Nowadays, Hollywood isn’t known for its ambition. One look at the box-office charts and it’s easy to see why- of the ten highest-grossing movies of 2011, only one wasn’t a sequel, and that exception (Thor), was made with the intention of setting up an imminent Avengers movie. Faced with these dire circumstances, it’s easy to wax nostalgic about the 1970s, in which bold emerging talents created wildly original films in a climate characterized by creative freedom. And by “creative freedom,” I mean drugs.
As evidenced by accounts of Seventies Hollywood such as Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and The Kid Stays In the Picture, as Tinseltown’s young Turks made their journey through cinema, drugs regularly rode shotgun. At a time when seemingly half of Hollywood was crashing on Jennifer Salt’s couch while the other half was sleeping with Warren Beatty, drugs were pretty much everywhere. Many of the decade’s key figures such as Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby, and Sam Peckinpah made era-defining films while under the influence of intoxicating substances of various stripes. If you never heard about “drug problems” back then, it was because everyone had drugs or could get them, so what was the problem?
However, by the time 1978 rolled around, drugs were getting sick of being the silent partner in Hollywood’s resurgence. So drugs decided to make their own movie, throwing a bunch of Beatles songs into a flimsy frame story and calling it Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And this being the 1970s, drugs got ambitious- they didn’t just cast movie stars, no sirree. They also cast loads of rock stars, because if anyone will jump at the chance to work for drugs, it’s rock stars. Of course, drugs ran into trouble when it came to those killjoys at the Director’s Guild, who balked at the idea of an assortment of chemicals, pharmaceuticals and plant derivatives taking work from flesh-and-blood filmmakers. But while Michael Schultz took the credit (or the blame, as the case may be) for bringing Sgt. Pepper to the big screen, this is still essentially a film by drugs.
But while drugs played a part in some of the most important and popular works of the day, in each case there was inevitably a sure creative hand on the wheel, keeping things moving in a productive direction, usually with a strong vision in mind. To cite the obvious example, the album with which this movie shared its title was recorded while the Fab Four were deep into their drug phase. Yet because the Beatles- both individually and collectively- were genius-level musicians, the result was brilliant, sometimes in ways that were only enhanced by the drugs. However, drugs alone can’t substitute for talent, and if there’s no vision behind a project, things get dire pretty quickly.
Ever listened to someone who’s stoned out of their mind try to tell a story or talk about something in any depth? That’s basically what the Sgt. Pepper movie feels like. The governing principle behind this movie seems to be having the entire cast and crew show up on the set and inhale crazy amounts of blow and pot, then decide what the hell they were going to do that day. How else to explain musical numbers like the one in which Steve Martin (in his first movie) mug-sings “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” surrounded by dancers dressed up as Boy Scouts, then dance-fights with Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees? And why did anybody think it was a good idea to take Paul McCartney’s melancholy ballad “She’s Leaving Home” and have it sung partly by leather-clad fembots? Because drugs, that’s why.
And I guess it should go without saying that with so much chemical inspiration on the set, coherence isn’t Sgt. Pepper strong suit. But really, this movie’s story, such as it is, makes no sense even one a scene-to-scene basis. For instance, when the band first arrives in California, they have a drug-fueled (duh) dinner party at the home of record mogul Donald Pleasance. The scene is shot to emphasize its sinister implications, with freaky camera angles and leering close-ups of Pleasance as he watches the boys sign with his label. Clearly we’re supposed to think the boys are signing away their lives/innocence/firstborn children, right? But no, everything goes pretty great for them from that point forward. Then there’s the scene in which the band’s manager plots with his sexy singer girlfriend to steal all the band’s money- as they sing “You Never Give Me Your Money,” naturally- only to have their crooked dealings forgotten one scene later.
I suppose glaring plot holes like these make Sgt. Pepper amusing and watchable in an terrible sort of way, but that doesn’t mean it’s any good. It doesn’t help that standing in for the Beatles- who actually possessed real screen presence and acting chops, it should be noted- was a quartet of musicians who had no business top-lining a major studio production. Peter Frampton fares worst of the bunch as Billy Shears, a happy-go-lucky sort who enjoys wearing pink outfits and white overalls monogrammed with his name. Frampton shows no signs of acting talent or big-screen charisma, and he’s forever being upstaged by his hair, which makes him look like he dumps peroxide on his head regularly. With no clue how to behave onscreen, he mostly just mugs for the camera, giving the impression that he was called to the set just after snorting his lunch off the craft services coffee table, except in his darker moments when he sulks around like a spoiled teenager who’s just been grounded.
Despite being the reformed Lonely Hearts Club Band’s lead singer, Frampton invariably gets shown up by The Bee Gees, who play his band mates the Henderson brothers. Granted, the brothers Gibb can’t act either- the sole trick in their acting arsenal is to smile widely and strike album cover poses- but at least they know what to do with a song, and their ability to conjure up impeccable three-part harmony is pretty impressive.
Most of the Bee Gees’ bad laughs come courtesy of Barry Gibb’s wardrobe. This being the seventies, exposed chests were considered the apex of male sexuality, and Barry takes full advantage of this. As my lovely wife put it, “I don’t think Barry’s shirts button above the navel,” but that’s not entirely accurate. At a funeral scene near the end, as the boys bear a casket to the tune of “Carry That Weight”– which, come to think, is still subtler than the soldiers in Across the Universe carrying the Statue of Liberty while singing “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”– Barry’s mourning blouse buttons up to his sternum, which under the circumstances should be interpreted as a respectful gesture to the deceased. But even during Barry’s more modest moments, a young George Michael was clearly taking notes.
The good news is that, even amidst the drugs and the lousy acting and the unfortunate fashions, there’s always the music to enjoy. And even though the late-seventies setting necessitated a disco-funk production style (courtesy of former Beatles producer George Martin, no less!) some of the musical performances hold their own. Earth, Wind and Fire does a Philly soul version of “Got to Get You Into My Life” that’s pretty good, if slightly marred by their futuristic tribal wear and some of the singers’ tendencies to pull the “Africa face,” to quote Get Him to the Greek. And even when onetime Beatles collaborator Billy Preston shows up at the climax of the film to save the day by flying around and shooting lightning bolts from his fingers and turn the villains and random passerby into clergymen (again, because drugs), he still manages to work in an energetic and decidedly funky take on “Get Back.”
Best of all is Aerosmith, who drop into the story near the end to deliver their justly famous rip-roarin’ take on “Come Together.” Now that Steven Tyler has reinvented himself as everyone’s favorite crazy uncle on American Idol, it’s nice to see him doing something he’s actually good at, sneering and belting and sexing up the song. Rocking out, in other words.
But as good as Aerosmith’s number is, it’s also indicative of the biggest (non-drug) problem with the Sgt. Pepper- for a movie that’s allegedly about rock’n’roll, there’s a decidedly anti-rock bias. What made the Beatles so great an influential is that they took rock’n’roll and infused it with real artfulness, but in a way that didn’t make the music any less rockin’. By contrast, this movie seems designed to placate all the bluehairs in the audiences who still hated rock music, portraying the titular band as a quartet of old-school tunesmiths and the real rockers (played by such luminaries as Aerosmith and an eerily Frank Zappa-esque Alice Cooper) as the villains.
Consequently, Sgt. Pepper feels like something of an orphan movie. Anyone who hated rock would have next to no interest in a Sgt. Pepper movie. Meanwhile, those people who appreciated the Beatles and what they did for popular culture would find the movie’s take on the material both square and fairly disrespectful. More than anything, it reminds me of the classic Mr. Show sketch “Rap: The Musical,” in which rap-phobic theatergoers were treated to a Cohan-style singin’-and-hoofin’ revue featuring hip-hop lyrics and subject matter.
Because the parties responsible for Sgt. Pepper were all about finding new ways to water down their inspiration, the movie builds to a massive singalong reprise of the title tune that doubles as an homage to the classic album cover. Among the ringers producer Robert Stigwood enlisted for this scene were Tina Turner, Donovan, Sha-na-na, Keith Carradine, Wolfman Jack, and Carol Channing. Some of the folks who turned Stigwood down were Elton John, Rock Hudson, and Barry Manilow, which forces us to contemplate a project that was too ridiculous for the guy who gave the world “Copacabana.”
Also hiding out in the crowd were Paul and Linda McCartney, as well as George Harrison, who one year later would form his own production company, Handmade Films. History tells us that Harrison started up Handmade to bankroll Monty Python’s Life of Brian, but I like to think the idea began on the set of Sgt. Pepper when he looked around and thought, “hell, even I could do better than this.”