Guaranteed to raise a smile? ‘Sgt. Pepper’ at the movies

❉ Take 29 Beatles songs, the Bee Gees, Peter Frampton, Steve Martin, Frankie Howerd and some extraordinarily bad hairpieces what could go wrong?

‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ (Posteritati Movie Poster Gallery)

It should have been the box office smash of 1978. Take one producer with a Midas touch, add 29 Beatle songs performed by best-selling contemporary artists, and then throw in a stellar cast including: Donald Pleasance, Steve Martin, George Burns and erm, Frankie Howerd. But the film version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club wasn’t a success, and soon became a forgotten oddity, rarely mentioned by pretty much everyone associated with it.

It’s a film that defies description, or at least I thought it did before Doctor Who and Dead Ringers writer Jonathan Morris described it recently as: What if the Beatles were a little bit disco? But even that doesn’t do this quite incredible film justice.

I first discovered it in the late ‘90s. I’d been a Beatles fan for years when I saw an odd picture on the early internet: four men stood grinning in garish Sgt. Pepper uniforms – three of them with big 70s hair. A caption said it was from a film based on the Beatles’ famous long player. Why hadn’t I had heard of this I wondered? And more importantly, where could I buy a copy? In the early 2000s I managed to get hold of a DVD import and was finally able to watch it.

I had to turn it off after ten minutes of bizarre awfulness. The DVD followed me through house moves until the first lockdown, when I’d tried watching it again. This time I watched the whole thing with my partner. Neither of us had seen anything like it before – and we couldn’t agree if this was a good thing or not.

The man behind arguably one of the strangest musical films ever made was producer and manager, Robert Stigwood. He had early successes managing Cream, the Bee Gees and Eric Clapton. There’s an interesting story from this part of his career: rival manager Don Arden apparently dangled him from an office window (Arden thought he was about to poach the Small Faces), but if this really happened it was a minor setback.

Moving beyond pop and rock management, Stigwood became a successful West End show producer before switching to film production. He was behind hit film versions of Jesus Christ Superstar and The Who’s Tommy, but these early celluloid successes were quickly overshadowed by later film projects: Saturday Night Fever and Grease. It was Stigwood who thought it would be a good idea to take an off-Broadway production based on the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album and turn it into a film.

But who would play the band and perform most of the songs? Not the Beatles – they were too busy wearing mullets in Wings, baking bread in the Dakota Building, gardening in Henley-on-Thames or just being Ringo Star. And music had moved on anyway, so in 1978 the choice was obvious: the band would be played by Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees.

Outside classic rock circles, Frampton is almost a forgotten figure now, but back in the mid-70s he created one of the biggest selling live albums of all time.

He’s probably most often seen now on grainy TV footage, performing his mega-hit Show Me the Way, with the aid of a talk box gizmo. To modern eyes it looks like Peter is humming into a DIY setup combining homebrewing kit, a car battery and a kazoo, but in the 1970s this was very pretty cutting edge. Who wouldn’t want Peter playing Billy Shears in a Beatles movie?

The Bee Gees play the other members of the band. Much mocked for their big-haired and hairy-chested disco image in later years, this was casting that also made sense. Longstanding members of the Stigwood stable, they’d first found success crafting Beatles-esque pop ballads. After a rapid decline in popularity led to them harmonising over chicken-in-a-basket at the Batley Variety Club, they’d reinvented themselves with a super-successful disco sound. They’d also covered Beatles tunes before, most notably in that other ’70s Beatles curiosity, All this and World War 2.

So let’s recap: we have a successful producer, bestselling contemporary music acts and nearly 30 Beatles tunes – what could go wrong? Well imagine a film that appears to be made by people who’ve never made a film before, or written a film script, or heard the original Beatle songs.

And the plot?

The Bee Gees and Peter Frampton are on a quest to locate magical instruments and save an American small town called Heartland from ruin, while resisting music industry temptations. Alongside the Bee Gees and Frampton, a variety of artists, ranging from Alice Cooper to Frankie Howerd and Paul Nicholas from Just Good Friends, perform Beatles covers that sort of move the story along.

Some of the cover versions are better than others – most are terrible.

There is however something endearing about the wooden and slightly dazed performances of the Brothers Gibb and Frampton. Beyond the band, it’s obvious old stagers George Burns and Frankie Howerd have no idea what’s going on, but that’s okay because no one else seems to know either. There are many other things to enjoy; like the slightly desperate ways Beatle songs are crowbarred into the story; the extraordinarily bad hairpieces on show; and Steve Martin being well, Steve Martin. It’s also a film that looks good: imagine the most expensive ‘70s TV movie ever made and you’re not far off.

And there are some good Beatles covers on the soundtrack: Aerosmith turn in a passable rocky cover of Come Together; and Earth, Wind and Fire turn Got to Get You into My Life into a funky, soul classic. Billy Preston, one of the many Fifth Beatles, also covers Get Back, in a cameo that has to be seen to be believed.

So would I recommend this movie? I will risk the wrath of the editor by using a cliché that should perhaps never be used in We Are Cult circles – but this really is a film that’s so bad, it’s good.

You could even say it’s guaranteed to raise a smile.

❉ ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ was released on DVD/Blu-ray by Shout! Factory, 26 September 2017. Available in US & Canada. Product SKU: 826663175554.

Den Cartlidge is a writer of submissions rarely accepted. After two failed novels, he’s currently working on a memoir.

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