During my lengthy stint as a video store clerk, I used to play Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band on the store monitors with some degree of regularity. Being a huge Beatles fan–like everyone else in the known universe– I figured that even bad Beatles covers were better than no Beatles at all. So I really should have been more prepared for the film's mind-boggling, almost inconceivable awfulness. Yet I never actually watched the monitor while producer/mastermind Robert Stigwood's clattering abomination was playing, which protected me from the movie's soul-destroying power.
I felt like Lot fleeing Sodom & Gomorrah: as long as I didn't look back I was safe. But had I glanced even casually at the monitor and saw, say, Billy Preston in a gold lame suit hurling magical laser beams while flying around singing "Get Back" or sexy henchmen robots destroying "She's Leaving Home," my brain would instantly have turned into a pillar of salt.
To take the biblical analogy even further, Stigwood–the man behind Staying Alive, Moment By Moment, and Grease 2– even got legendary Beatles producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerik to play Judases and betray their old masters by having them perform those same duties here. Martin famously spent the '60s elevating and enriching the Beatles' music with his production wizardry and the intervening years exploiting and desecrating the Beatles' formidable legacy.
Like The Star Wars Christmas Special, Sgt. Pepper puts a beloved, ubiquitous cultural institution in a new context so staggeringly, mind-bogglingly inappropriate that it engenders an intense, almost unbearable level of cognitive dissonance. Logic, decency, sanity, and taste all dictate that the Star Wars universe shouldn't include a Wookie-centric holiday special featuring the comedy stylings of Harvey Korman, Diahann Carroll trying to work Chewbacca's father into an erotic frenzy with a sexually-charged song and dance number, a Boba Fett cartoon, and a special performance by Jefferson Starship, yet The Star Wars Christmas Special undeniably exists, though George Lucas would like to pretend it doesn't. A big-budget 1978 musical that transforms songs from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road into a bloated two-hour long pilot for a Beatles Smile-Time Variety Hour Without The Beatles is similarly preposterous and far-fetched, yet Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band exists all the same.
In its mercenary defilement of pop culture history, the film also reminds me of those maddening DirecTV commercials that essentially say "Hey, remember the most beloved pop culture memories from your childhood? Yeah, well we've purchased them all and now they want you to subscribe to DirecTV. Remember how much you loved Back To The Future back in the day? Here's lovable old Doc Brown and he says 'don't be a pussy: get DirecTV'".
Yet there was at least a smidgen of method to schlockmeister Stigwood's madness. After all, wasn't the beloved Yellow Submarine essentially a Beatles movie minus the Beatles? Sure, the Fab Four provided some songs but their creative input was minimal, they didn't voice their animated doppelgangers, and their attitude towards the whole project was lukewarm at best.
A more apt comparison would be the now-forgotten 1976 curiosity called All This And World War II, which combined covers of Beatles songs (including some from The Bee Gees!) with newsreel footage from World War II and clips from '40s Warner Brothers movies. Why? Apparently because studios thought stoners would literally watch anything in the '70s. This raises an even bigger question: who the hell was minding the store for the Beatles during the Carter years? Were they willing to sign away the rights to Beatles songs to anyone with a bad idea and generous bag of weed? It took the hard-nosed business savvy of the dude who tried to buy the elephant man's bones to bring a little sanity back to managing the Beatles' catalog.
Adapted loosely from the 1974 off-Broadway musical Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band On The Road, the film casts Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees as humble minstrels who rocket to superstardom after signing to Donald Pleasance's shady record label, only to watch their fortunes change after their magical musical instruments are stolen by villainous Mean Mr. Mustard (Frankie Howard), a real-estate scoundrel who receives directives from the evil computer on his fully pimped-out bus.
Frampton and the Bee Gees must then use their vacant stares, sub-amateur pantomime skills, non-existent charisma, and hopelessly middle-of-the-road versions of Beatles classics to retrieve the instruments and bring joy back to Heartland. In the fierce battle between Frampton and the Brothers Gibb to determine who can emit the least star-power, everyone comes out a loser.
Sgt. Pepper takes a dark turn when Frampton's love interest, Sandy Farina's Strawberry Fields (sadly Frampton doesn't boast a "Strawberry Fields 4Eva" tattoo a la Mark Wahlberg in Fear) dies in some sort of skirmish with Aerosmith. A despondent Frampton tries to kill himself by jumping out of a building only to have Beatles session player Billy Preston pop up as the most magicalest black man ever and get his Deus Ex Machina on by hurling magical beams of light that bring Farina back to life, keep Frampton from plummeting to his death, and for some reason, transform supporting players into members of the Catholic clergy.
Just when it seems like the film cannot conceivably get any worse, a staggeringly ill-thought-out selection of guest stars re-create the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band for a final insult to everything the Beatles worked so hard to create. The closing number is a maraschino cherry of awfulness atop a ten-scoop Sundae of pure crap. Honestly, is there any better way to end a tribute to The Beatles than with guest appearances from Dame Edna, Carol Channing, Keith Carradine, Sha-Na-Na, Hank Williams Jr., and Leif Garrett?
The Beatles explored a sonic and emotional template unprecedented in the history of pop music. There's infinite variety and unparalleled sophistication just in the band's humor alone. There was McCartney's cornball dance-hall baggy pants broadness, but also his love for Monty Python and goofball absurdism, as well as John Lennon's vitriolic black humor, Peter Sellers worship, and stinging social satire. Though it hit studios well before the Beatles hit their creative peak or underwent one of the most profound artistic evolutions in history, 1964's A Hard Day's Night feels fresh, edgy, and hip even today.
But Stigwood's film (which technically speaking Michael Schultz directed, though it seems utterly wrong to call him its auteur) reduces the Beatles' incredibly diverse and literate humor into the longest, dumbest variety-show skit of all time. Pepper combines the worst of the old with the worst of the new. It ransacks vaudeville and silent film for its hokey jokes, grossly exaggerated performances, and groan-inducing stupidity, but adds cheesy disco flourishes and special effects that wouldn't look out of place in a Rudy Ray Moore movie.
Pepper destroys everything that's singular and resonant in the Beatles' music, stripping "She's Leaving Home" of its melancholy grace, "Good Morning" of its bile and caustic satire and "A Day In The Life" of its epic, bipolar grandeur. At his twee, old-timey worst, Paul McCartney wrote clamorous, cloying little ditties that bordered on novelty songs. Sgt. Pepper takes this rare shortcoming in the Beatles' canon and runs with it, converting Sir Paul's cutesy story-songs into terrible vaudeville skits performed with all the subtlety and nuance of an electric chainsaw to the spinal chord. Guest stars Steve Martin and Alice Cooper respectively reduce "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" and "Because" into dopey kitsch
The musical performances here fall into two discreet categories: bland, reverent mediocrities and creaky novelty songs. The sole exception is Aerosmith's down and dirty take on "Come Together." Aerosmith escapes the epic pointlessness of this whole endeavor by making "Come Together" their own–a nasty, warped, peyote-soaked little blues howler delivered with sleazy conviction. It's the only halfway-credible cover in this whole misbegotten enterprise.
Just because something works spectacularly in one context doesn't mean it will succeed equally well in a wildly different form. James Brown may have been a spectacular entertainer, but that doesn't mean he should have hit cleanup for the Yankees or been the Secretary of Agriculture. Similarly, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road might be great concept albums, but that doesn't mean they'll work as the source material for an obnoxious, flatly filmed Vegas-style all-star revue.
Did Hollywood learn its lesson from Pepper's spectacular failure? Sgt. Pepper's Wikipedia page links to one for Julie Taymor's Across The Universe, an upcoming, already troubled attempt to fuse Beatles music with narrative storytelling. As Yogi Berra might say, it's déjà vu all over again. Will Across The Universe buck the odds and succeed where its more hacky and lowbrow predecessor failed? Let's just say I'm already reserving a place for it in the My Year Of Flops rotation.Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco