We are all interested in bad movies, inexcusable cinema, and dead-eyed businessmen disrespecting the Beatles, for that is the stuff we use to fill our empty ear holes and eye holes. Now, for the first time, we are bringing to you the full story of one of the worst movies ever made. We are bringing you all the evidence, based only on the secret testimony of the miserable soul who survived a screening. I am that miserable soul. The money-fueled hubris; the touchable, golden curls of Peter Frampton; the missing plot; the lack of any dialogue; the risible acting—my friend, we cannot keep these a secret any longer. Let us punish the guilty. (Robert Stigwood is guilty.) Remember, my friends: terrible movies such as these will affect you in the future! Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band can haunt you in your dreams!
The Plot in Brief: Heartland mayor Mr. Kite (George Burns) narrates the story of the eponymous band, comprised of Billy Shears (Peter Frampton) and the Henderson brothers (Barry, Maurice, and Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees), who are the grandsons of the original Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Unscrupulous music mogul B.D. (Donald Pleasence) signs the boys to a long-term contract and whisks them off to Hollywood. Meanwhile, mean Mister Mustard (Frankie Howerd) takes over Heartland, using some magical musical instruments. Billy’s girlfriend Strawberry Fields (Sandy Farina) travels to Hollywood, to convince the boys to return to Heartland to vanquish the menacing Mustard.
Mr. Mustard and his two female robots then give the instruments to the evil Dr. Maxwell Edison (Steve Martin), Father Sun (Alice Cooper), and the members of the "Future Villain Band" (Aerosmith). For what reason, I have no idea. The original Sgt. Pepper (Billy Preston) is brought back to life. He sings, dances around the Heartland town square, and brings all the dead characters back to life. Everybody sings. That’s about it.
Poor old director Michael Schultz had previously distinguished himself, directing Cooley High, Car Wash, and the two Richard Pryor vehicles Which Way is Up? and Greased Lightning, all huge moneymakers. I am guessing that helming this big-budget Universal musical was his questionable reward. To be fair, I can’t imagine anyone “distinguishing himself” directing this script or these actors performing these songs (George Burns performs “Fixing a Hole” and Alice Cooper hisses “Because.”) Kurosawa? Kubrick? Scorsese? Naaaaaaaaah. Okay, maybe Scorsese.
Alice Cooper’s voice is treated to so much electronic distortion that it could have been anybody… so why on earth did it have to be Alice Cooper? Many critics consider this film to be the low-point of Steve Martin’s career. In SPLHCB, he overacts and cavorts as if he has just ingested a mountain of cocaine—it’s a performance that more properly belongs alongside Al Pacino in Scarface, only instead of a gun, Martin’s “little friend” is a silver hammer, and instead of being a movie Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is shit. Villain Frankie Howerd was a British stage and television comedian; this was his only film role. He once said that SPLHCB was “like Saturday Night Fever, but without the fever.” Well, at least he could joke about it.
The film even has the hubris to ape its iconic source’s album cover, which stands as a legitimate piece of pop culture art. For a crash-course in the humanities, read the following list carefully and don’t just skim it—the Beatles carefully curated a delightful and eclectic mix of people involved in every important human endeavor. Their album cover includes Sri Yukteswar Giri, author of The Holy Science, which argued that there is a sameness in all religions; Aleister Crowley, British author identified with occultism; Mae West , famous bombshell from Hollywood’s Golden Age; Lenny Bruce, revolutionary stand-up comedian; Karlheinz Stockhausen, German composer, who pioneered the use of electronic music; WC Fields, American comedian; Carl Jung, Swiss psychiatrist who pioneered analytic psychology; Edgar Allan Poe, American author and poet who invented the modern horror and detective genres; Fred Astaire, legendary American song and dance man; Richard Merkin, American painter and illustrator; Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall, movie tough guys of the ’40s and ’50s; Simon Rodia, the artist who built the famous Watts Towers over the course of 33 years; Bob Dylan , American folk singer; Aubrey Beardsley, famous pen-and-ink artist; Sir Robert Peel, founder of Britain’s modern Conservative Party; and Aldous Huxley, author of The Doors of Perception and Brave New World.
Some Like It Hot and Sweet Smell of Success; Wallace Berman, American artist and pioneer of “assemblage art;” Tommy Handley and Max Miller, British wartime comedians; Marilyn Monroe, movie star and icon; William Burroughs, Beat Generation author; Sri Paramahansa Yogananda, Sri Lahiri Mahasaya, and Sri Mahavatara Babaji, Gurus of Kriya Yoga meditation; Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, beloved American movie comedians of the '20s and '30s…
…plus Richard Lindner , expressionist painter; Karl Marx, author of The Communist Manifesto; HG Wells , groundbreaking author of iconic works The Time Machine and War Of The Worlds; Stuart Sutcliffe , the Beatles’ original bassist; Max Miller, English vaudeville star known as “The Cheeky Chappie;” Marlon Brando, iconic American method actor; Tom Mix , Hollywood’s first Western movie star; Oscar Wilde, outrageous Irish playwright, novelist and poet; Tyrone Power , Hollywood heartthrob of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s; Larry Bell, American sculptor; Dr. David Livingstone, British explorer; Johnny Weissmuller, American actor best known for playing Tarzan; Stephen Crane, American author of The Red Badge of Courage; Issy Bonn, British vaudevillian; George Bernard Shaw , Irish playwright; HC Westermann, American sculptor; Albert Stubbins, Liverpool soccer legend; Lewis Carroll, British author of Alice In Wonderland; TE Lawrence, British archaeologist and military officer; Sonny Liston, heavyweight boxing champion; Shirley Temple , ‘30s child star (she appears on the album cover three times, once as a doll);; The Beatles , British rock musicians; Bobby Breen, child star of the ‘30s; Marlene Dietrich, German film actress and nightclub performer; Diana Dors, British movie and cabaret star; and Albert fucking Einstein , physicist whose theory of relativity changed the goddamned world. Whew!
Here’s SPLHCB’s film’s questionable attempt at an all-star gathering, who I secretly suspect is a gathering of “everyone on the Universal lot the day they shot this:” Peter Allen, Carol Channing, Chita Rivera, and Gwen Verdon, Broadway performers; Keith Carradine and Connie Stevens, American actors; Cousin Brucie Morrow and Wolfman Jack, American disc jockeys; Jack Bruce, Donovan, John Mayall, Peter Noone, Robert Palmer, Al Stewart, Alan White, Jackie Lomax, and Gary Wright, British musicians; and George Benson, Elvin Bishop, Stephen Bishop, Rick Derringer, Dr. John, Yvonne Elliman, Jose Feliciano, Leif Garrett, Bruce Johnston, Mark Lindsay, Nils Lofgren, Curtis Mayfield, Alan O’Day, Wilson Pickett, Bonnie Raitt, Helen Reddy, Minnie Ripperton, Johnny Rivers, Seals and Crofts, Del Shannon, Joe Simon, Tina Turner, Frankie Valli, Grover Washington, Hank Williams, Jr, Johnny Winter, and Bobby Womack, American singers and musicians. Looking at this list long and hard, I have concluded that the only thing these performers had in common is that they probably all owed Robert Stigwood money. Maybe some of them convinced a judge that doing a cameo in this film could count as their community service. (My point being, watching this movie is worse than picking trash along the highway. It’s that bad.)
Look at both lists. Read them both again. Which party would YOU rather attend?
“Sitting through what passes for a story here is like trying to make a meal out of a can of vanilla frosting.” James Sandford, Kalamazoo Gazette
“Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is a motion picture whose awfulness can hardly be imagined on a human scale…” Tim Brayton, Alternate Ending
“This crass moral pantomime is plain embarrassing.”
Time Out New York
Jonathan Rosembaum, Chicago Reader
“This isn’t a movie. It’s a business deal set to music.”
Janet Maslin, The New York Times
My friend, you have now read this column, based on my own sworn testimony. Can you prove that this film doesn’t exist? Shout! Factory just released it on Blu-ray disc, ensuring that it will survive for a thousand more generations! Perhaps on your way home, someone will pass you in the dark, and you will never know it, but it might be Peter Frampton asking you for your spare change. Many scientists believe that bad movies are being filmed at this very moment. We once laughed at fire, gravity, and the horseless carriage, but no one ever laughed at Steve Martin in THIS HORRENDOUS GARBAGE MOVIE.
God help us in the future.