Art’s greatest sin is to be “unmemorable,” pop culture historian Russell Dyball says on the commentary track of the coming Shout! Factory Blu-ray reissue of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
On that end, the 1978 Bee Gees-Peter Frampton musical that was built on Beatles songs from the landmark 1967 album of the same name, and “Abbey Road,” “Let It Be” and “Revolver,” is sin free.
Forty years after director Michael Schultz filmed the musical in L.A. in the fall of 1977, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is anything but unmemorable.
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So does that make it great?
In July 1978, when the Robert Stigwood-produced musical opened in theaters with a George Martin-produced $15.98 double-LP soundtrack, the project was savaged. Janet Maslin, film critic for The New York Times, summed up the prevailing view of the movie in her review where she called it “a business deal set to music.”
We reached out to Bee Gee Barry Gibb at his Miami Beach home, but he was unavailable. It was his birthday and wedding anniversary. Gibb probably wasn’t thinking of reliving the “Pepper” experience. Leave that to Shout! Factory, which is releasing the home video on Sept. 26 in the wake of June’s 50th anniversary restoration and reissue of the Beatles’ original 1967 album.
On Dyball’s informative audio commentary on the Blu-ray we hear of ego clashes on the set between its leads, Frampton and the Bee Gees.
Frampton was hot from his “Frampton Comes Alive” LP in 1976.
Gibb and his late brothers, twins Robin and Maurice, were about to be Beatles-hot from the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack, which hit No. 1 as soon as filming wrapped in January 1978. Bee Gees singles, “How Deep Is Your Love,” “Stayin’ Alive” and “Night Fever,” all topped the charts for the next six months.
Dyball calls the movie “absurd” and “delightful.” We get it. Now.
In 1978, “Sgt. Pepper” felt like an abomination. The four Beatles were still alive then so many had hoped for a reunion. Fans, instead, had to settle for a silly jukebox musical that didn’t replicate the success of earlier Stigwood musical productions like “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Tommy,” “Saturday Night Fever” or “Grease,” for which Barry Gibb provided the title tune.
But with the patina of nostalgia now going for it, Shout! Factory’s reissue reveals a peskily overlong film of, get this, some charm.
Here’s why unearthing the “Sgt. Pepper” film musical as it approaches its 40th anniversary isn’t such a bad idea.
Earth, Wind & Fire’s cover of “Got to Get You Into My Life” is better than the Beatles’ original from the “Revolver” album. Everybody knows that. Back then we knew it — even if admitting this in the high school cafeteria led to a dunking in a bowl of steaming Chef Boyardee.
Aerosmith’s sleazy “Come Together” is less embarrassing than lead singer Steven Tyler’s late-career turn as an “American Idol” judge or reinvention as a country singer on his solo album.
The Bee Gees’ harmonies on “A Day in the Life,” “Nowhere Man” and “Because,” the latter with Alice Cooper (who was on a two day pass from rehab to film his part as a cult leader), were spot-on. Robin Gibb’s solo on the Top 20 single, “Oh! Darling” is arguably more soulful than Paul McCartney’s oversung original. (John Lennon’s voice would have been better suited to the raw “Abbey Road” track in 1969 than Paul’s anyway.)
George Burns, clearly “Sgt. Pepper’s” highlight, played God in a hit movie a year earlier. He’d get away with singing “Fixing a Hole,” too.
OK, Frampton’s thin, whiny voice reeked and his best scenes were the times his Billy Shears character was unconscious. Yet “Sgt. Pepper” didn’t kill his career as commonly believed. His “Comes Alive” follow up, the feckless “I’m in You,” managed that feat in 1977. “Sgt. Pepper” just confirmed his live album was a fluke.
Pop culture historian Russell Dyball is having a good time telling tales of “Pepper” and you will enjoy sharing your living room with the born storyteller.
We knew that Olivia Newton-John had been offered the role of Strawberry Fields, a part played by film novice Sandy Farina who earned the unfortunate nickname “16-take Sandy” because that’s how many takes it took for her to convincingly walk through a door. Newton-John made the right choice. “Grease,” released a month earlier in June 1978, became that year’s biggest box office success. Farina never acted again but would go on to become a songwriter. In 1979, Barbra Streisand recorded Farina’s “Kiss Me in the Rain.”
We didn’t know, however, that Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks was offered the part, too. We’d have to wait 35 years for Nicks to make her acting debut on “American Horror Story: Coven.”
Donna Summer was offered the part of Lucy, played memorably by Dianne Steinberg, but she’d opt instead for a small role in the 1978 disco movie, “Thank God It’s Friday.” That film flopped but its hit song, “Last Dance,” won on Oscar. Even the Bee Gees were cheated out of an Oscar for “Saturday Night Fever” the year before.
A time capsule
“Sgt. Pepper” isn’t a defining film of the 1970s but it is a defining film of 1978. For better or worse, this is how pop culture rolled in 1978. And “Sgt. Pepper” was far from the worst film of its type of 1978. That year also saw the TV release of “Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park” and “The Star Wars Holiday Special.” “Thank God It’s Friday” wasn’t better. And “Roller Boogie,” “Xanadu” and “Can’t Stop the Music” were yet to come.
See Steve Martin before he became ‘The Jerk’
The comedian scrubbed “Sgt. Pepper” from his filmography in favoring “The Jerk” in 1979 as his film debut. Maybe Martin meant in a leading role where the whole movie hinged on his performance. But he did “Sgt. Pepper” (and a few other movies) first.
And we kinda like his wild and crazy guy take on “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”
Mend a broken heart
Bee Gee Maurice Gibb once said, “While we were filming ‘Sgt. Pepper,’ we wrote songs like ‘Tragedy’ and ‘Too Much Heaven’ and then ‘Shadow Dancing’ all in one day. That’s three hit singles in less than 24 hours. So the drugs must have been good that day.”
He even winks at the camera in a scene from the film. How can you mend a broken heart? Cue up the late and beloved Maurice Gibb.
And in the end...
Have fun playing spot the pop star of 1978 in the finale. We found plenty, including Tina Turner, Helen Reddy, John Stewart, members of Heart, George Benson, Carol Channing, Etta James, Steven Bishop, percussionist Joe Lala, Curtis Mayfield, Frankie Valli, Anita Pointer, Bonnie Raitt, Seals & Crofts, Hank Williams Jr., Al Stewart, Leif Garrett and Peter Allen.
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