REEL RETRO CINEMA: New looks at old flicks — and their comic-book adaptations.
How Many Unsold Copies of Marvel Super Special #7 Does It Take To Fill The Albert Hall?
By ROB KELLY
The Beatles’ 1967 magnum opus Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band turns 50 today (in the U.S.), so editor Dan Greenfield oh-so-innocently asked if I would be interested in reviewing the infamous 1978 movie musical “adaptation” starring Peter Frampton, the Bee Gees and George Burns for REEL RETRO CINEMA. I had never seen it, but I knew of its reputation as a giant catastrophe that killed a number of careers. But I said sure, because, how bad could it be?
Dan, I want my 111 minutes back.
Loosely based on a 1974 off-Broadway show, Sgt. Pepper’s opens up in 1918, in the small French village of Fleu de Coup (har-dee-har-har) in the middle of WWI. A marching band known as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is so beloved that their music manages to convince both sides to stop fighting. Eventually the band came home to the small, idyllic town of Heartland, bringing with them peace and joy. When the bandleader died in 1958, he bequeathed the band’s magical instruments to the town, with the musical tradition continued by his grandson Billy Shears (Peter Frampton) and his best friends the Hendersons (the Bee Gees). Heartland loves the new band, and it isn’t long before an unscrupulous record company executive (though I repeat myself) B.D. Brockhurst (Donald Pleasance—Donald Pleasance!) comes to town and signs them to a big, fat record contract.
Billy and the Hendersons are whisked off to Hollywood, land of sin, where they are tempted by all manner of debauchery and excess. It gets so bad that Billy starts an affair with a sexy singer named Lucy, forgetting all about his sweet hometown girl Strawberry Fields (Sandy Farina). Meanwhile, the villainous Mr. Mustard (comedian Frankie Howerd) comes to Heartland in an attempt to steal the town’s magical musical instruments. With the help of some robot assistants (stay with me), he manages to do so, which precipitates the town of Heartland turning into another Hollywood—oh, the horror!
Strawberry Fields travels to Hollywood to tell the boys what has happened, and they go on a quest to retrieve the stolen instruments, which leads to appearances by Steve Martin (as Dr. Maxwell Edison), and Alice Cooper (Sun King). It’s eventually revealed that the whole thing is a plot by F.V.B. (Future Villain Band), a group of evil musicians played by Aerosmith, who find Sgt. Pepper’s wholesomeness a threat to their plan of taking over the nation’s youth with their evil dark music (apparently KISS was offered this part in the movie, but turned it down to do KISS Meets The Phantom of the Park—because hey, if you’re going to be part of a soulless piece of crap, you might as well not share the money with anyone else).
Of course, in the end Good triumphs over Evil, and the film concludes with the band back in Heartland, where a magical weather vane played by Billy Preston turns the boys’ clothes into marching band uniforms. Along with dozens of “celebrities,” they pose for their version of the world-famous Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover.
Yeah, this movie’s terrible.
For those of you too young to remember, all the Beatles were still around when this movie was made. From the moment they broke up in 1970 until John Lennon died 10 years later, the pressure for the Fab Four to reunite was beyond intense. None of the Beatles could ever go more than 10 minutes without someone asking them if the band was ever going to get back together. The only conclusion I can come to as to why Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was made was as an implied threat: Get back together, guys, or we’ll keep making stuff like this.
While I’m not a particular fan of Peter Frampton or the Bee Gees, they were/are certainly talented musicians with a lot of big hits to their credit. Forcing them to cover Beatles songs does them no favors, because they simply cannot match the originals. They sound like cheap, tinny knockoffs, and the movie is filled wall to wall with them. Additionally, it wasn’t until after filming started that the producers realized that the Bee Gees’ thick British accents ruined the illusion they came from Heartland, U.S.A., so all their dialogue was eliminated. The script was re-written so George Burns’ character, Mr. Kite, provides narration, explaining the action throughout. So while we hear Frampton and the Gibbs sing a lot, the ostensible stars of the movie never actually speak a single word of dialogue.
On top of the lackluster music, the movie is utterly phony: It’s one of those films that rails about the evils of Hollywood, but it’s clearly made by people knee deep in the various vices it’s wagging its finger at. The conceit that Heartland U.S.A. is all that is good and pure is so insincere that it comes off as condescending. It takes the emotional and intellectual complexities found in the Beatles’ music and reduces it all to the reductive “Small Towns Good, Cities Bad” crap that Fox News would later weaponize.
There are a few bits here and there in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that aren’t completely terrible. Steve Martin’s one scene is the closest thing the movie gets to being funny on purpose, and Earth, Wind, and Fire show up to do a fine cover of Got To Get You Into My Life. Director Michael Schultz manages some nice, ambitious visuals here and there, like when Billy is seduced on top of a giant spinning record. Clearly, a lot of money was spent on this project.
But otherwise the thing is a disaster that goes on forever, and was received as such when it hit theaters. The Bee Gees’ music was in the smash Saturday Night Fever during the production of this movie, and being in this thing blunted their meteoric rise at exactly the wrong moment. Also, it’s embarrassing to see people who actually worked with the Beatles—Preston and legendary producer George Martin (each of whom were called “the Fifth Beatle”)—involved in this. The final scene, featuring a supposedly all-star line up of celebrities in an attempt to mimic the iconic album cover, is so gob-smackingly awful that it’s the final shriveled, hard cherry on top of this particularly bad sundae. Half the people the movie pans over are complete unknowns (Adrian Gutvitz? Marcy Levy? Lee Oskar?), so when you see people you do recognize (Wolfman Jack, Tina Turner, Keith Carradine), you just feel sorry for them, like they got sold a bill of goods that they would be hob-nobbing with other people at their level. (Fun Fact: One of the people in the crowd is, for some reason, Joe Simon, co-creator of Captain America!)
Previous to Sgt. Pepper’s, director Schultz had helmed a string of decent movies starring Richard Pryor (Car Wash, Greased Lightning) but he, too, found it tough to overcome the stink of this flop. He eventually moved to TV where he’s still active, racking up dozens of credits including some comic book-related ones, like the 1987 Spirit TV movie and episodes of Arrow.
Speaking of comic books, for some reason Marvel thought this film would be great material for an adaptation, so they hired David Anthony Kraft and George Perez (!) to do the “honors” in Marvel Super Special #7.
But if you were one of those sad, low-expectations-having kids that liked this movie and wanted to have a keepsake of it to re-read, you were out of luck: According to Perez, due to the film’s producers not cooperating with Marvel, work on the adaptation kept dragging on, getting further and further behind. By the time it was ready, the film had already come out and bombed, so Marvel simply never published it in the United States.
A French-language version was released for that market, as well as one in Dutch. Instead of publishing the next Marvel Super Special, Battlestar Galactica, as Issue #7, the House of Ideas moved right on to #8, which must have confounded early collectors, who would forever wonder where the hell their Issue #7 went.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is one of those movies you read about that sounds so bad that it might be good—namely, so bizarrely off-kilter that it would be fun to watch the badness unfold. I dunno. I think it’s akin to the Star Wars Holiday Special, which has a similar pull to the uninitiated. You sit down, prepared to laugh and be entertained in a Hate Watch kind of way, but about 30 minutes in you’re asking yourself how much longer this thing has to go. At 45 minutes, you wonder if maybe if there’s a better use of your time, which there is. I’d suggest listening to the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club album again.
Rob Kelly is a writer/artist/comics and film historian. He is the co-host of Aquaman and Firestorm: The Fire and Water Podcast, the host of The Film and Water Podcast, and the host of TreasuryCast. He had a Mego Wonder Woman doll and was proud of it. His favorite Beatles song is Here Comes The Sun.