When film buffs gas on about how awesome the ’70s were, I want to lock them in a room with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Not the Beatles album (which has topped many rock-critic OMG BEST ALBUM EVER lists), but the ghastly film of the same name.
It employs 29 Beatles songs (often in embarrassingly literal ways) to tell the story of Billy Shears and his band, who leave their idyllic hometown of Heartland and fall in with a corrupt record producer. There’s no dialogue, just narration and endless cheesy numbers. There are characters called Strawberry Fields, Lucy (as in “in the sky with diamonds,” ha ha), and Mean Mr. Mustard; in other words, the movie culls from other Beatles albums besides the eponymous one. There is, however, no character named Penny Lane, for which Cameron Crowe gave daily thanks when writing Almost Famous.
Peter Frampton is Billy Shears, and the Bee Gees are his band. Frampton goes through the movie with an idiotic grin you want to slap off of his face. The Bee Gees are the Bee Gees. Do any of the Beatles actually appear in the movie? No. Do we at least hear their original versions of the songs? No. Take it up with Beatles producer George Martin; he arranged the music for the film, and should have known better, to put it extremely mildly.
Difficult as it may be to narrow down, the lowlights in a movie full of them include George Burns (who narrates the movie) crooning “Fixing a Hole,” or Donald Pleasence (as the abovementioned stinky record producer) attempting a bit of “I Want You.” To bear witness to either of these moments is to die a little. You will cringe and say “Oh man, that’s just not right.”
It’s not all unwatchable. Steve Martin (in his film debut) brings some gonzo brio to “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”; he needn’t be ashamed of his participation herein. Alice Cooper does a commanding psychedelic-Big Brother version of “Because.” Aerosmith delivers the best cover, “Come Together” (the only song from the soundtrack that still gets airplay) — Steven Tyler has more screen presence than Frampton and the Bee Gees combined. Is it worth seeing for those bits? Not really. No reason is good enough to suffer through 101 minutes of terrible taste that doesn’t even rise to the level of so-bad-it’s-good. If you know someone who owns the DVD, have him/her dupe the above three sequences for you.
Everyone under the sun who needed fast money in 1978 appears to be in this. Leif Garrett, Del Shannon, Bonnie Raitt, Carol Channing, Sha Na Na, Frankie Valli, Donovan Leitch, Mark Lindsay, Helen Reddy, Tina Turner, Johnny Rivers, Wolfman Jack, Gary Wright, and Keith Carradine are among the celebrities shoehorned in at the end. Barry Humphries, aka “Dame Edna,” is also in there somewhere. Billy Preston gets to be Sgt. Pepper himself. Dubious honor, that.
You may say to yourself, “I bet if any of the Beatles had had a say in this movie, it would’ve at least been decent.” Then you might remember Paul McCartney’s Give My Regards to Broad Street, and sigh and avert your eyes. Of the Fab Four, George Harrison came off the best in the eyes of film posterity, if only for his involvement in the Monty Python films. Ringo had Caveman, a pretty fun comedy. John had How I Won the War and then sensibly stayed out of movies. None of them bothered to contribute to Yellow Submarine (a far better experiment using sound-alike voices for the Beatles’ cartoon counterparts) or, to their eternal credit, this film.
I stared at the screen wondering how anyone thought this could possibly have found an audience, even in the degraded ’70s. It may yet find one, among nostalgic Gen-Xers who get stoned and giggle at the costumes and the sheer relentless crappy kitsch of it all.