Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Film Review: SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND (1978, Michael Schultz)

Stars: 3.2 of 5.
Running Time: 113 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Peter Frampton, The Bee Gees, George Burns, Donald Pleasence, Billy Preston; Earth, Wind, & Fire; Steve Martin, Paul Nicholas (Cousin Kevin from TOMMY), Frankie Howerd (THE LADYKILLERS, CARRY ON DOCTOR), Carel Struycken (TWIN PEAKS, THE ADDAMS FAMILY), Aerosmith, and cameo appearances by Keith Carradine, Wolfman Jack, Carol Channing, Rick Derringer, Donovan, Tina Turner, Leif Garrett, Heart, Curtis Mayfield, Bonnie Raitt, Frankie Valli, Gwen Verdon, Bobby Womack, Hank Williams Jr., Johnny Winter, Sha-Na-Na, Del Shannon, Wilson Pickett, Anita Pointer, Robert Palmer. Featuring music written by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison. Production design by Brian Eatwell (THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, GODSPELL). Set decoration by Marvin March (STAR TREK's original series, LETHAL WEAPON, THEY LIVE, CAN'T STOP THE MUSIC). Costumes by May Routh (THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, BEING THERE, RONIN). Directed by Michael Schultz (THE LAST DRAGON, CAR WASH).
Tag-line: "Only their music could conquer the forces of evil."
Best one-liner: "We hate love! We hate joy! We love money!"

Largely considered one of the worst films ever made, SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND does not quite deserve the hideous reputation which it has earned, yet it certainly is one of the more outlandish musicals to come out of the 1970's.

An inspiration to everyone from Julie Taymor (ACROSS THE UNIVERSE) to Menahem Golan (THE APPLE), SGT. PEPPER tells the tale of Heartland, USA, a quaint little town full of gazebos, hot-air balloons, the benevolent guardianship of the Mayor Mr. Kite (George Burns), and wondrous, heart-warming music courtesy of one Sergeant Pepper. Sergeant Pepper & his Lonely Hearts Club band have attempted to bestow- through the power of song- peace and love upon the nation from WWI through the 1970's. Midway through his latest concert he dies and is quickly replaced by the new Sergeant Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band, depicted by Peter Frampton and the Bee-Gees.

The new band heads to Los Angeles, where they sign a deal with sleazy record producer Donald Pleasence. The malevolent, mean Mr. Mustard (Frankie Howerd) takes advantage of their absence in Heartland,

Mean Mr. Mustard massaged by mechanical masseuses.

steals the original band's instruments, and distributes them to his cronies: Dr. Maxwell (Steve Martin), The Sun King (Alice Cooper), and the Future Villain Band (Aerosmith). Frampton and the Bee-Gees must fight for what's right, defeat the malefactors, and retrieve their instruments. Which they do. Then, there's an all-star reprise of the main title featuring more rock stars and personalities than you can shake a stick at. That's about it.

Judging the film is difficult- it's something of a soggy mess, but it frequently entertains, features some well-executed set and production design, and has a ridiculous slew of celebrity cameos. So I have to give it a vague thumbs-up, but all the time I'm keeping that thumb within striking distance of the fast-forward button (I mean, this thing runs almost 2 hours). Anyway, without further ado:


#1. The Bee Gees fight dancing against proto-LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS Steve Martin, playing Dr. Maxwell (Silver Hammer), a scene which culminates with

Martin torturing the shit out of Peter Frampton with tiny, electrified hammers! Talk about FRAMPTON COMES ALIVE!

#2. George Burns rocking out to "Fixing a Hole" and doing the 'ole soft shoe with some children.

#3. The giant from TWIN PEAKS acting as Mr. Mustard's agent, and receiving cash flow from mustard-colored-clothing-clad hookers (!?).

#4. Now "Nowhere Man" ain't exactly the most rockingist song ever committed to vinyl, but I don't think anything can possibly prepare you for the Frampton and the 'Gees cover version, which can only be described as 'utterly testicle shriveling.' You may need to watch EXTREME PREJUDICE or some Bob Mitchum movies right afterward in order to preserve your sense of self.

#5. Alice Cooper turning "Because" into a horror ballad capable of brainwashing boy scouts (really- it's a plot point).

And he doesn't even do all that much to it- he just adds his patented, smartassed, witch-like vocal intonation, and it works beautifully.

#6. Stephen Tyler's arms pinned behind his back by a raging Frampton, who looks as if he's wearing some kind of figure skating costume! The script called for Frampton to fling the noted Aerosmither to his death, but Tyler flat-out refused to be killed, even indirectly, by the likes of Frampton. And so 'Strawberry Fields,' Frampton's love interest, pops in and sort of pushes Tyler off the precipice

where he lands, crumpled and lifeless, upon hundred dollar bills emblazoned with his own image. It's simply visual poetry.

#7. A mustachioed Alice Cooper strangling the shit out of Robin Gibb and then getting punched out by Barry! (And landing facedown into a conveniently-placed cream pie.)

Look at the intensity on Barry Gibb's face. This is one Bee Gee you don't wanna mess around with... lest you be K.O.'d!

#8. Vaguely evil record exec Donald Pleasence encouraging Frampton to drown his sorrows in... the world's largest beer glasses!

Look at the smarm there on Donald. He's even got a gold tooth to match those chains. And the inspiration for 'Mr. Boogalow' in THE APPLE has never been more apparent. (Though some might argue that Vladek Sheybal took the character to unprecedented heights!)

#9. Again, Donald Pleasence. Pleasence freeform grooving and twirling in a sort of cowboy-leisure suit,

and then later belting out a rather curious version of "I Want You (She's So Heavy)."

Despite any misgivings about this film, I must say that I think the world is a richer and deeper place now that I've seen Donald Pleasence cut a rug.

#10. Keith Carradine, Carol Channing, Tina Turner, and God knows how many others, singing and swaying in soulful harmony to the big show-stopping, show-stomping reprise of "Sgt. Pepper."

Now I know that Keith was included because of his vocal talents so well displayed in Altman's NASHVILLE, but now (after watching him play a number of shrewd-operatin' badasses in everything from SOUTHERN COMFORT to DEADWOOD) seeing him in a silky, unbuttoned shirt, bobbing and shakin' it behind Tina Turner and Carol Channing (who are locked in a battle to see who can pull more focus), is, in short, ridiculous.

A little over three stars. I'll say it's for masochists, Beatles-schadenfreude enthusiasts, and Alice Cooper, Donald Pleasence, and Keith Carradine completists. Ennn-joy...

-Sean Gill


Steve said...

Gotta love that pie Alice got himself into - this is the only good scene in the movie! :-D Sorry, Alice, no more Mr. Nice Guy! They should have saved a pie for Stigwood's face! (Lemon meringue? I always thought it was cream.)

Sean Gill said...


Thanks for stoppin' by! Alice seems to have always been a good sport, from this to WAYNE'S WORLD and beyond.
And indeed you're right about the pie- I don't know why I thought it was lemon meringue.