I wasn’t completely sure what to expect putting Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in my player. I remember seeing the film when it was in theaters back in 1978. I didn’t remember much of the plot, and at the time I only had a passing knowledge of The Beatles, but my memory of the film was it didn’t make a lot of sense. But then again, I was 11 years old. Rewatching the film now, and armed with a near encyclopedic knowledge of The Beatles, I see the film in a very different light than I did nearly 40 years ago.
A sort of rock opera, George Burns is Mr. Kite, the mayor of Heartland, and the only one with any real spoken lines. There is a rather involved backstory, starting with World War I and the secret weapon of Sgt. Pepper and his Lonely Hearts Club Band. Over the next few decades the band brings joy and happiness, but in 1958 they stop playing becaue of members’ deaths. Flash forward 20 years (1978 when this film came out) and a new band is formed.
Peter Frampton is Billy Shears, with The Bee Gees are the Hendersons, and the four of them make up this new band. The film is stuffed with celebrity cameos. Donald Pleasance is the head of the record label, just one of the villains. Everybody sings new versions of a number of Beatles songs, not just the ones from the album this film takes its name from. And rewatching this film I realize why I have always believed the song “Got To Get You Into My Life” was an Earth, Wind, and Fire number.
Some of the songs are poorly done. “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” is turned into a joke with Steve Martin as Dr. Maxwell, another of the film’s villains. When the Bee Gees are singing the songs are decently performed because they, at least, are real musicians who know how to harmonize. A few other selections are interesting, such as Alice Cooper’s “Because” or Aerosmith’s “Come Together” but overall the soundtrack does not have the impact one would expect. That, unfortunately, has more to do with the filmmakers.
As for the plot, there are a number of questionable events. Travelling via hot air balloon? What is the ultimate plan and motivation of these villains? With the only speaking role being George Burn’s Mayor Kite there is still a lot that goes unexplained. Particularly with regards to the ending.
But is it worth picking up? Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a weird film. Very much a product of its time there are more songs than needed – if a few songs were excised and some dialogue inserted this could have been great. Look at Across The Universe to see how a story based on Beatles songs can be effective.
To help provide context and understanding we get a fantastic audio commentary by Shout factory’s in-house pop culture historian Russell Dyball. There is a lot of information here that needs to be taken in and certainly makes the film worth watching a second time.
In many ways Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a curiosity, perhaps an indictment of the excess of the 70s. Fans of The Beatles who are purist will not want to watch this. The liberties taken with the music can be tough to take. It is fun, and if you remember the era certainly worth checking out. Fans of the Bee Gees will certainly want to pick this up.