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Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

Perhaps this seemed like a good idea on paper: Take one of the greatest albums of all time, and turn it into a rock opera. After all, Jesus Christ Superstar and The Who's Tommy had both made the successful leap to the screen. Of course, both JCS and Tommy had stared out as rock operas in the first place. But that's really irrelevant, because we're talking about The Beatles. And if there ever was a band whose songs lent themselves to cinematic interpretation, it's the Fab Four (as evidenced by Help, Yellow Submarine, and A Hard Day's Night. So, of course turning "Sgt. Pepper" into a film must've appeared to be a good idea. But at the end of the day, this horrific train wreck of a movie serves as glaring proof that some ideas are better left unfulfilled. Trying to determine exactly where the film goes wrong is impossible. It never goes right. For starters, The Beatles — having long-since broken up — are replaced by where-is-he-now pop rocker Peter Frampton and the kings of disco, The Bee Gees (Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb), who reinterpret many of the songs in the film. The insipid, bordering-on-incomprehensible story deals with Billy Shears (Frampton), the heir of the original Sgt. Pepper, whose music inspired peace and harmony through the world, following in the footsteps of his grandfather with the help of his friends, the Henderson Brothers (The Bee Gees). Signed to a big record label, the Lonely Hearts Club Band ventures from the tranquil Heartland U.S.A. to the big city, leaving their hometown vulnerable to the corruption wrought by Mean Mister Mustard (Frankie Howerd). As our heroes skyrocket to fame and fortune — succumbing to the temptations of sex and drugs — Heartland is transformed into a den of sin and vice, forcing the boys to return home to save the day.

*          *          *

As actors, Frampton and the Brothers Gibb are all very good musicians. But when it come to things like, oh, say… emoting, they're all terribly lost. The Gibbs look like they're posing for a photo shoot, while Frampton, who appears to be trying to do something that resembles acting, just can't seem to get it right. The rest of the cast fares only slightly better, but no one seems to know exactly what they're doing. It's almost as if no one read the script (if there was one) and the only direction given was "Make sure you move your lips to the song." Bad acting not withstanding, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band also suffers from a terrible story, courtesy of Henry Edwards, who only wrote one other thing before disappearing into obscurity. Edwards' script is just plain stupid. It doesn't help that director Michael Schultz is in way over his head. Best known for his work in television, and the blaxploitation era classics Cooley High and Car Wash, Schultz lacks the flair or style to capture the fast-paced, slapstick comedic timing it would take to make this film less crappy. At the same time, Schultz's direction is ahead of its time, pre-dating the nonsensical storytelling that was to come with MTV. Despite all the things working against Sgt. Pepper's — which amounts to everything — there is something about the film. Oozing with a bizarre surrealism, it is one of those pictures that can make you feel like you've smoked too much dope, even when you haven't. This feeling of course is helped along by vocal performances by George Burns, and Donald Pleasance (?!), as well as the still-on-the-fringe comedian Steve Martin. And while some of these performances work for comedic effect, Aerosmith ("Come Together"), Earth, Wind & Fire ("Got to Get You into My Life"), and Billy Preston ("Get Back") all offer reworkings of Beatles' songs that have gone on to be come classic covers. It's these type of moments, good, bad, and unbelievable, that almost make the film worth watching. Sadly, Universal's DVD offers no bonus features to this craptacular cinematic wonder. The anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) is solid, as is the DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. But one can't help but imagine what sort of things Schultz might have had to say on an audio commentary. "And here's Peter Frampton running like a girl. We really had a tough time working with him, you know. He was just one terrible actor. People often ask me why I made this film, and I always tell them, 'the money.' You know, we all make mistakes, and I'd have to say my biggest mistake as a filmmaker was Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band… unless you count Disorderlies starring the Fat Boys."
—David Walker



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