Rockin’ in Technicolor: Robert Stigwood and the Right and Wrong Ways to Make a Rock Opera Part 2

By MG Marshall

So, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has kind of a reputation. A “worst movies of all time” reputation. And, let me tell you right off the bat, it’s not that bad. Oh, it is bad, rest assured. And it does bring the level of crazy that you’d expect from a movie that’s received that dubious moniker. This movie is the fallout that resulted when ‘60’s hallucinogens and ‘70’s narcotics finally collided in an explosion of bad vibes.

Now, before I get into why exactly this movie doesn’t quite work, let’s talk a bit about the plot.Hailing from the idyllic, all-American town of Heartland, Sgt. Pepper and his Lonely Hearts Club Band are a marching band that somehow manage to charge onto the battlefields of World War I and bring the war to an end, purely through the power of music, I guess. Sgt. Pepper is awarded for bravery, but he and the band elect to stay in Heartland entertaining its people through the decades. When Sgt. Pepper passes away, his original instruments are put on display in a museum in the center of Heartland, and his grandson Billy Shears (Peter Frampton) takes up the mantle with his three best friends (The Bee Gees) as the new Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Managed by Billy’s greedy half-brother Dougie (Paul Nicholas, who also played the sadistic Cousin Kevin in Tommy) the boys are soon signed by record executive B.D. (Donald Pleasance) and whisked away from Heartland to enjoy all the sleaze and excess the music industry has to offer. Or at least all the sleaze and excess you’re allowed to see in this G-rated movie, which is surprisingly still a fair amount, I must admit. But, while the Band is away the museum is ransacked by crooked real-estate developer Mean Mr. Mustard (Frankie Howerd), who steals the instruments and divides them up amongst himself and his cohorts- Dr. Maxwell Edison (Steve Martin), an evil plastic surgeon, Father Sun (Alice Cooper), an evil cult leader/brainwasher, and the F.V.B., or Future Villains Band (Aerosmith- and, by the by, I love that I’m reviewing something so old that Aerosmith is considered the future anything…). With the instruments stolen, Heartland falls into financial ruin and the fate of the world apparently hangs in the balance. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band must race back to Heartland, face off with each of the villains, and steal the instruments back. Oh, and all of this being narrated by George Burns as Heartland’s mayor, Mr. Kite- the only character who doesn’t speak exclusively in song lyrics, though they do tragically make the mistake of letting George Burns sing at one point…

There’s a few big problems that completely hamstring this movie. The biggest I can see is that, while Tommy- and pretty much all of Stigwood’s other musical productions- was based on a pre-existing album where the songs were intended to go together and tell a story, that’s really not the case here. While this was apparently based on a stage show called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band On the Road, none of the songs here were originally intended to connect to each other, and it really shows in some spots. In fact, half of the songs in the movie version aren’t even off of the original Sgt. Pepper album. Many of them are from Abbey Road- in fact they cover the entirety of that album, while leaving out a couple songs from Sgt. Pepper and add a few more are from Magical Mystery Tour and Revolver. At some points, they don’t even try to make the songs into a story anymore; Earth Wind & Fire’s cover of “Got to Get You Into My Life” is just straight up filmed as a concert performance. It never has any effect on the story, Earth Wind & Fire aren’t even playing characters in the story. They’re just here as themselves to sing a Beatles song and then disappear out of the movie.

In fact, even a lot of the numbers that actually do have anything to do with the story are still shot that way. Gone are the rapid editing and intricate camerawork and choreography of Tommy. Instead, the characters mostly just sorta… stand there in longshot and perform their songs. On the whole, it just feels flat compared to Tommy, or even a few of the other Stigwood musicals, and this isn’t helped by just how silly the plot they attempted to graft onto these songs truly is. Yeah, that mishmash of Beatles references and utter nonsense I just gave as a summary is indeed the storyline we’re expected to follow. It’s like somebody took something like Yellow Submarine, decided to do it in live action, and decided it didn’t need to star The Beatles. (And yes, I do realize The Beatles are only in Yellow Submarine for about five minutes, but it at least had them singing on the soundtrack for the rest of the movie…) You’re perpetually struck with the idea that this whole thing would make a better Beatles tribute album that it does a movie. In fact, if that were the case, it’d actually be pretty good. Most of the covers are really pretty solid interpretations (depending on your tolerance for The Bee Gees).

Given that I only seem to have negative criticism for this, you may be wondering why I’m then recommending it as part of this double feature. Well, as bad as it is, there is still camp to gleaned from this, and it’s filled to the brim with the same kind of deranged imagery that Tommy had, even if it is a little less flamboyant in its delivery. There’s just no other movie where you can see a strung-out Alice Cooper (No joke. They dragged him out of rehab to make this movie…) cavorting around in a neon jumpsuit in front of psychedelic green screen before getting punched in the face by Barry Gibb and landing facedown in a whipped cream pie. There’s no other movie where you can see geriatric George Burns decked out in a tacky, fake “’60’s rocker” outfit and feebly pretending to play an electric guitar.There’s no other movie where you can see a deranged Steve Martin dance around in medical scrubs. (Okay, I guess you can see that in Little Shop of Horrors…) And there’s no other movie where you can see Robert Stigwood viciously mock himself. I’m not joking, either. Donald Pleasance’s B.D. is all but a self-portrait by Stigwood, and it’s a massively unflattering one. He gets the Bee Gees drunk and high before coercing them to sign, he mismanages their band and only cares about his profits, he wears some of the ugliest, cowboy-esque leisure suits and one of the most obvious toupees you’re ever likely to see. And his company’s logo is practically identical to that of The Robert Stigwood Organization. It’s kind of fascinating. Was this how Stigwood saw himself? Or is it how director Michael Schultz saw Stigwood after working with him? Or are we to assume that Stigwood and Schultz were so stupid and oblivious that they made a showbiz satire that completely embodies all of the terrible showbiz traits it’s satirizing?

Well, I don’t know the answer. But I do know that you can have a hell of a lot of deranged, campy, drug-fueled fun with these two movies. So sit back, take a shot or a toke or a snort of whichever illicit substance you personally prefer, pop in this double feature, and just let a small piece of your brain melt a little bit. You won’t regret it, I guarantee.

MG Marshall