Appreciating the campy delight that is Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978)

This post is my contribution to the fun Beatles Film Blogathon hosted by Steve over at Movie Movie Blog Blog. To read the other entries, click here. For the benefit of Mr. Kite, please do.

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Ever since I can remember, I've been aware of the Beatles. The amazing thing is I think almost everyone can say that. I didn't really appreciate them until one summer I listened to a Greatest Hits cassette tape that was my dad's, a tape that I played over and over until the stereo I used went kaput. And then a great thing happened to me: I took a class last semester on the history of 1960's rock music. I thought I knew the Beatles, knew their songs, appreciated them. Uh, no. Not even close. After discussing the band in class for two weeks, I immediately bought all but two of their albums and I knew I was in love. But before I could worship the Beatles for their more-than-impressive catalog and cooler-than-cool image, my mom introduced my sister and I to 1978's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. I was in the seventh grade when my mom told us about this mythical film starring Peter Frampton, the Bee Gees, Aerosmith, and many more. The universe clearly wanted us to see the movie when not a week later, my mother randomly found a DVD copy of the film while running errands. One viewing was all it took for my sister and me to become obsessed.

Before I go into plot details and whatnot, there are a few things I need to get out of the way. First of all, I have never encountered another person who appreciates Sgt. Pepper's (the film, not the album). Just type in the title and "1978" into Google, and you'll get nothing but hate-filled rants about why the movie is the worst of the worst of the worst. Which breaks my heart to no end, because it's honestly in my top 10 all-time favorite films. Could this be because it's bonded me with my sister and mom? Sure. But it's also because I genuinely think Sgt. Pepper's has gotten unfair treatment, simply because it dared to use Beatles songs, a particularly gutsy move since it was released only eight or nine years after the group disbanded. Maybe the reason why I didn't discount the movie straight away was because I was watching it for the people involved, not because it was associated with the Beatles. When I heard Robin Gibb singing "Oh! Darling," I loved it like I would any other song from any other musical. I wasn't saying "How could they?! There's no way this is as good as Paul McCartney's vocals!" This is all my long-winded way of saying that if you want to appreciate Sgt. Pepper's, you've got to see it with an open mind. Seriously.

Because the film is weird. I'm not going to lie to you guys about that. For one thing, its actors are a who's who of popular musicians from the time: Frampton, the Bee Gees, Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, Earth, Wind and Fire, and Billy Preston. The narrator/Mr. Kite character is none other than George Burns, a fact that amazed me once I learned more about Burns. If you think about it, the movie's cast reminds one of when MGM or whoever would put dozens of stars in one film to really sell it, such as Till the Clouds Roll By or It's a Great Feeling.

Another interesting thing about Sgt. Pepper's is the fact that the only dialogue comes from Burns. Everyone sings, but the narrator is the only one to speak. All the songs come from the album it shares a name with and Abbey Road, which means that the soundtrack is fantastic. The cast may not be Paul, John, George, and Ringo, but the songs are definitely done justice. The last thing I want to say before I finally dive in: the plot is extremely flimsy. I know this. Everything is goofy and silly and sometimes creepy, and yes, the acting isn't Oscar-worthy. I feel like I'm losing you now...

The town of Heartland has one pride and joy: the famous Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. During World War I, Sgt. Pepper and his band's music brought the opposing sides together, ending the war. Through the years, Sgt. Pepper's Band helped people weather the changing times, from the roaring '20s to WWII. Everyone loved the band, so when Sgt. Pepper himself died during a performance, the town was heartbroken. Without Sgt. Pepper as their leader, the group faded away, leaving their instruments on display in the town hall building.

We learn all this information from Mr. Kite (Burns), who tells us that recently Sgt. Pepper's Band came back together, only this time it's led by the sergeant's grandson, Billy Shears (Frampton). The rest of the members are Mark, Dave, and Bob Henderson (Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb), and Billy's stepbrother Dougie (Paul Nicholas) manages the band. Billy's girlfriend Strawberry Fields (Sandy Farina) is their #1 fan. Everything is rosy, or as Mr. Kite says, "Heartland loved the boys and the boys loved music. Billy and Strawberry loved each other, and Dougie loved making money." But wait. What's that sketchy van that has sneaked its way into town? It's mean Mr. Mustard (Frankie Howerd), a conniving ex-realtor who works for a mysterious villain named FVB. His assignment: steal the precious instruments from town hall and corrupt Heartland.

Unaware of Mr. Mustard and his evil plan, Dougie records the new Sgt. Pepper's Band during a jam session and sends the tape to B.D. Records. They get an enthusiastic reply from the company and immediately head for Los Angeles, via hot-air balloon because that's how sane people travel. Heartland is ecstatic for the boys, except for Strawberry -- she's kind of sort of super depressed about the whole thing. Her worry that Billy will forget about her manifests as soon as the band is picked up at the airport by B.D. (Donald Pleasence) and his lover, Lucy (Dianne Steinberg). Lucy leads B.D.'s #1 group, Lucy and the Diamonds, but she also plays chauffeur, secretary, and fellow schemer to the big boss. She immediately sets her sights on Billy, and Dougie only has eyes for her. It's quite funny, actually. Lucy gazes lustily at Billy as she sings "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" and out of nowhere, you hear Dougie singing to her and staring at her, which makes Lucy as uncomfortable as Billy.

Once the gang arrives at B.D.'s estate, Lucy and her Diamonds work their magic as they wine and dine the guys, the goal being to get them so drunk and, um, amorous, that they'll sign their contract without reading it. Drugs are inhaled, huge glasses of liquor are gulped, and an orgy is definitely implied. The only one putting up some resistance is Billy, but once B.D. spikes his drink, he's a goner too. It doesn't take long for Sgt. Pepper's to become a massive success. Like the Beatles, they're consumed by screaming girls, recording sessions, and performances.

Back in Heartland, things aren't going so well. Mr. Mustard not only has designs on the town, but on Strawberry too. Once he steals the instruments and ships them off to various followers of FVB, he begins buying property and turning Heartland into the sleaziest place you ever saw. Strawberry becomes very worried (her name really should be Worrywart) and she runs away from home so she can tell the guys what's plaguing their hometown.

Strawberry manages to find B.D. Records and is horrified to see Lucy blowing kisses to Billy, who is clearly not resisting the woman's advances. In one of my favorite moments, Dave is recording "Oh! Darling" as Strawberry informs Billy of Heartland's problems. One by one, each instrument drops out as each band member is told what's going on. The gang rushes from the booth, only to remember that no one told poor Dave, who just keeps singing his little heart out. They pull him one way, but his headphones pull him the other way. I may or may not crack up every time this happens...

Outside on the street, Billy and Co. notice Mr. Mustard's van. He had followed Strawberry and it's his job to stop the group. He's your typical blundering villain, though, so in no time the gang hijacks his van, which is equipped with helpful robots and monitors that tell the gang exactly where to go to retrieve the instruments. Their first stop? The evil Dr. Maxwell (Steve Martin, I kid you not), "a small-time quack who became a big-time specialist, turning ugly, old, corrupt people into handsome, young, corrupt people." Steve Martin may be the only one who got any praise for this movie. Critics enjoyed his performance, which is kooky and hilarious. Not so hilarious? The lyrics to his song "Maxwell's Silver Hammer." Despite the doctor's efforts and the goofiest fistfight you ever saw between the Hendersons and the nurses, the gang is able to steal back the coronet. They also find the drum already in the van. Two more instruments to go!

Their next stop is the brainwashing headquarters of FVB, run by a former school crossing guard who goes by the name Father Sun (Alice Cooper). In what's probably the creepiest scene from Sgt. Pepper's, FVB's followers watch a weird music video starring Father Sun and they chant "We hate love! We hate joy! We love money!" Once again, the band and Strawberry are able to retrieve another instrument, but unfortunately during a scuffle with the followers, Billy was knocked unconscious. Inside the van, Strawberry sings to him -- what else? -- "Strawberry Fields Forever" and he magically wakes up. It's corny and sweet and a chance to stare at the perfection that is Peter Frampton, so I can't complain. During all this craziness, Dougie is still at B.D. Records. Because the boys ran off, B.D. was forced to cancel dozens of concerts. He's quickly losing money until Dougie convinces B.D. to throw a giant music festival in Heartland. Billy and the Hendersons come back for the festival after hitting a snag in their mission (re: Bob got pissed and kicked the van's computers, causing them to break down and thus cutting off their source of information).

The festival is a smash, especially since you've got Sgt. Pepper's, Lucy and the Diamonds, and Earth, Wind and Fire appearing. By now a money-hungry couple, Lucy and Dougie are thrilled with the ticket receipts, so much so that they dance and sing as they literally roll in dollar bills. This is another of my favorite moments. Lucy and Dougie are a perfect teaming, a complete foil to the
all-American boy-and-girl-next-door coupling of Billy and Strawberry. They're sexy and lusty and totally unapologetic. Hearing them sing "You Never Give Me Your Money" is wonderful. Whenever my sister and I count out loud for whatever reason, we'll instantly go "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven! All good children go to heaven!" Of course, we have to sing it high-pitched like Lucy does. The twosome grabs as much cash as they can and store it in Mr. Mustard's van, which they plan to take too. They're quickly interrupted, though, when the festival's crowds allow Mustard to sneak back into town and subsequently kidnap Strawberry.

Billy and the Hendersons get in their hot-air balloon and the chase is on! Mr. Mustard tries to console Strawberry, but it's more frightening than anything else ("When I'm Sixty-Four"). He's all kinds of uncomfortable. And because he's also an idiot, Mustard goes to the lair of FVB, leading the boys right to the source of the villainy. Now, this is where the film gets completely outrageous: FVB stands for Future Villain Band, and it's none other than Aerosmith. Strawberry is tied up and subjected to Steven Tyler thrusting and shimmying all over her as he sings "Come Together" in an attempt to seduce Strawberry to the dark side. (I doubt I'd be resisting prime 1970's Steven Tyler, but that's just me.) In what was surely many a fan girl's dream in 1978, Tyler and Frampton physically fight over Strawberry. Then legitimate tragedy strikes -- Strawberry pushes Tyler off of Billy, making Tyler fall to his death and loosening her restraints so she accidentally falls as well. That's right. Strawberry DIES.

We cut to her funeral in Heartland, and it is depressing as hell. I get teary-eyed every time, it is that sad. Billy sings "Golden Slumbers" to Strawberry's coffin ("Sleep little darling, do not cry, and I will sing a lullaby..."), and as they carry her to the wagon that will take her to the cemetery, the chorus sings "Carry That Weight," which perfectly captures Billy's guilt ("Boy, you're going to carry that weight, carry that weight a long time"). Inconsolable, Billy goes to Strawberry's house and cries in her old room. Outside, Mark reflects on the sad day and how just weeks ago, everything was going great ("A Day in the Life"). As the music gets more intense, Mark and his brothers look up in time to see Billy jumping from Strawberry's third-story window. Now this is when the movie will probably lose you (if it hadn't already). Before Billy can hit the ground, Billy Preston pops up and uses literal magic powers to stop Billy and put him back on the roof. Yeah. It happens. Dressed in shiny gold, Preston (and special effects) changes all of Mustard's corruption back to the way Heartland used to be while singing "Get Back." Not only that, he also brings Strawberry back to life. Everyone's happy, everything's good. The end.

For any other movie, this ending would be beyond bizarre, but it fits perfectly here. Plus, how often have you seen a character die at the end of a film and wish they would magically come back? It's pretty satisfying, I must say. I know some would argue that it makes no sense, but to that I say "It. Is. A. Movie. None of this is real." Can you tell I get defensive when I really like something? There are just so many little pieces in the movie that delight me every viewing... Bob slapping away Billy's hand when they're trying to figure out Mustard's computer, Billy finding the drum in the van, Dougie and Lucy's interactions throughout the story, George Burns dancing and singing "Fixin' a Hole," the boys breaking the fourth wall as they sing about Lucy during "I Want You (She's So Heavy)", the boys hilariously propelling their hot-air balloon in an effort to catch up with Mr. Mustard and Strawberry...

I don't want to give the impression that I love everything about Sgt. Pepper's. There are little things I would change, such as the very sketchy vibes from Mr. Mustard, his robots that you can barely understand, and Father Sun's brainwashing video. Those are all pretty minor, though, compared to the character of Strawberry Fields. Sandy Farina did the best she could, but Strawberry... well, she has the emotional maturity of a 12-year-old girl. When she gets sad over the success of Billy's band, she goes up to her room, snuggles a stuffed animal, and her walls are covered in pictures of Billy, including a cardboard cutout of him. She also can't save herself when Mr. Mustard kidnaps her. That being said, Strawberry takes charge when it comes to helping Heartland. And she kills Steven Tyler before he can kill Billy. For such a flimsy movie, her characterization does make you think.

As you've probably gathered from the beginning of this post, Sgt. Pepper's was not a success in any way. It flopped at the box office and critics more than despised it. How it came to be released on DVD is a serious mystery -- that's how much flack this poor film gets. It used to be on Netflix's instant streaming, but alas the Netflix gods took it away. I couldn't find it on YouTube either, so instead of linking to the movie, I'll just link you to the movie's soundtrack here. Give it a listen; you might be surprised. I really hope my post inspires at least one person to seek Sgt. Pepper's out, either for a first viewing or a re-watch. If there was ever a flick that deserved a second chance, I believe it's this 1978 gem. And remember: be good-natured about it and have an open mind. The love you take is equal to the love you make, after all.









With love,
Michaela

Comments

  1. Very nice post! I am afraid I'm one of those countless detractors of the movie to which you refer, but I greatly appreciate your spirited defense of the movie, and if you like it, that's all that matters! Nicely done! (P.S.: I've always wondered whatever happened to Sandy Farina after this movie.)

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    1. Well, thanks for providing me the platform to defend this movie! I understand why some (okay, many) don't like the film. We'll just have to agree to disagree. I too wonder about Sandy Farina. Any relation to Dennis?

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  2. Ha-ha, I think you and I might be the only ones out there! I love this movie too! Great job!

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    1. You love it too?! Oh my goodness. I'm going to have to write this date in stone. This is
      exciting!
      Thanks for stopping by!

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  3. Michaela Ann: I've nominated you for a Liebster -- I hope you will have a chance to respond soon! http://bit.ly/1J9YS09

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    1. Thank you so much! I'll get on it right away!

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  4. I first saw this on cable in 1980 at the age of four; I'd been into the Beatles for a year by then, and I knew who the "new band" consisted of, and I thought it was great. I didn't know who george Burns was at the time, but thought of him as a sort of Mr. Hooper figure of the movie.
    For a movie that was not terribly well-received, it was always available on VHS, Beta, "DiscoVision" LaserDisc, DVD, and online, not to mention occasional airings on cable.
    I remember being depressed for a few days after first seeing it, after what happens to Strawberry, and her subsequent funeral, as she was my first cinematic crush. I knew it was "just a movie", and she does magically come back, but--boy, what a downer that was. Sandy Farina is doing well, and apparently has done so in the years since then. I have her as a Facebook friend, and although I don't pester her about the movie, there's so many questions I would love to ask about making it!

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    1. Good observation regarding the film's availability. I was absolutely gobsmacked that my mom was able to find it so quickly, and at our local CVS which is so random.

      Thanks for letting me know about Sandy Farina! Her funeral in the film is really touching, in my opinion -- for such a goofy film, it's got a dark side. I would be tempted to ask Ms. Farina loads of questions, too! This movie is something no one talks about, so it'd be cool to hear what her experience was like.

      Thanks for reading!

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    2. She had an album on MCA, released in 1980, called "All Alone In The Night". I haven't found it anywhere, but one can always get it off of eBay.
      She also sang the song "Body Talk" for the 1985 cult favorite "The Toxic Avenger", and the song itself has a bit of a cult following on YouTube.

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  5. My sister and I watched this movie over and over again it is one of my all time favorite movies, what I can't understand is why anyone would hate it!!! I think the music is awesome and I love the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton singing the songs I head a huge crush on Peter!! I loved everything about it!!

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    1. I'm right there with you! I think it's just because it's the Beatles -- people take the band very seriously and I don't think they appreciate how the film appropriates the music and everything. Personally, I love that we get to have people like Peter Frampton, the Bee Gees, Steve Martin, etc. singing Beatles tunes! I will always have a major crush on Frampton after seeing this movie. Such a gorgeous, talented man.

      Thanks for reading!

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  6. "Would you believe in a love at first sight? Yes...I'm certain that it happens all the time."
    And that's exactly how I feel about this film. Star Wars. Flash Gordon. And Sgt Peppers. Best of the best in my book. I grew up in the 70s (obviously) and I remember possibility...hope...and joy. These things were real in the 70s. Even though every Millennial wants to attack this beautiful time (and this movie) they are just missing out...too busy trying to be cool than to really be cool. You're so right about what you have to say and it's refreshing. I only differ in that I love those girly bots with the cool robot voices. But I'm a guy right? What the detractors are missing is that Sgt Peppers was more a movie length music video than a musical...waaaay ahead of its time. It was ALL about feel good and good vibes. In a word...it was FUN! But most of all ... it was about HEART. It was a good movie about goodness. It always tells me more about the mind of the detractors than this movie. Critics be damned. This movie is soul medicine.

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    1. Agreed! Many people completely miss the point of this movie. It's so much fun, and I love that we get great covers of great songs. It's just a sweet, goofy gem. Thanks for reading!

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  7. You are not alone, Michaela! I myself went to the same theatre 5 or 6 times to see SGT. PEPPER when it was first released... I loved the film and the entire experience THAT MUCH! Mind you, just the previous year when STAR WARS first hit the world stage, I went to see it for the first time (thought it was so-so) and then returned to see it 2 or 3 more times with small groups of different friends and I remained completely aloof and reasonably nonplussed with each successive viewing! But, mind you, SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND simply got better and better each and every time I saw it. Now, 39 years later(?!?!) I will pop on my laserdisc or VHS tape of the film and continue to enjoy it just as I had all those years ago. Please don't misunderstand my stance, like you, I KNOW it's a terrible fucking movie, as movies go, anyway... But, it is an awful film that I simply, unashamedly adore just as it is! Forget about popular opinion, those moronic zombies voted in Trump, have sacrificed every last shred of excitement, interactive hands-on life-experience and daily shelve-out selfies of their under-age pussies to complete strangers, all as homage to their only god and obsession: that stupid little electronic device permanently attached to the palms of their hands, which they live exclusively out of twenty-four hours a day! You and I are right about this one, and nobody need even attempt to argue the point with us!

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  8. I remember going to our small town theater on the square (almost like Heartland ��) and seeing this because I was a huge fan of both The Bee Gees and the Beatles. I was in my mid teens and was not looking for a great cinematic experience. I went for fun. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. I loved the music and the campiness of it all! I still enjoy the soundtrack just because it's a different and fresh approach to much loved songs. Most are close enough to the originals that you can sing along but still a different enough to enjoy in a new way. Fast forward 40 years - I'm renewing a love for The Bee Gees and order this little gem for nostalgia sake and find new ways to enjoy it again as an adult. Who cares about thin plot lines - I see that in so much television today. It's just a feel good movie with funny moments and great music. I love so many of the scenes you mentioned in your review. My particular favorites are the scenes with the boys getting Dave into the balloon and the "morning after" hangover car ride. I think they did some hilarious stuff when given the chance. I love seeing the clothes and hair styles and thinking "my gosh - did we really dress like that ��". I think if people would watch it today just for those nostalgic reasons - they might find out it's not so bad after all. And if not ... who cares - I'll keep on enjoying it for them. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Thanks for the great comment, Barbara! I love that I wrote this post a few years ago and it's still getting wonderful feedback. It's lovely to know I'm not the only Sgt. Pepper's fan! It's the loss of others that they can't enjoy this movie. There are just so many little things that contribute to making this film a fun, feel-good experience. Sometimes I can't believe it exists!

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