35 Years Ago: ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ Movie Released
How do you kill the careers of two of the biggest pop acts in the world in one fell swoop? Simple — leave them stranded in a cinematic disaster, bring to a boil, remove from heat and watch them wilt.
In 1978, the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton had both reached mega-stardom status, selling millions of records, with their faces plastered on magazine covers everywhere and playing sold-out concerts to venues across the globe. The sky was the limit, and they reached it. Unfortunately, there was nowhere to go but down.
Bee Gees manager Robert Stigwood hatched a plan for a movie based (ever so loosely) on the legendary Beatles album ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.’ Casting his clients and Frampton as the stars of the movie seemed like a sure winner on the financial front. But the film turned out to be a no-brainer on an entirely different level.
A few years earlier Stigwood had produced a Broadway version of ‘Sgt Pepper’s.’ The movie took the stage production as a jumping-off point and expanded on it. The plot, what little there was of one, is told via Beatles songs — not just ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ tracks, but a selection of Fab Four hits from the later part of their career. The Beatles’ original producer, George Martin, even served as the movie’s musical director, and he conducted, arranged and produced the soundtrack. But that couldn’t save the project from tumbling over the edge.
George Burns stars as the film’s narrator, relating the tale of Billy Shears and the band. The ancient actor even serenades audiences with a rendition of ‘Fixing a Hole.’ Things head quickly downhill from there. There’s no dialogue in the movie other than Burns’ flat narration, so it’s up to a number of Beatles classics to tell the story of the Lonely Hearts Club Band, whose instruments are stolen by the evil B.D. Brockhurst (played by Donald Pleasance).
Steve Martin is ‘Dr. Maxwell Edision’ (owner of one deadly silver hammer), Beatles collaborator Billy Preston plays ‘Sgt Pepper’ and Alice Cooper checks in as the Sun King to deliver a wigged-out take on ‘Because.’ Aerosmith show up as the Future Villain Band that battles it out with the Lonely Hearts Club Band’s good guys. See Frampton duke it out with Martin and Steven Tyler! (No really, you gotta see this.) And just try wiping the scene where robots (singing ‘Mean Mr. Mustard’) give the evil B.D. Brockhurst a massage from your brain.
The list of extras who appear throughout the movie features a wide range of late-’70s music stars, including everyone from Curtis Mayfield to Heart.
Most of the interpretations of Beatles classics are terrible. Schmaltz overflows into glowing fountains of insipid. (The verdict is still out on whether Martin’s take on ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ or anesthesia-free root-canal surgery is more painful.) Against all these odds, the soundtrack album was a hit, reaching the Top 10 and million-selling platinum status. Aerosmith (‘Come Together’) and Earth, Wind & Fire (‘Got to Get You Into My Life’) even managed to score Top 40 hits.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released to theaters in the summer of 1978 and was unsurprisingly slammed by critics and fans. It might be easy to point fingers for this wreck, but the fact is, both the Bee Gees and Frampton were caught up in a soulless music-industry machine that, ironically, the movie’s heroes fight against. We’re guessing even the Beatles themselves couldn’t save this mess.