By John M. Borack
It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.
In late 1974, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the Road: A Rock Spectacle” debuted off-Broadway (way off, as it turned out) at the Beacon Theater in New York. Produced by music impresario Robert Stigwood, the musical fantasy featured the songs of John Lennon and Paul McCartney (George Harrison and Ringo Starr wisely declined to allow the use of their tunes), received mostly scathing reviews and closed after fewer than 70 performances.
Undeterred, Stigwood forged ahead with plans for a major motion picture loosely based on the musical, which had been even more loosely based on some sort of half-baked plot involving characters inspired from “Sgt. Pepper” and “Abbey Road”: Mr. Kite, Billy Shears, Mean Mr. Mustard, Dr. Maxwell Edison … you get the picture.
Stigwood secured his clients The Bee Gees to star in the 1978 film alongside Peter Frampton, with Hollywood luminaries such as Steve Martin and George Burns in supporting roles. With two of the most successful acts orbiting the mid-to-late ‘70s musical galaxy starring in the film and the music of The Beatles playing a prominent role — and with Beatles producer George Martin helming the soundtrack, to boot — what could possibly go wrong?
Pretty much everything.
The film was a disjointed, confusing mess, with the barest thread of a plot and performances that were at once amateurish and hammy. The Bee Gees look as if they’d rather be somewhere — anywhere — else, and Frampton (as Billy Shears) spends a good portion of the 83-minute debacle smiling, baring his chest, walking around in all his blonde, blow-dried glory, and acting highly confused. Let’s put it another way: when a film’s highlights include a levitating Billy Preston and a roller skating Henry the Horse … well, there’s obviously trouble a-brewin’. And although Steve Martin was one of the hottest comedians around at the time, his over the top “performance” of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” will go down in history as both a musical and cinematic bomb of Hiroshima-like proportions.
Perhaps the most surreal moment in the film — and trust me, there are many — is the “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” scene, which features the aforementioned roller skating Henry the Horse (in a costume that looks to have been designed by a 12-year-old), a gazebo that doubles as a giant cheeseburger, Maurice Gibb playing the drums and singing about “Pablo Frankie’s [sic] Fair,” some lame trampoline acrobatics with even lamer sound effects accompanying them, and George Burns walking arm in arm with The Bee Gees and Frampton while singing a verse of ‘Kite.” A splendid time was definitely not guaranteed for all. (Burns also handles the lead vocal on “Fixing a Hole” while doing a soft shoe routine, which is just downright bizarre.)
So while the movie saw to it that multiple sharks were jumped, what about the music? For the most part, the covers of the 28 (mainly) latter-period Beatles tunes on the soundtrack are soulless, by-the-numbers readings, with non-entities such as Frankie Howerd, Sandy Farina, Dianne Steinberg and Paul Nicholas handling multiple lead vocals throughout. (Nicholas and Steinberg’s horrifically sanitized “You Never Give Me Your Money” is one of the more egregious examples.) In the main, a good portion of the artists sound completely disconnected from the lyrics they’re singing, thereby making the performances not much better than karaoke night at the local dive bar.
The Bee Gees and Frampton both sound restrained on their numerous performances, no doubt hamstrung by George Martin’s play-it-safe, ‘70s variety show production. The brothers Gibb do acquit themselves nicely on a sweet, all-too-brief “Nowhere Man,” an even briefer “Polythene Pam,” and in a few other spots, and their harmonies on the lovely “Because” are quite wonderful. Unfortunately, the latter tune is torpedoed by Alice Cooper’s silly, comic book villain-like lead vocals.
There are some high points, however, and these are probably the best known tunes on the soundtrack: Earth, Wind and Fire’s retooling of “Got to Get You Into My Life” into a white-hot soul number was a masterstroke, while Aerosmith’s crunchy “Come Together” gave the song a harder rockin’ treatment that worked like a charm. One of the finest moments in the film belongs to Aerosmith: prior to performing — looking their insolent best, of course —they’re introduced by Burns as the Future Villain Band, “an evil force that would poison young minds, pollute the environment, and subvert the democratic process.” (Typecasting?) Steven Tyler and Frampton then engage in a “good vs. evil” fight, which ends with Tyler lying unconscious next to his scarf and mic stand. Now that’s rock ‘n’ roll.
Seen by many as an obvious attempt at a cash grab and also as the vehicle that assisted in torpedoing The Bee Gees’ and Peter Frampton’s popularity (it’s difficult to argue with either of those assessments), the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” film and soundtrack were flops both artistically and commercially. Although the double album did reach No. 5 on the Billboard charts, there were also millions of copies that were either returned to distributors or destroyed after the movie tanked and the album stopped selling. The entire project is viewed by some as a camp classic today, but it’s probably best described as typical 1970s excess taken to the extreme.
But it seemed like a good idea at the time.