Friday, July 25, 2014

Beatlemiscellania - Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978)

In my youth, I really hated the BeeGees.  My parents only listened to the "light rock" radio station when we were growing up, and I guess the 80s were still close enough to the BeeGees height of popularity that they got played quite frequently.  I was completely baffled as to the appeal of these guys with really high pitched voices and big goofy hair.  But the funny thing about the passage of time is that even that thing you grew up annoyed with can suddenly have an appeal to you.  While I still am a little confused as to how women ever considered them sexy, I do have to admit they were talented singers who did a lot of great pop songs from that era.  So while I avoided this film when I was young and at the height of my Beatles obsession, I was cautiously optimistic that I might enjoy it now.

It is a somewhat "adaptation" of the album of the same name, but since that album doesn't truly tell a story it's really just the story of a band, using covers of Beatles songs to move the story forward.  The songs primarily come from Sgt Pepper and Abbey Road with a few others mixed in.  The story is very fantastical in nature and often goes off in strange directions for the sake of covering a new song.  The film is narrated by George Burns, who plays the mayor of Heartland, Mr. Kite.  A large number of other characters also take their names from Beatles songs.

The plot, such as it is, is that the original Sgt Pepper started playing around the time of World War I, and he and his band charmed everyone in Heartland up to his death in 1958.  Shortly before his death, he passed the torch to his grandson, Billy Shears, who recruited the three Henderson boys to join him.  The band becomes an instant success, but while they are being seduced by the evils of Hollywood, Heartland falls to ruin under mean Mr. Mustard.  The boys return home to play a benefit concert to save the town, but an evil organization kidnaps Billy's girlfriend Strawberry Fields to brainwash her and make her love Future Villain Band instead.  The guys stop FVB but Strawberry is killed in the fight, and Billy is ready to commit suicide until the weather vane on the top of Heartland's city hall (which always points to happiness) comes to life and makes everything wonderful again - including bringing Strawberry back from the dead.

If that sounds insane, realize that I didn't even bring up Mr. Mustard's robot girlfriends who tell him what to do, or the moments where the band has to steal back the magical musical instruments from a brainwashing teacher and a demented doctor.  Or that Sgt Pepper's band travels around in a hot air balloon.  Or that Billy is date raped by Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.  Or the big finale on the steps of city hall where all these celebrities suddenly appear and sing the reprise with them, in an attempt to recreate the cover of the album.  This movie is just absolutely crazy, and I'm not the least bit surprised that it flopped.  I will also not sit here and try to tell you that it's a good film by any stretch of the imagination.

That said, I actually really did enjoy watching it.

Peter Frampton is not a good singer, and most of the Beatles songs he sings on fall flat.  But the BeeGees tend to make up for that whenever they do the singing.  They were definitely the band that carried the torch of three part harmonies into the 70s after the Beatles broke up, and so they are really well suited here.  Barry Gibbs' rendition of "A Day in the Life" is particularly strong, but nearly all of their songs are enjoyable to listen to.  Certainly not better than the real thing, but they handle it well.  George Martin produced the soundtrack to the film, and I think that also goes a long way in helping these covers sound great and making all the incidental music really shine.

Some of the covers are really baffling, like having George Burns sing "Fixing a Hole" or Frankie Howerd as Mr. Mustard singing his title song as well as "When I'm 64," or Donald Pleasance doing a kind of spoken word version at one point.  Their choice to tell the story only through songs and Burns' narration means that sometimes you get these singers who are simply not up to par to handle the songs.  Sandy Farina plays Strawberry Fields, and she's at least decent, but she doesn't really bring much to the songs she sings.  Dianne Steinburg as Lucy is a stronger vocalist.

I absolutely loved Earth, Wind, and Fire's version of "We Can Work It Out."  It's very much in their style and seeing them perform it during the benefit concert and the energy they bring to the performance is even better.  Aerosmith's cover of "Come Together" is often played on the radio still, and with good reason.  They perform the song as Future Villain Band, and while they fumble around helplessly in the "fight" with Sgt Peppers the performance before it makes up for it.  And Steven Tyler plays dead pretty well.

Steve Martin's performance as Dr. Maxwell Edison is so close to his performance as the evil dentist in Little Shop of Horrors that Frank Oz had to have seen this and chose him specifically because of it.  He sings "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" in the same style that he sang "King Tut" and many others from his comedy album, and he brings his wild and crazy guy energy to the role.  I also found it amusing that they brought in a bit of Star Wars parody when Billy fights him - this movie has been referred to as a 70s time capsule, and what 70s capsule would be complete without a faux light saber fight and a villain that shoots electricity from his fingertips?

Alice Cooper plays the brainwashing teacher, and holy cow, if I had seen this when I was younger the scene would have been nightmare fuel.  The effects and dark eye makeup are simple, but his cover of "Because" (with the BeeGees providing harmonies) turns the song into something truly creepy, and the images work really well too.  A lot of what Cooper did in the 70s looks really mild now compared to guys like Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie who brought it all to a new level of shock in the 90s, but watching this I was able to get a feel for what kind of frightening, imposing presence he had back then.  I like it.

As I said before, this is not a good film.  It's more like a sequence of moments than a true narrative, and some of those moments can be painful to listen to at times and confusing to look at.  If you're a Beatles fan, you're going to have to be open to hearing new versions of the songs you love in order to be receptive to it.  And if you can't find a copy of the film easily, at least check out the soundtrack.  If you're not a Beatles fan, you're going to have to be a fan of campy, crazy musicals.  But if you're in the right frame of mind, you may be able to accept this film for its madness like I did.

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