who brought joy and happiness with his music throughout the first half of the 20th century.
In this interpretation of the Beatles oeuvre, which consists mostly of songs from the album, as well as songs from ‘Abbey Road’, the Lonely Hearts Club Band, which is fronted by Billy Shears (Frampton), is picked out by a the head of BD Records (i.e. Big Disco Records) to become the next big thing. So they leave their home of Heartland behind to record their music, tour extensively and become rock stars.
But little do they know that Mean Mr. Mustard, an evil realtor, plans to buy out the properties in Heartland and dissipate Sgt. Pepper’s magic for the benefit of the mysterious FVB. By the time they find out, Heartland has lost its heart and the band must retrieve the Sergeant’s magical instruments, which have been distributed to various villains – and then stop Mr. Mustard and FVB and return home as heroes.
As I watched the picture I couldn’t help but wonder: Should I be impressed or depressed?
Let’s face it: this is a disco-era musical based on The Beatles. Musicals were hardly a booming genre at the time, with the big studios having long ago dissolved the crews that used to helm their musical productions. For all his good intentions, the producer simply couldn’t recreate the vibe of a large-scale MGM musical number – in part because the talent was no longer around, in part because of the musical genre.
Rock musicals aren’t always successful, but these were also newly-recorded interpretations of the original songs, with many of them morphing into r&b, funk and disco numbers. But there are a few versions that are more faithful adaptations, thankfully, and not all the new ones are unpalatable. In fact, even the worst of the lot are decent enough, having been produced and arranged by George Martin himself.
But many of the songs are marred by terrible performances from non-singers:
- George Burns tries to “croon” his way through ‘Fixing a Hole’ as Heartland’s Mr. Kite, who oversees the proceedings and narrates some of the picture. His number is a bit pathetic because he tries to do a choreography and it’s about as lame as his “singing”. Even the cute children who accompany him can’t save this.
- Steve Martin serves up and awful mix of 95% talking with 5% singing for “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” as the villainous Dr. Maxwell, an unethical surgeon who specializes in transplants and cosmetic surgery. The number accompanying this is nonsensical and grating. By far this was the worst part of the picture; I cringed throughout.
- Alice Cooper also talks his way through “Because”, as Marvin Sunk, the “Sun King”. He does this in a nasal tone that was rather annoying, but at least he’s backed by The Bee Gees, who soften the blow with their gorgeous background vocals. At least the musical number for this one was a trippy affair; it was unconventional and fun.
And then there is the acting, which is largely done by non-actors, or actors trying their best to find their feet in an alien landscape. The worst of the bunch has to be Peter Frampton, who over-emoted constantly when he’s not playing a song. And then there was Paul Nicholas, as Billy’s brother and manager, who stunk up the screen every single time that he had to perform in a musical number; his moves were jagged, brusque, amateurish.
But, for all the bad performances, there were a few terrific ones:
- “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band/With a Little Help from My Friends” was a lot of fun because they were similar to the originals, which are some of The Beatles’ best tracks. I was also impressed just to see The Bee Gees play instruments, something I never associate with them. Only Frampton’s vocal marred this one.
- “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” was uneven, as it was performed by various cast members, but I really enjoyed that it was extended to nearly seven minutes in length and went through various stylistic changes as the soundtrack to the Lonely Hearts Club Band’s arrival in L.A. and their initiation into the rock star life.
- “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” as performed by Dianne Steinberg and Stargard (as Lucy and The Diamonds), which was transformed into an r&b/soul number à la Diana Ross and The Supremes, on a stage that was designed in a contextually appropriate fashion. I thought that this version worked quite well, actually.
The best of them all, however, is Aerosmith’s rendition of “Come Together”, as FVB (i.e. Future Villain band). These guys were obviously worn by then, and were about to split up, but the raw sex appeal is mind-blowing. I sat there mesmerized, having never seen them perform before their mid-’80s resurrection with ‘Done With Mirrors’ and ‘Permanent Vacation’. They’re simply amazing to watch. I really wish there were more.
Word has it that Kiss were initially approached to be FVB, but they declined because they were concerned about it affecting their image. It’s a good thing, because Aerosmith were smoking hot and were a good counterpoint for the sappy, white bread vibe of Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees. Kiss would merely have added to the kitsch factor of the picture, something that the last half really didn’t need. Aerosmith helped anchor it.
The song I’m the most conflicted about is “Get Back”: I never liked the song, but Billy Preston (who played piano on the original) totally owns it with his vocals; although I’ve heard countless covers of this track, I don’t think that I’ve heard a more convincing performance. However, the musical number that goes along with it is poorly directed and is a cheap wrap-up to the movie, with Preston using magic to make everything right.
Because, in the end, one has to remember that the musical was constructed with songs that were never intended to be woven together, and the producers were limited to 29 songs – so making a coherent whole is a very difficult proposition. Unlike ‘Across the Universe‘, which did reasonably well, ‘Sgt. Pepper’ trips up from time to time. Still, I was surprised by how coherent the picture is given that its composed of songs.
Granted, it is helped along by some narration by Mr. Kite (Burns) and, when he’s not involved, some subtitles help to situate us. Yet the first half of the picture somewhat makes sense, creating a mythology out of the Beatles’ trippy fantasies. It’s really only at the halfway mark, after Strawberry Fields tells the band that Heartland is in trouble that the picture suddenly takes a serious downturn into senselessness and truly poor taste.
Until that point, however, I was surprised by how much I was enjoying myself. Now, don’t get me wrong: I wasn’t having a great time. But, given that I dislike most musicals, and in light of how poorly-received this picture was, it pained me to even think of tackling this. The fact that I liked some of it was a very nice surprise. Amazingly, bolstered by countless stars (especially during the finale), this long and winding road has its moments.
Date of viewing: May 7, 2015