Call it heresy, but The Beatle’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is not a real concept album. Sure the Beatles expanded their musical palate compared to Rubber Soul and Revolver. They had amazing packaging with their bright costumes and eye catching cover graphics including a crowd of famous folks. But this was not a complete concept record on the scale of The Who’s Tommy, Pink Floyd’s The Wall or The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Past. The songs don’t really have repeating themes or carry over characters as if it was the second coming of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Lovely Rita the Meter Maid doesn’t give a ticket to Mr. Kite. Yet since it is considered a concept record, there’s a perception that there’s more here than songs along with a minor reprise of the theme song on the album. This perception eventually created a movie version Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in what is a case of excess in pursuit of excess.
Robert Stigwood was flying high in Hollywood around 1978. He had been managing the BeeGees and also dabbling in musicals and movies. He was a producer on Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar for the stage. He brought Tommy and Bugsy Malone to the screen. He had a grasp on how to make a blockbuster. At the end of 1977 and 1978, he was producer on two of that largest musical blockbusters of all time. He was riding the John Travolta express with Saturday Night Fever and Grease. Besides making piles of money at the box office, both films moved millions of soundtrack albums at record stores. So naturally when Stigwood wanted to turn Sgt. Pepper into a movie, few people said, “There’s no narrative there.” Stigwood wasn’t completely blind as he developed it as a musical theater piece originally. It must have pleased customers in the theater to seem viable for the big screen. Stigwood had to put together a musical cast equal to the Beatles songs since he must have paid a fortune for their rights. He sort of stayed at home with the Bee Gees being 3/4 of the band. They were riding high in the disco world. Their work on Saturday Night Fever was already selling millions of soundtracks. The 4th player in the band was Peter Frampton. He too was dominating record bins with Frampton Comes Alive being the largest selling live album for decades. In order to make this project seem legit, he brought in two 5th Beatles with Sir George Martin as producer and Bill Preston as a performer. He beefed up the cast with a diverse set of faces including Steve Martin, Frankie Howerd, Donald Pleasence, Aerosmithm Alice Cooper, Earth, Wind & Fire and George Burns. What could go wrong?
There are two ways to approach this film. First is to place think of it as a narrative musical film. The second is to consider this part of an experiment to remake the Sgt. Pepper album and other Beatles’ songs with new voices and make a two hour video in a pre-MTV era. The first approach will inevitably end with the viewer horrified at how wrong things are. The script is head scratching at best. The acting rates with mediocre sketches on variety shows. For a film that cost a lot of money, the sets and costumes look like they were borrowed from an abandoned Sid & Marty Krofft series. Where did the budget go? Judging from tales from the set the biggest costs were The Beatles, the performers and lots of “non-liquid refreshments.” And not necessarily in that order. If you’ve just enjoyed Saturday Night Fever and Grease, Sgt. Pepper won’t be the cherry
But what about the second approach? Where the movie is merely an extension of the all star tribute to the Beatles album? That’s where you can enjoy the film because you’ve lowered your expectations about 8 notches. Now it’s a series of music videos starring two of the biggest acts of the ’70s paying tribute to the biggest act of the ’60s. Perhaps your wondering how can this just be an overgrown music video? Well the good news is that the Bee Gees and Frampton only lip sync on the screen. They don’t deliver lines to a live microphone. George Burns is the main talking character. Although he does sing “Fixing a Hole.”
What’s the story? There’s some weirdness about how Sgt. Pepper and his band defeated the German sduring World War I (and not Wonder Woman). They return home to the small town of Heartland and perform with their magical instruments until Sgt. Pepper dies. His grandson Billy Shears (Peter Frampton) and the Hendersons (the Bee Gees) are the new town band. They get a record offer from B.D. (Halloween‘s Donald Pleasence) to be rock stars in Hollywood. What they don’t know is Mean Mr. Mustard (Up Pompeii‘s Frankie Howerd) has been secretly recording them so he can make an evil sellout band that just wants to make money. There’s a whole bunch of stuff about stealing and recovering the magical instruments. Plus a tragic love between Shears and Strawberry Fields (Sandy Farina). It all ends with a group of actors and musicians trying to be the cover of the record album. It’s weird.
You’re not going to toss out your copy of the Beatles originals on any of these covers. Although people do need to hear Donald Pleasence go after “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” This is a ripe Golden Throats material. Alice Cooper’s take of “Because” does mess up the formula a touch with distortion. Earth, Wind & Fire deliver the best musical performance with their take of “Got to Get You into My Life” because they don’t have to act. They just show up as themselves on a stage in Heartland and get into the song. They can be extremely proud of showing up in the film. While Aerosmith deliver the goods on “Come Together,” they still had to play Future Villain Band and fight it out with the Bee Gees and Frampton.
Director Michael Schultz does his best to make sure the film isn’t too painful. The fact that we don’t hear Frampton and the Bee Gees talk is a major plus. Schultz was riding a hot streak onto this set with Cooley High, Car Wash, Greased Lightning and Which Way Is Up? Luckily Sgt. Pepper didn’t destroy his career. He Bustin’ Loose, Krush Groove, The Last Dragon and Disorderlies.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is best watched as the joy of excess when you pour way too much talent on a strange project. In the end, Stigwood came out of 1978 with two musical monsters and an infamous musical oddity.
The video is 1.85:1 anamorphic. The transfer brings out the shiny nature in the Sgt. Pepper jackets. The audio is 5.1 DTS-HD MA so you can get the music all around the room. There’s also a 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The movie is subtitled.
Audio Commentary with pop culture historian Russell Dyball. He gets deep into production stories and relating things back to the Beatles songs. He even makes note of a not official Jaws video game in an arcade.
Trailer (3:30) does its best to make you understand the movie. They even let us know that Steve Martin sings.
Press Gallery (2:00) are photos of cast and crew along with artwork. Michael Schultz gets a few shots.
Trading Card Gallery (2:08) are all the trading cards which you can probably find on eBay.
Shout! Factory presents Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Directed by: Michael Schultz. Screenplay by: Henry Edwards. Starring: George Burns, Steve Martin, Bee Gees and Peter Frampton. Running Time: 111 minutes. Rated: PG. Released: September 26, 2017.
Tags: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Shout! Factory, The Beatles