Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (film)
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is a 1978 American musical comedy film directed by Michael Schultz and written by Henry Edwards. The film tells the loosely constructed story of a band as they wrangle with the music industry and battle evil forces bent on stealing their instruments and corrupting their home town of Heartland. The film is presented in a form similar to that of a rock opera, with the songs providing "dialogue" to carry the story. Only George Burns has spoken lines that act to clarify the plot and provide further narration.
|Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Michael Schultz|
|Produced by||Robert Stigwood|
|Written by||Henry Edwards|
|Based on||Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band|
by The Beatles
|Narrated by||George Burns|
|Edited by||Christopher Holmes|
|Distributed by||Universal Pictures|
|Box office||$20.4 million|
The film's soundtrack, released as an accompanying double album, features new versions of songs originally written and performed by the Beatles. The film draws primarily from two of the band's albums, 1967's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and 1969's Abbey Road. The film covers all of the songs from the Sgt. Pepper album with the exceptions of "Within You, Without You" and "Lovely Rita", and also includes nearly all of Abbey Road.
The production was loosely adapted from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band on the Road, a 1974 off-Broadway production directed by Tom O'Horgan. Upon the film's release, it was both a critical and commercial failure.
The film was produced by Robert Stigwood, founder of RSO Records, who had earlier produced Saturday Night Fever. RSO Records also released the soundtrack to the film Grease in 1978, which had Barry Gibb producing and Peter Frampton playing lead guitar on the title track. In 1976, the Bee Gees had recorded three Beatles cover songs, "Golden Slumbers / Carry That Weight", "She Came In Through the Bathroom Window" and "Sun King", for the musical documentary All This and World War II.
The Beatles' former producer, George Martin, served as musical director, conductor, arranger and producer of the film's soundtrack album. Before the film's release, Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees announced: "There is no such thing as the Beatles now. They don't exist as a band and never performed Sgt Pepper live in any case. When ours comes out, it will be, in effect, as if theirs never existed."
Mr. Kite (George Burns), the elderly mayor of the wholesome small town of Heartland, recounts the history of Heartland's celebrated marching band, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which brought happiness through its music, even causing troops in World War I to stop fighting. When its bandleader died during a performance in August 1958, he left the band's magical musical instruments to the town, and as long as they remain in Heartland, people will live happily ever after. The City Hall contains the instruments and is topped with a Magical Weather Vane in the shape of a marching band trumpeter that foresees good and ominous developments. The bandleader left his musical legacy to his handsome and good-hearted grandson, Billy Shears (Peter Frampton), who forms a successor Sgt. Pepper's band with his best friends the Hendersons (The Bee Gees). Billy's jealous and money-hungry stepbrother, Dougie (Paul Nicholas), serves as the band's manager.
Heartland loves the new band, and soon record company executive B.D. (Donald Pleasence) invites them to Hollywood with the promise of a record deal. Billy bids farewell to his sweet hometown girlfriend, Strawberry Fields (Sandy Farina). Once in Hollywood, B.D. gets the naive band to sign an exploitative contract by plying them with drugs and alcohol and getting sexy singers Lucy (Dianne Steinberg) and the Diamonds (Stargard) to seduce them. Lucy starts an affair with Billy, who momentarily forgets Strawberry. The band quickly succeeds with hit records and sold-out shows.
Meanwhile, the villain Mr. Mustard (Frankie Howerd) and his henchman the Brute drive to Heartland in their computer- and robot-equipped van. Mustard gets his orders via computer from a mysterious entity called F.V.B., who directs him to steal the magical instruments from City Hall, keep the drum, and bring the other instruments to them and others. Mustard does as directed. Without the instruments, Heartland, now under Mustard's control, quickly degenerates into a hotbed of vice and urban decay. Strawberry travels to Hollywood, manages to find Billy and the band at a recording session, and tells them of Heartland's plight. The band and Strawberry steal Mustard's van and use its computer to locate the stolen instruments. They manage to recover the cornet from the deranged, money-driven anti-aging specialist Dr. Maxwell Edison (Steve Martin), the tuba from mind-controlling cult leader Father Sun (Alice Cooper), and the drum, which Mustard kept in his van. However, the computer malfunctions before they can locate the final missing instrument.
As Heartland continues to deteriorate, the band plans a benefit concert to save the town. B.D., Lucy and Dougie go along with the plan, exploiting the situation for financial gain. Dougie and Lucy, who have bonded over their shared love of money, plot to steal the show proceeds and run off, and to that end hide the bags of money in Mustard's van while Billy, Strawberry and the Hendersons are watching Earth, Wind & Fire perform at the benefit. Mustard and the Brute suddenly arrive and take back the van, which also contains the recovered instruments. They kidnap Strawberry, with whom Mustard has fallen in love from afar, drag her into the van, and drive off with Dougie, Lucy and the money hidden on board. Billy and the Hendersons see the van leave and pursue it in the town's hot air balloon.
Mustard drives to F.V.B.'s headquarters where F.V.B. plans to suppress the magical instruments and take over the world. It is revealed that F.V.B. stands for "Future Villain Band", an Orwellian hard-rock band (Aerosmith) in contrast to the wholesomeness of Sgt. Pepper's band. F.V.B. is described as "the evil force that would poison young minds, pollute the environment, and subvert the democratic process"; they perform in militaristic uniforms on a high platform stage made to look like stacks of money, accompanied by uniformed youth twirling flags. To turn Strawberry into a "helpless groupie", F.V.B. chains her up onstage while the band plays "Come Together" and the lead singer (Steven Tyler) fondles her. Dougie and Lucy are also tied up and forced to watch. Billy and the Hendersons arrive and engage in hand-to-hand combat with F.V.B. When the lead singer chokes Billy, Strawberry despite her chains manages to push him off Billy and off the raised stage to his death, but Strawberry then falls and is also killed.
The town of Heartland, now cleaned up, holds an elaborate funeral for Strawberry, after which a depressed Billy attempts suicide by jumping from a rooftop. Before he can hit the ground, in a form of Deus ex machina, the Magical Weather Vane on top of City Hall comes to life (as Billy Preston) and catches him with a magical lightning bolt with his commands as the song, "Get Back!". The Magical Weather Vane then dances through the town square, tossing magical lightning bolts that transform Mr. Mustard and the Brute into a bishop and a monk, Mustard's van into a VW Beetle, Dougie and Lucy into an altar boy and a nun, and finally restore Strawberry to life. As Billy and Strawberry happily embrace, one last lightning bolt transforms his and the Hendersons' mourning suits into shiny new Sgt. Pepper uniforms. In the finale, the cast appear with numerous celebrities in a tribute to the original Beatles album cover.
- The Bee Gees, Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb, whose music had been integral to Saturday Night Fever (released by this film's international distributor, Paramount Pictures), play Mark, David and Bob Henderson, members of the re-formed Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. They also provide the computerized voices for Mean Mr. Mustard's robots.
- Peter Frampton, whose album Frampton Comes Alive! was the biggest-selling live album ever at the time, plays Billy Shears, leader of the re-formed band and grandson of the original Sgt. Pepper character.
- Steve Martin's comedy album A Wild and Crazy Guy was released the same year as the film, reaching number two on the music-dominated Billboard 200 album charts. His performance as Dr. Maxwell Edison, singing "Maxwell's Silver Hammer", foreshadows his zany dentist role in the 1986 film Little Shop of Horrors.
The cast also features
- British comedian Frankie Howerd as Mean Mr. Mustard (his only major U.S. film appearance; he later quipped about the film "It was like Saturday Night Fever, but without the fever")
- Paul Nicholas as Dougie Shears
- Donald Pleasence as B.D., referred to in Burns' narrative voice-over as B.D. Hoffler, but officially known in the film's credits, publicity materials, and in-film posters as B.D. Brockhurst
- Sandy Farina as Strawberry Fields
- Dianne Steinberg as Lucy
- Aerosmith as Future Villain Band (FVB)
- Alice Cooper as Father Sun
- Earth, Wind & Fire, appearing as themselves
- Billy Preston as the magical Sgt. Pepper golden weather vane come to life
- George Burns as Mr. Kite
- Stargard as the Diamonds
- Anna Rodzianko and Rose Aragon as The Computerettes
- Carel Struycken as Brute
- Patti Jerome as Saralinda Shears
- Max Showalter as Ernest Shears
- John Wheeler as Mr. Fields
- Jay W. MacIntosh as Ms. Fields
- Eleanor Zee as Mrs. Henderson
- Patrick Cranshaw as Western Union Manager
- Teri Lynn Wood as Bonnie
- Tracy Justrich as Tippy
Additionally, the film becomes a time capsule of late 1970s pop culture with the last scene in which the cast is joined by "Our Guests at Heartland" to sing the reprise of the title track while standing in a formation imitating the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album cover. The scene was filmed at MGM Studios on December 16, 1977; indeed, according to co-star Carel Struycken (Mustard's henchman Brute), Sgt. Pepper was the last film to be made at MGM under that studio's then existing management.
The guests were
- Peter Allen
- Keith Allison
- George Benson
- Elvin Bishop
- Stephen Bishop
- Jack Bruce
- Keith Carradine
- Carol Channing
- "Charlotte, Sharon, and Ula"
- Jim Dandy
- Sarah Dash
- Rick Derringer
- Barbara Dickson
- Dr. John
- Randy Edelman
- Yvonne Elliman
- Jose Feliciano
- Leif Garrett
- Adrian Gurvitz
- Billy Harper
- Eddie Harris
- Nona Hendryx
- Barry Humphries as Dame Edna Everage
- Etta James
- Bruce Johnston
- Joe Lala
- D.C. LaRue
- Jo Leb
- Marcy Levy
- Mark Lindsay
- Nils Lofgren
- John Mayall
- Curtis Mayfield
- Bruce Morrow (Cousin Brucie)
- Peter Noone
- Alan O'Day
- Lee Oskar
- The Paley Brothers
- Robert Palmer
- Wilson Pickett
- Anita Pointer
- Bonnie Raitt
- Helen Reddy
- Minnie Riperton
- Chita Rivera
- Johnny Rivers
- Monte Rock III
- Danielle Rowe
- Seals & Crofts
- Del Shannon
- Joe Simon
- Connie Stevens
- Al Stewart
- John Stewart
- Tina Turner
- Frankie Valli
- Gwen Verdon
- Diane Vincent
- Grover Washington, Jr.
- Alan White
- Lenny White
- Jackie Lomax
- Margaret Whiting
- Hank Williams, Jr.
- Johnny Winter
- Wolfman Jack
- Bobby Womack
- Gary Wright
The film began as a 1974 live Broadway show called Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band on the Road, which was produced by The Robert Stigwood Organization. Stigwood had purchased the rights to use 29 Beatles songs for the play and was determined to do something with them, so he brought the songs to Henry Edwards to write a script. Edwards had never written a script for a film, but had impressed Stigwood with musical analysis he'd written for The New York Times. "I spread the songs out on my apartment floor and went to work," said Edwards. "Mr Stigwood wanted a concept. I told him I'd like to do a big MGM-like musical. We'd synthesize forms and end up with an MGM musical but with the music of today."
With a script in place, the cast was assembled. In the spring of 1977, Frampton, The Bee Gees, and Martin met to begin work on the soundtrack. Filming started in October 1977 on the backlot of MGM Studios in Culver City, where the set of Heartland, USA was built. Interiors were filmed at Universal City Studios.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band opened in theatres on July 21, 1978. Ticket sales were dismal as it only earned a worldwide total of $20.4 million against the production budget of $13 million, and was considered a box-office bomb. Making matters worse, it threatened to wipe out the huge profits that RSO made on both Saturday Night Fever and Grease.
Along with the film's poor box-office performance, the reviews were even worse: critics take issue with its thin plot and incomprehensibility. As of September 1, 2014, review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes reports that 12% of 26 critics gave the film a positive review, with an average score of 3 out of 10. The film has been praised for its musical renditions of classic Beatles songs and has since gained a cult following.
In a contemporary review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote that the "musical numbers are strung together so mindlessly that the movie has the feel of an interminable variety show"; she said that while it may have been "conceived in a spirit of merriment, ... watching it feels like playing shuffleboard at the absolute insistence of a bossy shipboard social director. When whimsy gets to be this overbearing, it simply isn't whimsy any more." Maslin admired Martin's "completely unhinged rendition of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer", but added that his scene is a "reminder that the film is otherwise humorless". In Rolling Stone, Paul Nelson ridiculed virtually every aspect of the production. He said that Frampton had "absolutely no future in Hollywood" while Schultz "would seem to need direction merely to find the set, let alone the camera". Nelson commented on the musical soundtrack: "The album proves conclusively that you can't go home again in 1978. Or, if you do, you'd better be aware of who's taken over the neighborhood."
David Ansen of Newsweek dismissed Sgt. Pepper as "a film with a dangerous resemblance to wallpaper". Writing in The Valley Independent, Ron Paglia called it "Good, campy fun", citing Steve Martin's performance as "a high point" and the celebrity-filled finale as "something special" before concluding "there's much to enjoy." The Intelligencer's Lou Gaul described the production as "A sort of modern Fantasia for today's teens".
In the opinion of film historian Leonard Maltin, the picture "ranges from tolerable to embarrassing and just doesn't work. As for the Bee Gees' acting talents, if you can't say something nice …" Perry Seibert of AllMovie calls the film "quite possibly the silliest movie ever conceived", with a "handful of high camp moments" featuring Martin, Burns; Earth, Wind & Fire; Aerosmith, and Billy Preston who "somehow transcend the jaw-dropping inanity that poisons the rest of the cast". Writing for Mojo in 2007, John Harris described Stigwood's film as "mind-bogglingly awful". He cited this as an example of how the Beatles' 1967 album was "vulnerable to iconoclasm" and a reason why its critical standing had suffered beside other works by the band, particularly Revolver, the White Album and Rubber Soul. When asked about the film in a 1979 interview, George Harrison expressed his sympathy for Stigwood, Frampton and the Bee Gees, acknowledging that they had all worked hard to achieve success before making Sgt. Pepper. He said of Frampton and the Bee Gees: "I think it's damaged their images, their careers, and they didn't need to do that. It's just like the Beatles trying to do the Rolling Stones. The Rolling Stones can do it better."
When the Bee Gees regained control of their catalog, the Sgt. Pepper soundtrack was the only album that they did not include. The film was ranked No. 76 on VH1's 100 Most Shocking Moments in Rock and Roll.
Dianne Steinberg, who played Lucy in the film, was the only cast member who was nominated a Stinkers Bad Movie Award for Worst Supporting Actress.
- All This and World War II, a 1976 musical documentary that also used the concept of using covers of Beatles songs to tell a story.
- Across the Universe, a 2007 musical film that also used the concept of using Beatles songs to tell a story.
- List of cover versions of Beatles songs
- Other films released during the late 1970s disco and jukebox movie musical craze
- "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (U)". British Board of Film Classification. August 24, 1978. Retrieved August 16, 2015.
- 'Sgt. Pepper': Marching to Schultz's Beat: 'Sgt. Pepper' and Schultz Come Together Lee, Grant. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 23 July 1978: v23.
- "The Theater: Contagious Vulgarity". Time. December 2, 1974. Retrieved May 23, 2010.
- According to IMDb, one of the credits for the film is "Stage production conceived and adapted by Tom O'Horgan."
- Doggett, Peter (2011). You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After the Breakup. New York, NY: It Books. p. 256. ISBN 978-0-06-177418-8.
- Billboard.com – Biography: Steve Martin
- Stigwood, Robert (1978). The Official Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band Scrapbook. Pocket Books. p. 6. ISBN 0-671-79038-2.
- "RCA & Col Will Share Show Album". Billboard. November 9, 1974.
- "Beatles Tunes Star in New Film". The Capital. January 24, 1978.
- Stigwood, Robert (1978). The Official Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band Scrapbook. Pocket Books. p. 9. ISBN 0-671-79038-2.
- rottentomatoes.com, "Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978)". Accessed September 1, 2014.
- Janet Maslin's review of the film from The New York Times
- Nelson, Paul (October 5, 1978). "'Sgt. Pepper' gets busted". Rolling Stone.
- Paglia, Ron (August 30, 1978). "'Pepper' fun even without Beatles". The Valley Independent.
- Gaul, Lou. "Sgt. Pepper's a 'Fantasia' for teens". The Intelligencer.
- allmovie Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band – Review
- Harris, John (March 2007). "The Day the World Turned Day-glo!". Mojo. p. 74.
- Brown, Mick (April 19, 1979). "A Conversation With George Harrison". Rolling Stone. Retrieved March 6, 2019.