One of the Bee Gees’ catchy disco ballads, released a year before they conquered the world’s dancefloors with the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, was titled “Love So Right.” The song’s anguished chorus laments, “Maybe you can tell me how a love so right can turn out to be so wrong.” It seems apropos to paraphrase the sentiment when considering Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which costars the Bee Gees and ’70s rock god Peter Frampton: Can anyone tell why an idea so right turned into a movie so very, very wrong? It’s not as if there wasn’t ample precedent for translating the music of the Beatles into amiable motion pictures.
During their ’60s heyday, the Fab Four appeared in several lively flicks powered by tunes from the Lennon-McCartney songbook. And if the Beatles were no longer a band by the time this project took shape, who’s to say a fresh batch of mop-topped kids couldn’t have carried the cinematic torch? Unfortunately, producer Robert Stigwood transformed the Beatles’ LP Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band into one of the most deranged flops in cinema history: Every frame of Sgt. Pepper’s is so mind-bogglingly inappropriate that the film is mesmerizing for the wrong reasons.
Here’s the backstory. In 1974, Stigwood produced a London stage show called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the Road, which combined the Beatles’ music with a loose narrative. Three years later, Stigwood produced the movie and soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever, which made the Bee Gees into superstars. Combining two of his assets, Stigwood hired the Bee Gees to act in a film adapted from the stage show. He also recruited white-hot English guitarist/singer Frampton to round out the principal cast. (The fact that none of the leads had significant acting experience apparently didn’t matter.) Pressing forward, Stigwood hired first-time screenwriter Henry Edwards to pen the screenplay, then enlisted Michael Schultz, best known for helming a series of African-American-themed comedies, to direct. (Again, the fact that neither Edwards nor Schultz had demonstrated affinity for musical storytelling was disregarded.)
Stigwood’s hubris was compounded by the choice to make Sgt. Pepper’s on a grand scale, employing gaudy special effects, opulent production design, and random guest appearances. A mishmash of clichés culled from the worlds of fantasy fiction and showbiz melodrama, Sgt. Pepper’s plays out like a fever-dream fusion of A Star Is Born and The Wizard of Oz. From the very first scene, the bad-movie die is cast. A title card announces that we’re in “August 1918, the tiny village of Fleu de Coup.” Against a World War I backdrop, we meet the original Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an American marching band so likeable they convince soldiers to stop fighting. Returning to their U.S. hometown, Heartland, the band continues entertaining people through to the World War II era, and the citizens of Heartland decide to erect a golden weathervane in Sgt. Pepper’s honor.
The now-aged musician strikes up the band for one final performance at the weathervane unveiling, then drops dead after a few notes. A generation later, circa the ’70s, four new musicians take up the Sgt. Pepper mantle: Billy Shears (Frampton) and the Henderson brothers (the Bee Gees). Barely 10 minutes into the movie, Sgt. Pepper’s is already buried in convoluted hogwash. Yet somehow, it gets worse.
While an evil record executive (Donald Pleasence) seduces the young musicians with drugs, money, and women, the bizarre villain Mean Mr. Mustard (Frankie Howard) conspires to steal the original Sgt. Pepper instruments from a Heartland museum. Later, the musicians encounter a madman (Alice Cooper) who brainwashes America’s youth, and a plastic surgeon (Steve Martin) who gives rich old people new bodies. There’s also a love story between Billy and his hometown sweetheart, Strawberry Fields (Sandy Farina), and battle between the heroes and a villainous rock group (portrayed by Aerosmith).
The whole thing climaxes with the weathervane coming to life as a super-powered messiah (played by real-life Beatles sideman Billy Preston) in a bizarre scene that completely reverses every significant dramatic event that happened previously. In a word, Sgt. Pepper’s is insane. Consider the dream sequence in which costar George Burns, then 80-ish, straps on an electric guitar to croak “Fixing a Hole.” And we haven’t even discussed the dancing robots. The Bee Gees and Frampton feel like guest stars in their own movie, since none of the quartet delivers a single line of dialogue, and even their musical performances are wildly erratic (although Frampton sings “Golden Slumbers” nicely). Therefore, the only people who don’t completely embarrass themselves are Martin, who gets to be funny on purpose, and Preston, whose natural funk somehow elevates him above the ludicrous surroundings.
Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band: FREAKY