Covering the Beatles has long been considered the musical equivalent of talking about the weather: a safe way for local bands the world over to get their audiences on their side. They might hate you, they might not care for your sound, but EVERYONE loves the Beatles. Once you play a song the crowd can sing along to, they can’t help but love you, right?
Perhaps that’s what ’70s super-producer Robert Stigwood was thinking when he boasted that his bloated, all-star movie adaptation of the Beatles’ best-loved album would be “this generation’s GONE WITH THE WIND”. Surely, it was either that or the cocaine.
Actually, it’s easy to see how the SGT. PEPPER movie may have looked good on paper. The Beatles catalog was old enough to be canonized by even the stodgiest critics, but still new enough to feel relatively current (for context, the SGT. PEPPER album was as old at the time of the film’s release as YANKEE HOTEL FOXTROT is today). The concept was to recontextualize the songs of the Fab Four into a loose plot (years before Baz Luhrmann turned that into a million dollar formula) and have them performed by the hottest entertainers of the day. So, what’s the problem?
The problem is that “the day” was 1978, and Stigwood’s production embodies all of the garish bloat and spaced-out camp that implies. The title band is played by the BeeGees, fresh off the success of SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, but still retaining the soft-pop sound of their ‘60s incarnation, with frontman Billy Shears (he of the Helpful Friends) being portrayed by talk-boxing arena-filler Peter Frampton. Along the way, they meet several familiar names, played by a cross-section of late ’70s pop cultural fixtures: Mr. Kite (George Burns, who comes off as game, but confused), Maxwell Edison (Steve Martin, at his wild-and-crazy hammiest), The Sun King (Alice Cooper, doing his damnedest to make “Because” sound sinister), and so forth.
For all the big names in this movie, you’ve probably noticed four notable absences: John, Paul, George, and Ringo wisely chose to have nothing to do with this production. Indeed, the closest the film comes to actual Beatle involvement is producer George Martin, who really should have known better, and Billy Preston, who acquits himself as well as anyone can while also playing a magical dancing weather vane. Preston provides a much-needed shot of vitality, as do Aerosmith, whose cover of “Come Together” will likely remain in radio rotation long after the film that spawned it is forgotten. Unfortunately, much of the running time is split between musicians who can’t act (Frampton’s version of “emoting” is staring blankly with glycerine smeared on his face) and actors who can’t sing (such as Donald Pleasance, aka HALLOWEEN’s Dr. Loomis, whose verse in “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” is about as tuneful as you’d imagine).
All that said, despite the movie’s flaws (and make no mistake, it is constructed mostly of flaws), SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND is still essential viewing for any serious student of pop culture. As time capsules of seventies excess go, it ranks up there with the Village People-starring vehicle CAN’T STOP THE MUSIC and it’s fascinating anytime so many big-name stars take on a project so obviously wrongheaded. And hey, it’s playing for free, so if you find yourself in Allston this afternoon with a couple of hours (and brain cells) to kill, why not check it out? It is, to turn a phrase, guaranteed to raise a smile– even though it couldn’t get much worse.
SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND
Wednesday, December 11, 1:00 PM
Boston Public Library, Honan-Allston Branch (300 N Harvard St, Allston, MA 02134)