In 1978, film producer Robert Stigwood — who was responsible for such musical films as Jesus Christ Superstar, Grease, Saturday Night Fever and Tommy (the latter a psychedelic trainwreck that should have foretold the fate of our current subject) — hit upon a seemingly brilliant concept:
Take two of the biggest pop acts of the day — the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton, who were coming off the massive success of Saturday Night Fever and Frampton Comes Alive, respectively — and put them in a musical based upon the music of the Beatles. Line up an all-star cast, and release a double-vinyl soundtrack album in tandem with the film. It seemed like a sure-fire success. Instead, it ended up being one of the worst commercial and critical failures of the seventies, and derailed the careers of almost everyone involved.
The soundtrack album, with a sky-high retail list price of $15.98, reportedly shipped over 3 million copies — many of which were sent back to the label. (According to my recording industry contracts professor, this debacle was responsible for the provision that limits returns from retailers.) The album remained a cut-out bin staple for years — as an eight-year old, I received a copy from my (admittedly cheap-skate) father. Stigwood’s RSO Records, at that time the number 1 label in America, was practically bankrupted. The movie didn’t fare much better: It cost $12 million to make, and reportedly failed to recoup its production costs.
More than two decades after its release, the Sgt. Pepper’s movie lives on as a minor cult classic — one of those “so bad it’s good” films that’s mostly remembered by those who were young in 1978 and saw it in the theater. (Not me. I was only 4 at the time. I did see it on cable about 4 years later.) It’s even earned a DVD and CD re-release in recent years.
Screenwriter Henry Edwards cobbled together a childish and cockamamie plot loosely based around Beatles’ songs (mostly from Sgt. Pepper or Abbey Road). Since none of the principal actors had any acting ability (with the exception of George Burns, who narrated), they were given no dialogue and spoke only through song. Frampton’s acting is especially wooden and noncharismatic — not to mention that he couldn’t carry a Beatles tune in a bucket.
Our heroes, the second incarnation of Sgt. Pepper’s titular band (the Bee Gees) led by Billy Shears (Frampton), are lured from the wholesome town of Heartland, U.S.A. to L.A. by record producer B.D. (Donald Pleasance), where they are corrupted by fame, drugs and women. Mean Mr. Mustard, a villianous real-estate agent who drives a bus with an ex-boxer and two robots, steals Sgt. Pepper’s magical instruments from Heartland, and turns the town into a sleazy den of video arcades and adult hotels.
Billy Shears’ love interest, Strawberry Fields (played by Star Search champion Sandy Farina) hops a bus from Heartland to L.A, to warn our heroes of Mustard’s plot. The band proceeds to rescue the instruments from Dr. Maxwell (Steve Martin, in his feature film debut), and Father Sun (Alice Cooper), leading up to the confrontation with head villians Future Villian Band (Aerosmith, in the film’s best performance). Strawberry dies, and Billy Shears attempts suicide, until suddenly Billy Preston pops out of a weathervane singing “Get Back” and zaps everything back to normal. No, seriously. The film ends with an all-star chorus, where they seemingly dragged in every celebrity on the studio lot that day to badly lip-sync the closing theme.
The musical performances are often as hilarious as the film. Steve Martin steals the show with “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” and in only the second performance of the film, George Burns’ performs his rendition of “Fixing a Hole.” But as previously mentioned, Frampton can’t sing worth a damn. (His rendition of “Long and Winding Road” is especially gut-wrenching.) Donald Pleasance’s opening to “She’s So Heavy” is hilariously cringe-inducing. “Mean Mr. Mustard,” performed by robots, is sung through a vocoder.
On the other hand, the Bee Gees harmonic, vaguely-disco-ish renditions are quite enjoyable. Earth, Wind and Fire are decent, and Aerosmith’s “Come Together” actually became a minor hit for them.
So, should you actually see this film? If you’re sensitive to bad covers of Beatles’ songs, then you should probably avoid this. If, on the other hand, you love bad movies, then this film is essential viewing. And yes, it’s available on DVD.