“There’s a reason they didn’t let me see this in the theater.”
As it turns out, I was sick this past weekend. Very, very sick. That’s the only excuse I can offer for the story I’m about to tell. When we settled in for a Friday night movie, I thought, “Let’s do something wild, wacky.”
In my misspent youth, I’d watched the movie version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Yeah, the movie.
I vaguely recalled it being a sort of cute film, maybe a little sappy, but not totally unwatchable. As it turns out, memories are tricky and this film is a classic case of convergence gone bad.
Sure you can say that the seventies were a weird time — straddling the sixties and the eighties the way they did — but you have to wonder the following: a) What was Robert Stigwood thinking, b) What was Peter Frampton thinking, and c) What was Steve Martin thinking? Frampton and the Bee Gees (the title’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) have the charisma of standees and the entire cast is forbidden to speak — all narration comes courtesy of George Burns, apparently the only performer capable of putting a sentence together — and the songs are particularly uninspired (exception: Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “Got To Get You Into My Life”, which highlights the absolute lack of funk in Peter Frampton’s soul).
The setting is the impossibly innocent town of Heartland. Our town heroes, the band, makes it big and heads off for the evil big city where they fall into the clutches of all sorts of bad people. Bad people in a PG-veering-on-G sort of way. Throughout the whole thing, songs from the Sgt. Pepper album and others tell the story — except, of course, the songs generally have nothing to do with the story. There’s a delightful disconnect between what’s happening in song and what’s going on with the characters; it’s truly the only explanation for George Burns singing “Fixing a Hole” to a group of young children.
At the time this was released, Peter Frampton was inexplicably a huge star (nobody has ever been fully able to explain to me how he burst out of nowhere the way he did, but that’s how pop music works; Jim has noted that the purchase of a little vocal effects toy was the turning point). On screen, the man is slight and insubstantial and generally spends the movie looking like he’s a half-wit. The Bee Gees, also huge stars and peers of The Beatles, are more substantial men and presences, but they too suffer from someone’s vision of innocence-as-town-idiot. It doesn’t help that acting is not a skill possessed by much of marquee cast.
Since I was watching with Kirk, the comments started almost before the movie did.
He might have given the whole thing a chance had it made sense on any level, but it got so bad that I couldn’t explain why the movie featured songs from other Beatles albums. “Yes,” I said, “I know this song isn’t on Sgt. Peppers…” “Why is it in the movie?” he said. “I don’t know,” I replied, the soul of patience. “Probably because it helped move the story forward.”
Even I knew I was lying.
The kicker came at the end when someone had the brilliant idea to recreate the album cover in live-action format. You know it’s a bad idea when thirty years later, the most recognizable face in the crowd is Carol Channing.
We had to engage in an immediate brain-cleansing exercise after Billy Preston hit his last note — a shake the windows watching of The Kids Are Alright.
Convergence is good, but while you’re doing your mash-ups, remember the lesson of Sgt. Pepper: sometimes it’s better to just say no.