I’m not afraid to admit it
I love this movie. Yes, I love the 1978 movie, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and I’ll tell you why. Well I don’t know if I can explain why I love this almost universally hated movie. People actually cringe if it’s mentioned. “They butchered the sacred band that is The Beatles” is the typical response. I don’t think so. I think it’s a novel take on a collection of weird Beatles songs. It’s such a time machine to the 70s really.
Now, I hate the 70s. That’s an entire decade that makes me cringe. But I have “issues” that I’m now coming to terms with and I’m starting to give up some of that hatred. It was brought home to me while preparing for Music Madness at the paper when I realized that there are a rather large number of songs from the 70s that I actually love. In my defense, I didn’t know they came out in that decade. Most cases, I never heard them til i was older and more aware of music which didn’t happen until the early 80s for me.
But I digress. I was talking about Frampton and the Bee Gees and Aerosmith and Alice Cooper, all of whom appeared/performed in the movie. Now, my mother was a huge Beatles fan, and listening to her old records growing up sort of made me mildly interested in them. It was seeing this movie that cultivated that interest. It came out in 1978, when I was 7. I don’t recall whether I saw it in the cinema, but I do remember it being on TV. I was fascinated with it. I was sort of developing a bit of a crush on Peter Frampton and Shaun Cassidy at the time. Nothing major – I mean, I was 7 for frak’s sake. (Sorry, been watching Battlestar Galactica.)
I loved the music in the movie. The Bee Gees were HUGE back then so I guess that’s the sound I was familiar with. But most of all, I loved the story. They made real characters out of songs! That amazed me. Billy Shears. Mr. Kite. Strawberry Fields. The Hendersons. Mean Mr. Mustard. Basically it was like they were dabbling their toes in the video waters that were to come along in a few years.
The movie’s basic plotline is this: Sgt. Pepper and his band came from a town called Heartland, and their music and their instruments were imbued with some kind of peace-making magic or something. Anyway, the band enjoyed over 50 years of happy times and good music until the tradition was passed on to Sgt. Pepper’s grandson, Billy Shears (Peter Frampton) and his friends, the Henderson brothers (the Bee Gees.)
Now, Billy is in love with a girl named Strawberry Fields, who is sweet and pretty and wholesome and the whole town and it’s citizens are right out of Mayberry. Until the boys get a telegram telling them that some bigwig in L.A. heard their music and invites them out to record an album. The band goes, and are soon exposed to all manner of corruption – drugs, sex, lots of money. At first the boys are overwhelmed and succomb.
Meanwhile, back in Heartland, the town has been taken over by Mean Mr. Mustard, a corrupt real estate agent who turns out to be under the thumb of F.V.B. he turns the town into a hotbed of arcades, hookers and foreclosures. His main goal though, is to steal Sgt. Pepper’s instruments which are housed in a museum at city hall. F.V.B. orders him to take each intrument to other corrupt people, which he does.
Now, Strawberry Fields has left home (‘She’s Leaving Home’) to find Billy and tell him what’s happening. When she finds him, she gets jealous when she sees the chick from another band (Lucy and the Diamonds) draped all over him. But eventually, she tells him and the band sets off to recover the instruments.
I know I said “basic plot” but I’m finding it requires a longer explanation. It’s a weird movie 🙂
They get the instruments back (and we get a couple great scenes in which Steve Martin, in his film debut, plays a psycho plastic surgeon, Dr. Maxwell Edison, and his performance of ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ is fun, and Alice Cooper plays a brainwashing ex-crossing guard called Father Sun, and he performs ‘Because’ in a trippy, acidic way.)
Anyway, the band holds a benefit (for Mr. Kite 🙂 Kite is played by George Burns who is the town’s mayor and the film’s narrator.) for Heartland and Earth, Wind & Fire perform. But Mr. Mustard, who’s in love with Strawberry, kidnaps her and takes her to F.V.B. The boys are in pursuit.
Now, F.V.B stands for Future Villain Band in the standout scene that was my first-ever exposure to Aerosmith – and they scared me. Yes Aerosmith is F.V.B., and while Strawberry is tied to a wobbly electric dollar sign up on a platform, Aerosmith slither up the stairs singing ‘Come Together’ – and it’s fantastic and creepy and slightly sexually uncomfortable.
There’s a big fight between Billy Shears (Peter Frampton) and Steve Tyler and in the end, Strawberry is knocked off the platform and killed. As a seven year-old used to happy endings, this shocked me. It made me sad then, and I still get a little misty at this scene and the following scenes of her funeral (‘Golden Slumbers,’ ‘Carry that Weight,’ and ‘The Long and Winding Road.’) I’m afraid I always have and always will associate those three songs with the death of Strawberry Fields.
Gosh this is longer than I intended. Anyway to wrap it up, just as Billy is about to jump off a building to commit suicide, a Deus Ex Machina appears in the form of the town’s weathervane monument coming to life with magic powers to set everything right – including bringing Strawberry back to life. It’s actually Billy Preston performing ‘Get back’ and doing a nifty little boogie around the town square. Everyone’s happy again and for the finale, a plethora of Big 70s stars stand on a bunch of risers and sing ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.’ Some big names in there too – like Tina Turner, Keith Carradine, Donovan, Carol Channing, leif Garrett (dreamy sigh – hey, I was 7!), Heart, Dame Edna, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Palmer, WIlson Pickett, Sha-na-na, and Wolfman Jack.
Now, I know I’ve made this out to be a very cool, very exciting movie not to be missed. I left out that it’s unbelievably cheesy, silly, requires some major belief suspension, and at times, kind of stupid. I revisit it every couple of years or so and it holds up for me, though some may beg to differ. But I will always love it.