RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND (1978)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Peter Frampton, Barry Gibb, Maurice Gibb, Robin Gibb, George Burns

PLOT: Four loveable lads from Heartland, America form a band, overcome the corrupting influences of the music industry, and save their town from the evil forces that want to steal four prized musical instruments which can guarantee peace and love the whole world over.

Still from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is an almost perfect example of a bad idea gone wrong. Attempting to shape a collection of 29 Beatles songs into a narrative seems an iffy prospect, but the resulting story is somehow even more ludicrous than you could expect. Add in dubious casting (the singers can’t act, the actors can’t sing, no one can dance except Billy Preston), garish art direction, many open shirts, tight pants, and the enormous hair of Barry Gibb, and of course some truly awful musical performances. Then, take away all dialogue and replace it with bug-eyed silent film-style reactions and the bored narration of George Burns, and you’ve got yourself a veritable carnival of oddity.

COMMENTS: There is a peculiar subset of motion pictures with musical scores consisting entirely of Beatles songs, including Julie Taymor’s artsy Across the Universe, the peculiar war documentary-rock soundtrack mashup All This and World War Two, and the maudlin Sean Penn drama I Am Sam. As that list indicates, none converted the success of the Beatles into its own artistic or financial triumph. But in terms of jaw-droppingness, all of them take a backseat to the misfire that is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The film is essentially a calculated effort on the part of music mogul Robert Stigwood to sell a boatload of records. He reasoned that combining the perennial popularity of the Beatles with the then-ascendant careers of the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton was like printing the deed to a gold mine. His thinking appears to have ended there. He placed the project in the hands of neophyte screenwriter Henry Edwards, who concocted the tale of a magical bandleader named Sgt. Pepper. Pepper’s magical musical instruments single-handedly ended two World Wars.  His spirit enters a magical weathervane upon his death and his legacy is handed down to his grandson, Billy Shears, and the three Henderson brothers, with town mayor Mr. Kite and Billy’s girlfriend Strawberry Fields on hand to watch their success. And that’s where things start to really get weird.

Why do a defrocked real estate agent and his boxer henchman (Carel Struycken!) want to turn Heartland into a low-rent Las Vegas, and why does his vision include a gazebo topped with an enormous cheeseburger? Why is a greedy evil diva also forced to act as chauffeur and photographer? Is part of the secret to global happiness really stored in a tuba? Who in their right mind would ask Donald Pleasence to sing? These are just a few of the unfathomable mysteries posed by Sgt. Pepper. As our heroes are put through the wringer, first by the immoral music business and then at the hands of celebrity-cameo villains, they encounter an increasingly ridiculous series of challenges: being seduced on a record-shaped bed, searching for clues on a computer straight out of Saturday morning television, nearly losing a fight to a team of nurses. And right in the middle, Earth, Wind & Fire shows up to do a number. It’s not a spoiler to tell you that the film climaxes with a funeral set to the sounds of “Golden Slumbers”, complete with glass coffin and one of the bad guys serving as pallbearer. After a while, you start to feel sorry for Frampton and the Bee Gees, who are game for every silly, embarrassing thing the movie throws at them. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the movie is that Barry Gibb didn’t stop halfway through and say, “Guys, we just sold 25 million records. What are we doing?”

And then there’s the music. You can’t go wrong with Beatles songs, especially when produced by George Martin, right? Well… hmm. Earth, Wind & Fire’s funkified “Got to Get You Into My Life”, a suitably sleazy “Come Together” from Aerosmith, and a dynamic Billy Preston performance of “Get Back” are genuinely entertaining. And it can be said by way of tribute that Robin Gibb’s haunted, desperate reading of “Oh! Darling” is a lovely alternative to the primordial wail of Paul McCartney’s original vocals. Mostly, however, the performances are poor cousins to the original at best, and more often are twisted into something borderline demented. British comedian Frankie Howerd delivers “When I’m Sixty-Four” as a lascivious vaudeville. Steve Martin renders “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” with a Quaalude-thickened drone, accompanied by a dance corps of zombified cub scouts. And it turns out Donald Pleasence isn’t even the worst vocalist in the film. That honor goes to a pair of vocoder-voiced robots whose unintelligible assault on “Mean Mr. Mustard” is awful enough. When they actually get an encore in the literally-staged “She’s Leaving Home”, we’re truly through the looking glass.

Consistently, the filmmakers wander down the most inexplicable possible path. By the time the band magically dons satin aviator suits and embark in a high-speed chase in a hot air balloon, any trace of logic is long gone. Sgt. Pepper wants to be a fable, a cautionary tale about greed and the importance of home, while also being a pantomime comedy, and furthermore a showcase for the biggest band of the 70s playing the hits of the biggest band of the 60s. Instead, it’s a colossal mistake. But at least it’s a big, mind-boggling mistake, and perhaps nothing sums up the sheer scope of the film’s wrongheadedness than the finale, which attempts to re-create the iconic original “Sgt. Pepper” album cover using stars (or more often than not, “stars”) of the day, badly lip-synching the reprise. If you have ever longed to see such luminaries as Peter Allen, Keith Carradine, Carol Channing, Tina Turner, Jose Feliciano, Wolfman Jack, Sha-Na-Na and Dame Edna share the screen, then a splendid time is guaranteed for all.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

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… 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.”–Nathan Rabin, Onion AV Club (DVD)

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