Through a Glass Sparkly: Robert Stigwood and SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND (Michael Schultz, 1978)

the boys in the band

The recent passing of music impresario-turned-film producer Robert Stigwood motivated me to cast a cold eye back over his cinematic legacy. I would argue the movies the man has bequeathed us can best be summed up — to borrow the title from a movie that, musically or otherwise, Stigwood had absolutely nothing to do with —  by invoking Sergio Leone’s classic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The Good: a series of known commodities, whether Broadway musicals or best-selling rock opera LPs, that Stigwood commissioned for quick committal to celluloid, including Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), Tommy (1975), Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease (1978). These properties prospered, one supposes, in direct proportion to Stigwood’s non-involvement in their making.

The Bad: the still-suppressed Moment by Moment (1978), with Lily Tomlin’s bored hausfrau romanced by an aimless drifter called Strip (Stigwood touchstone John Travolta), as well as a couple of ill-advised sequels, Grease 2 (Greasier) and Staying Alive (a baldly defiant statement of intent from House Stigwood).

The Ugly: Stigwood fired writer/director Allen Moyle from his punk scene-defining Times Square (1980), trimming scenes with “controversial” lesbian content, then shamelessly cramming in more non-punk music, in order to generate a more “commercially viable” double album soundtrack.

And then there’s what, by any yardstick, must be recognized as the absolute apotheosis of Stigwoodian awfulness: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

title card

This glitzy, muddle-headed behemoth does for the Lennon-McCartney songbook what Charlie Manson did for the White Album.

Initially, this project no doubt looked profitable on paper: In the midst of Zeitgeist-assuaging calls for the Beatles’ reformation, simply take another successful Broadway property, in this case the 1974 Robert Stigwood Organization production Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the Road. (Don’t forget to factor in Stigwood’s steely determination to do something bigger and brasher with those damnably catchy, generation-defining tunes.) Then, for garnish, ladle on the commercial appeal of the Bee Gees (whom Stigwood managed) and Peter Frampton, the flaxen-haired moppet who had famously “come alive” two summers before with more than a little help from his talkbox.

Finally, sit back and watch as the perfect storm of “creative” decision-making closes in, fueled by truckloads of cocaine and an overweening disregard for incidentals like narrative and, say, good taste. Still, it has to be admitted that Sgt. Pepper’s plays like the perfect encapsulation of an era, with its gonzo commitment to excess and spectacle at any cost. Witness the rising tsunami of similar productions: Sidney Lumet’s  The Wiz (1978), the Village People vehicle Can’t Stop the Music (1980), Gene Kelly on roller-skates in Xanadu (1980), and Menahem Golan’s mindbending sf/biblical allegory The Apple (1980).

Given Sgt. Pepper’s Heartland, USA setting, it was clear from the start that the Brit-accented Brothers Gibb and Frampton ought not to be allowed dialogue. Introduce then, for clarity’s sake, one Mr. Kite (George Burns) as Heartland mayor and not-so-humble narrator, but maybe don’t let him croak his way through “Fixing a Hole.”

mr kite

After a painfully protracted prologue concerning the original Sgt. Pepper and his wartime atrocities (of a musical variety, natch) — for which he was summarily enshrined on top of the Heartland City Hall-cum-Pepper Museum as a solid-gold weather vane (more, alas, about this later) — we arrive at Sgt. Pepper: The Next Generation, in the form of one William “Billy” Shears (Frampton).

original LHCB

Billy and his nubile sweetheart Strawberry Fields (Sandy Farina) — henceforth affectionately dubbed Strawb — put the youthful heart in Heartland, a “1950s in amber” facade fabricated entirely on the MGM backlot, and otherwise populated exclusively by third-round draft choices for the “Kick the Can” segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie.

billy & strawb

True to its candidly Candide-riffing source material, this middle-American “best of all possible worlds” soon seems too bucolic a burg for Billy and the LHCB, and so, travel being the thing, they set out for the smog-soaked seductions of LA.

Home to media mogul B.D. Brockhurst (a terrifyingly hirsute, gold-grilled Donald Pleasence) and his musical empire, LA seems ideally suited to stand in for a late-’70s, disco-bedazzled Babylon.

BD brockhurst

As Sgt. Pepper’s progresses, it becomes clear that its positively diabolical portrait of B.D. can be put down to either an unabashedly autobiographical admission on the part of Stigwood (per Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz), or else it’s a slyly satirical jab at the mogul that somehow, under the guise of fidelity to the arc of the stage play, managed to slip past RSO censors.

This is a film, after all, that mocks its production company’s pretentious logo by cheekily swapping out RSO’s bovine mascot (=mindless grazing on cultural capital) for a ruddy porker that represents pig-headed piggishness of every variety. And let’s not forget the zippy montage that seems to be taking satiric potshots at the rubber-stamped mass production of the LHCB’s heartfelt “art,” but actually depicts the pressing of the film’s own soundtrack album, which would hit shelves a mere two days after its premiere.

BD records

Because something or other has to happen between the musical numbers, the LHCB soon find themselves caught up in a caper involving missing instruments, a nefarious criminal mastermind known only as FVB, and a goon called Mr. Mustard (veteran funnyman Frankie Howerd, here reduced to sub-Benny Hill, sped-up slapstick).

Mean old Mustard, incidentally, tools around in a CV driven by his henchman, the Brute (Carel Struycken, the Giant in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks), accompanied by a couple of twirly-wigged fembots who occasionally break out into song (voiced, as it happens, by the Bee Gees themselves, who must’ve swiped Frampton’s pet talkbox for the task).

mean mr. mustard

A plot this pointlessly picaresque might suffice for a Saturday morning episode of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? But when you plunk down in the neighborhood of $18 million for a film, you might want to invest a modicum of that windfall in something resembling a script. (An admonition equally applicable to today’s bloated blockbusters of the MCU variety, only multiplied several hundredfold…)

Skulking around the periphery of this badly balanced boondoggle, Billy’s brother Dougie (Paul Nicholas, Cousin Kevin in the infinitely superior Tommy) inexplicably takes up with sultry Lucy long enough to duet on “You Never Give Me Your Money,” while frolicking among bags of (what else?) the do-re-mi.

This slapdash “Case of the Missing Instruments” lazily excuses the introduction of several “guest villains”: Steve Martin rehearses his zany dentist routine for Little Shop of Horrors as Dr. Maxwell Edison. Alice Cooper’s Mr. Sun, looking for all the world like a mesmeric Frank Zappa, brainwashes a roomful of future consumers with the mantra “We hate Love/We Hate Joy/We Love Money” (possibly another Stigwoodism?) while putting a suitably psychedelic spin on “Because.”

mr sun

Finally, in the big reveal, the Future Villain Band (FVB, get it?) turns out to be none other than Aerosmith. (They look totally zonked, incidentally, and Joe Perry can’t even manage to lip-sync in sync.) Then, with all the ironic subtlety of a nine-pound hammer, a brawl breaks out in the midst of “Come Together,” leaving poor Strawb dead, even while putting paid to the futurity of this particular band of villains.

future villain band fray

Now the real weepy and tragic like part of the story sets in. Heartland must come together over the passing of its native daughter, as well as the corrupting influence of Mustard’s various real estate ventures, which spread across the face of that one town-square set like some malignant fungus. The solution being a benefit (concert) for Mr. Kite, of course.

funeral procession

The script has painted itself into one lachrymose corner, complete with mopey montage of Frampton scuffling through the tall grass, his locks wafting aloft like a half-blown dandelion. Barry Gibb, swathed in darkness, emotes the (doubtless self-critical) line: “I saw the film today, oh boy…”

But surely Stigwood and his minions wouldn’t put audiences through such an emotional wringer, only to usher them back out into the harsh light of economic recession and existential anomie? Surely some revelation must be at hand that will tie up all these hopelessly loose strings and thus neatly be-ribbon this spangled, oversized package…?

Well, yes. Don’t forget about that solid-gold weather vane I mentioned a while back. You see, it springs to life, in the person of one Billy Preston, to console the populace with a jazzed-out rendition of “Get Back” and lightning zap every wrong to rights. Preston, after all, had played piano on the original single, so he must bring a modicum of authenticity to the proceedings, right…?

zapped

Sgt. Pepper’s concludes, then, with a sloppy sop of a resolution supplied by what you’d have to call a “diva ex machina.”

Generously setting aside the patent lunacy of Sgt. Pepper’s story, the real issue with this particular atrocity exhibition abides in the authenticity of its performances. And, since the film’s 100% performance-based, that’s sort of a problem. The Bee Gees are hamstrung at every turn, reduced by Stigwoodian fiat to little more than a bland Beatles cover band; only Barry’s contribution to “Nowhere Man” and his slice of “A Day in the Life” leave him sounding like himself.

Earth, Wind & Fire and Aerosmith were free to put their own spin on the material, EWF scoring a #9 hit with “Got to Get You Into My Life.” The less said about Frampton’s neutered warble (just listen to his melismatic mangling of “The Long and Winding Road”), the better.

earth wind & fire

As though the Billy Preston final solution weren’t enough of an upbeat send-off, what follows for the film’s coda puts the coke-fueled capstone on this archly asinine production. Stigwood invited every available celebrity he and his factotums could lay their hands on to the MGM backlot to reprise both the Sgt. Pepper’s theme song and original album cover in one fell swoop.

According to IMDb: “Formal invitations were engraved and sent to virtually everyone in the entertainment industry; the many who RSVP’d were treated to first-class transportation to Los Angeles, limos, luxurious hotels, champagne, a lavishly catered dinner and private tents for each of the stars in the studio’s garden room.”

The mind boggles at such profligacy. But then again, it seems entirely in keeping with Stigwood & Co.’s approach to the material: Bigger is better. Significantly, the one song on the Sgt. Pepper’s album that wasn’t yoked to this anodyne project is “Within You Without You.” That’s likely because George Harrison’s low-key, introspective lyrics advising listeners “to see you’re really only very small” couldn’t be more antipodal to the blitzkrieg of bad taste offered up by Stigwood’s counter-counterculture Sgt. Pepper’s.

the end

About Budd Wilkins

Budd Wilkins is a writer, film critic and instructor. He is a Staff Critic for Slant Magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Nordic Issue of Acidemic Journal of Film and Media. He is currently writing a chapter for an anthology on international horror directors to be published by Intellect Press and distributed by University of Chicago Press. Mr. Wilkins was born and raised in Hollywood, Florida. He attended Penn State for several years before moving to North Carolina in 1994, where he earned his Bachelor's in Religious Studies and a Master's in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Film Studies from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His primary focus is film history, film literacy and criticism, with the goal of bringing obscure, foreign and films that are labeled "difficult" to the attention of film aficionados of all kinds. Other interests and focus of critique include comparative religion, black humor, 19th century European literature, horror and graphic novels. Mr Wilkins lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with his wife, Tina. Follow @buddwilkins on Twitter.
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