The ‘Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band’ Movie Is Still Hilarious — Sometimes Even Intentionally
The Beatles are having a moment, but then again, when are they not? Even though they went their separate ways more than 50 years ago, the Fab Four have never been far removed from the cultural conversation, either because the individual members put out music or because so many subsequent artists have been inspired by them. This week, though, the Beatles are especially present. Between the unveiling of the “new” single “Now and Then,” and the forthcoming rerelease of their iconic “red” and “blue” best-ofs, it’s hard to escape them.
Rightly beloved, the Beatles not only changed popular music, they’re also in the conversation for the funniest group ever. Arriving in the U.S. in 1964 and slaying the press with their sarcastic wit, they injected that irreverent sense of humor into their first film, A Hard Day’s Night, a feature-length charm offensive in which they traded quips with the speed of the Marx Brothers. That sense of playfulness never left the band and remains one of their greatest gifts.
In terms of sheer quantity of laughs, though, I’m not sure if anything Beatles-related comes close to a movie they didn’t have much to do with but whose essence is inexorably infused with their work. When people speak of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, they’re usually referring to the Beatles’ classic 1967 record. But there is another Sgt. Pepper’s that’s also infamous, but for all the wrong reasons. Forty-five years ago, a musical-comedy movie called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band hit theaters. It starred Peter Frampton, the Bee Gees and George Burns. Steve Martin was in it. So was Aerosmith. None of the Beatles were, but their music is all over the thing. It is a very silly, very 1970s film. If you have heard of it, you have probably been told it is terrible, and in many ways it is. But it’s also kind of hilarious — mostly unintentionally, but not always.
The roots of the Sgt. Pepper’s movie began on the Broadway stage. A few years earlier, a musical called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the Road came out, although it only lasted 66 performances. Receiving terrible reviews, the show took songs principally from its namesake album (as well as Abbey Road) and crafted a story out of it. Robert Stigwood, a music impresario who had worked with Beatles manager Brian Epstein early in his career, bought the Fab Four songs for the musical, which he produced, and although Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the Road crashed and burned, he wasn’t going to let go of the idea. After all, he’d had success with the musicals Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar — maybe there was a future for this Beatles show.
Stigwood managed the Bee Gees, who started out faithfully copying the Beatles pop style, and he decided they might be right to play members of the fictional Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in the movie. But first he needed a script. Enter Henry Edwards, who wasn’t a screenwriter but, instead, a music critic and novelist.
“The concept was to set it in America, not in England, so it has nothing to do with Beatles, to write a new story that would have nothing to do with the Beatles, to set it in contemporary times if possible so you wouldn’t have any late-1960s allusions,” Edwards told Rolling Stone in 1978. “I wanted to make the first MGM movie musical of the future. The antecedents of this film are films like The Bandwagon and stage plays of the (1920s) in which they said, ‘Cole has written 20 tunes, Jimmy Durante and Ethel Merman are available, you write the story. Here are the songs, here are the stars, and we want to open in May.’”
Despite loving the Beatles, and the namesake album, he didn’t want anyone confusing this with a Fab Four film. “A movie called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band containing 29 Beatle songs without the Beatles could never, in any way, shape or form, be a Beatles movie, nor should it,” he declared. Okay, but would anyone want to see such a film without John, Paul, George and/or Ringo in it?
With longtime Beatles producer George Martin behind the boards, arranging and overseeing these new renditions of the group’s songs, the Sgt. Pepper’s film starred Peter Frampton, who was huge thanks to his smash 1976 live album Frampton Comes Alive!, as Billy Shears, the new frontman for the titular group. (Billy’s grandfather had once led them, but he has recently died of a heart attack.) With the Bee Gees (Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb) serving as the other band members, Billy entertains the good-hearted citizens of Heartland, an idyllic American small town. (George Burns is Mr. Kite, the town’s kind mayor, and also the film’s narrator.) The band gets an offer for a record contract out in Los Angeles, which excites them, but soon their magical instruments are stolen by the evil Mr. Mustard (Frankie Howerd). Hijinks ensue.
The non-musicians in Sgt. Pepper’s included some prominent comic talents. Burns was fresh off a Best Supporting Actor Oscar win for The Sunshine Boys and had been the star of 1977’s hit film Oh, God! And Steve Martin, who played the psychotic Dr. Maxwell Edison — naturally, he performs “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” — was arguably the biggest stand-up in America. (His smash single “King Tut” had been released shortly before the Sgt. Pepper’s film, and The Jerk would open the following year.) Part music-biz satire, part love story, part jukebox musical, the Sgt. Pepper’s film was meant to be a gas — not a Beatles movie, per se, but a musical lit up by their indelible melodies and joyful spirit.
But for those involved with the film, it was apparent pretty early on that they were walking into a nightmare. Frampton would claim later that he was misled from the start. “For me (the real disaster) was finding out that Paul McCartney was not in the movie — which was the only reason I was doing the movie,” the musician explained. “I said absolutely not at first, until Stigwood got on the phone with me and talked me into doing it. He said, ‘Oh, Paul is doing it.’ I said, ‘Paul McCartney?’ He said, ‘Yes, Paul is in the movie.’ So I said, ‘Wow, that kind of sanctions the movie for me.’” Cut to Frampton shortly after hanging out with McCartney and his late wife Linda after a Wings show. As Frampton tells it, “I remember Linda saying, ‘Paul, Peter’s in this movie,’ and I said, ‘Oh, I thought you were going to be in it.’ And Paul said, ‘No, no, I’m not in it.’ And I just thought, ‘Uh-oh…’”
Despite the untruths Stigwood was spreading — or maybe he just thought he could get McCartney to be in his movie — he was flying high at that moment as the producer of the Grease film and Saturday Night Fever, whose soundtrack made the Bee Gees household names. He hired Michael Schultz, one of the first Black directors to helm studio pictures (Car Wash), to take the reins on Sgt. Pepper’s. Stigwood had initially wanted him for Grease, but Schultz was busy finishing another film, although he had ambitious ideas for this Beatles musical.
“Sgt. Pepper’s wasn’t like a traditional Hollywood musical,” Schultz said in a 2022 New York Times profile. “It was more like an opera or an extended music video — a different approach to music as a filmic experience.” Unfortunately, Schultz quickly saw the obstacles facing him.
“The Bee Gees were cool when they were playing music, but trying to get them to act was quite tedious,” said Schultz. “Peter Frampton, as well. When the guys were singing, they were fine. But otherwise it was elementary school theater. Barry Gibb couldn’t get out of bed unless he had a stogie; he was high constantly. Peter was a really sweet guy, but the Bee Gees hated him. I think they resented the fact that he had this huge hit album out. They were always ignoring him and trying to make his life as difficult as they could.”
You don’t have to believe Schultz — just watch the movie, which only really works when the musician-actors are singing Beatles songs. Whenever they have to act, it’s a catastrophe, and while Sgt. Pepper’s didn’t require much in the way of emoting, it’s painful whenever they try. (I’ll be careful of spoilers for a 45-year-old movie you shouldn’t see, but let’s just say that Frampton is required to get emotional at one point — it seems fairly obvious those are fake tears on his face.)
But to be fair, nobody really comes off well in Sgt. Pepper’s. Character actor Donald Pleasence, who would appear in Halloween just a few months later, hams it up as B.D., the predictably slimy label head. As for Martin, he mugs through his “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” number in a manner that eerily resembles his Saturday Night Live performance of “King Tut.” But give him this: The sheer commitment to the film’s WTF weirdness remains engrossing, which is not the same thing as calling it “good” or “accomplished.” (It’s funny to watch his scene now and think, if Sgt. Pepper’s had been released a couple decades later, Jim Carrey would have probably played this role.)
Jukebox musical movies were a relatively new thing back then — as were films that tried to make well-known rock acts cinematic. I’m not talking about concert films — think 1975’s Tommy, based on the Who’s concept album or, later, 1982’s Pink Floyd — The Wall. (And, of course, there were original movie musicals, such as 1974’s audacious Phantom of the Paradise, which informed some of Sgt. Pepper’s trippier production design.) Plus, after Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the Road flopped, there was another Beatles Broadway musical, Beatlemania, which debuted in 1977, finding greater success. So the idea of shoving popular acts and actors into a lighthearted comedy filled with songs from an all-time great group didn’t seem like the craziest idea. I mean, Sgt. Pepper’s is a film with lots of Beatles tunes — you’re already halfway there to a successful motion picture.
Certainly Schultz thought he had something great on his hands. “I ended up really liking the movie and thought it was going to be a big hit,” he told the Times. “At the very first screening, the audience loved it. The studio was ecstatic.” But Edwards anticipated the skepticism. “It is hokum,” the writer admitted in that 1978 Rolling Stone feature while discussing Sgt. Pepper’s peace-and-love grooviness, “but if it’s done with style, people will love it. … If you look at it from a very practical, pragmatic standpoint, it is impossible. But I am an optimist and a dreamer, and so is Stigwood. He’s very positive, a person who believes in making magic, in making something happen out of nothing. He’s very shrewd and very tuned in to young people. … He has a kind of sixth sense, an intuition about what is hot, or what will be hot. He’s very clever that way.”
Stigwood was off this time. The reviews were poisonous, with the Times’ Janet Maslin announcing, “This isn’t a movie, it’s a business deal set to music. … The movie may have been conceived in a spirit of merriment, but watching it feels like playing shuffleboard at the absolute insistence of a bossy shipboard social director. When whimsy gets to be this overbearing, it simply isn’t whimsy any more.”
The Beatles were funny and happy, but also caustic and cutting — endlessly likable but also cool. By comparison, the film was dorky and unhip, no matter how much Martin’s surrealist brand of humor tried to weird things up a little. Sgt. Pepper’s feels like one huge drug bender set to tacky renditions of songs you love. There’s very much a smug, self-absorbed Me-Decade vibe to the film — the tunes are turned into variety-show abominations that are painfully of their era, and you can sense Schultz’s flop sweat as he deals with performers who can’t act or dance. While it’s somewhat impressive how Edwards managed to shoehorn so many Beatles songs into the narrative, having their lyrics sorta-kinda fit what’s going on, the prevailing sentiment is that the whole endeavor is a monument to bad taste and odd choices. There are masseuse robots. Actors frolic in a pile of money to “You Never Give Me Your Money.” There’s a cheesy fight sequence. George Burns lumbers through “Fixing a Hole.” At one point, occasional Beatles collaborator Billy Preston shows up as a magical being that brings a dead character back to life. It makes as much sense as anything else.
I am not a proponent of “so bad, it’s good!” movies. (Life is too short to watch terrible movies ironically.) But I confess that Sgt. Pepper’s gleeful wrongheadedness, performed with utter sincerity and unflagging cheerfulness, does have its charms. Whether by accident (which is often) or on purpose, the movie can be very funny. It’s a time capsule of cringe, but everybody seems to be having the best time — except for Frampton, who considered quitting but decided against it, figuring he’d be sued.
All those happy faces and manic expressions, all these people desperately trying to make this slim tale hold together — I find its exuberant futility endearing. I laugh at the wretched excess and woeful execution, but I also laugh with the cast, who aren’t going to let good judgment stand in the way of what they’re doing. Of the many Beatles covers — which, remember, George Martin, the Beatles’ producer, signed off on — only Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Got to Get You Into My Life” and Aerosmith’s “Come Together” are worth ever hearing again. For any true Beatles fan, the movie is an insult, but now removed from its era, Sgt. Pepper’s terribleness can’t really hurt anyone anymore. It’s harmlessly awful. As Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry aptly put it in 2018, “I think that that movie really was a window into the times, and looking back at it, it’s really fascinating.” And not unpleasantly ludicrous.
No doubt, part of the animosity at the time that was directed toward the movie, which failed to light the box office on fire, was because the Bee Gees were so prominently featured. In an age when rock fans hated disco because it wasn’t “real” music, having the Gibb brothers croon Beatles songs — pretty decently, by the way — was seen as heretical. When Alice Cooper, who plays a spooky cult leader in the film, was approached about the project, “(The backers) said, ‘We’re doing Sgt. Pepper.’ And I said, ‘Oh, with the Beatles? That’s going to be great!’ And they said, ‘No… with the Bee Gees.’ And I immediately went, ‘This is going to be a disaster!’ You’re talking about the Beatles’ (most) sacred record of all time. … Now, I love the Bee Gees, I get along with those guys, I had a great time with them. But the general public are not going to stand for that.”
Now that such anti-disco fervor has died down, the very presence of the Bee Gees in Sgt. Pepper’s won’t infuriate new viewers, although any contemporary audience will concur that they are terrible thespians. Ultimately, Sgt. Pepper’s is a comedy that tries way too hard to be funny in a musical featuring incredible songs in less-than-ideal new versions. Edwards claimed it wasn’t meant to be a Beatles movie, which is good because their fans tried to pretend it never existed.
In 1979, George Harrison talked about the Sgt. Pepper’s musical. Laughing, he suggested, “Maybe we should go and do The Robert Stigwood Story or something, although I suppose the Sgt. Pepper film is all right because they’ve paid the copyright on the songs and made up their own story line.” Not that he bothered checking out the film. “The reports on it were so bad that I didn’t want to see it. But maybe it’s good. I don’t know.”
“It was a big hit internationally,” Schultz told the Times. “I made more money on that film than on most of my earlier films put together. But the response in America was devastating, depressing, deflating. It took me about a year to recover. I had been doing one film after the other before that and was pretty wiped out. Going through that emotional disappointment and taking that break kind of slowed down the trajectory of my career.”
So many famous cinematic stinkers get reappraised over time, with new generations going to bat for everything from Heaven’s Gate to Ishtar. But the Sgt. Pepper’s musical remains mired in its dismal reputation, and with good reason. But, really, it’s more goofy than wretched, more campy than utterly incompetent. And it was a way for people who came of age with the Beatles to pay homage to the heroes — albeit in the dumbest way imaginable.
Harrison probably remains most incisive in his criticism of Sgt. Pepper’s. He was asked in that Rolling Stone interview, “How does it feel to be an object of nostalgia already?”
“We’ve been nostalgia since 1967,” Harrison responded. “It’s fine. … It’s like being Charlie Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy.” It’s interesting that he compared his old band to those comedy legends. Then Harrison added, “But the music still stands up, still sounds very good, a lot of it.”
It sure does. And you don’t need the Sgt. Pepper’s musical to remind you of that — or how funny they were.