Across the Universe, Julie Taymor's third film, a musical about the tumult of the 1960s as filtered through the songs of The Beatles, opened this weekend. So in tribute, what shall I look at today: Taymor's extraordinary Shakespeare fantasy Titus, her disappointingly tame but still intriguing biopic Frida, or the last musical built around the Beatles' catalog, a film of the profoundest infamy, spoken of in hushed tones in those rare moments that it is spoken of at all?
Like Finnegans Wake or The Waste Land, music maven Robert Stigwood's 1978 epic Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is such a vast experience that one does not know how to begin discussing it: each possible thought contests with every other thought, all of them vital, all jousting for primacy. So I suppose I shall begin in the simplest way I know how: with my opinion.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is a motion picture whose awfulness can hardly be imagined on a human scale; its derangement and crazy invention stretch beyond the limits of imagination. I could not possibly conceive a story as profoundly warped as this, nor executed that story with the same level of wanton insanity. This film is so terrible that it goes 'round the other side of terrible and comes back in some kind of unbearable psychotic beauty.
Here is the plot of the film. I promise I have invented nothing, not indeed that I could. In 1918, the small town of Heartland, USA sent four of their local boys to the front: Sgt. Pepper and his Lonely Hearts Club Band. Their extraordinary music stops all who listen to it from fighting, and so the war was won. The band became heroes, and for the next 25 years, they were at the forefront of popular music, becoming the most loved stars in the land. In 1944, they were sent overseas again, effortlessly stopping the Nazi menace, and returned home as greater heroes still. In 1958, at the dedication ceremony for a commemorative weather vane in Heartland, Sgt. Pepper died, but only after laying hands upon his young grandson Billy Shears (ultimately played by Peter Frampton), who was commanded to find three other boys (Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb, of the Bee Gees) to be his new Lonely Hearts Club Band.
All that is narrated to us by the mayor of Heartland, Mr. Kite, in the unmistakable gravel tones of George Burns. All of that takes 5 minutes. Then the real crazy begins:
In 1978, Billy Shears and the band are found by B.D. (Donald Pleasance) of B.D. Records, and he begs them to come to Los Angeles to sign a contract. No sooner are the musicians out of Heartland than Mr. Mustard (Frankie Howerd), a servant of the evil F.V.B., arrives in his satellite-linked van staffed by two robot women to steal Sgt. Pepper's magical instruments, and destroy Heartland. Billy's girlfriend, Strawberry Fields (Sandy Farina), journeys to L.A. to lead the band back on a quest to retrieve their instruments from the mad Dr. Maxwell Edison (Steve Martin) and Father Sun (Alice Cooper). Upon finding F.V.B., or "Future Villain Band" (Aerosmith), a battle ensues and Strawberry dies.
Then the really real crazy begins.
I apologize for the long plot recap, but I simply cannot get my mind around it in even the smallest degree. Robot henchwomen singing "Mean Mr. Mustard" on vocoders? Sure. A bandstand turned into a giant crêpe paper cheeseburger? Of course! Billy Preston shooting lightning from his hands that turns bystanders into nuns? WHY THE HELL NOT? A not-so-small part of me wonders if the filmmakers, including writer Henry Edwards (whose career consists of this and another, forgotten 1978 film) and director Michael Schultz in addition to Stigwood, who produced and instigated the whole damn thing, were aware that a Beatles disco musical was self-evidently the worst idea that could be conceived, and hence pushed the movie as far towards totally incoherency that they could manage. The other part of me then recalls that it was 1978 and there were drugs the likes of which the world has never seen since.
A comprehensive list of everything that went wrong and why would break even the strongest viewer, but I think most of us could agree that the chief problem here is the commanding lack of comprehension of the source music. On the one hand, there is some barbarically literal interpretation of the lyrics here: this is why we have characters named Mr. Mustard, Mr. Kite, Strawberry Fields and Lucy (Dianne Steinberg) and her backup group The Diamonds (Stargard, a conspicuous exception to the "all-star" part of "all-star cast"). The attention for meaningless detail extends as far as giving the Bee Gees the surname "Henderson," so that when "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" rolls around, we won't be confused by the reference to "The Hendersons will dance and sing." This obsession, it should be noted, does not extend as far as "Get Back," during which song the woman we've known throughout the film as Strawberry" is without controversy referred to as "Loretta."
But this is missing the forest for the trees. The song "She's Leaving Home" is a particularly sick joke, with its plot captured perfectly and its meaning completely lost. And even this stickling for detail only goes so far; most of the numbers in the film seem to be there mostly on the basis of the song's first line, such as the mind-splitting awfulness of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" as performed by Steve Martin in the worst moment of his career - a moment that springs from nothing other than the line "Maxwell Edison, majoring in medicine," and proceeds to come up with the worst possible explanation for "silver hammer." The scene is even worse when you recall that the Beatles already had a song, "Doctor Robert," that fills almost precisely the role that "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" was so crudely wedged into.
Then there are the songs which are just there for the hell of it, perverted almost beyond recognition: the "Golden Slumbers" medley, with the atrociously poor taste to set a funeral march to "Carry That Weight"; Alice Cooper's simply evil rendition of "Because"; or the combination bank robber/sex scene version of "You Never Give Me Your Money." Frankly, between the surrealist extremes of some of the numbers and the numbingly vanilla Frampton/Bee Gees-ness of the rest, it's not all that surprising that only one song in the entire film works at all: Aerosmith's nasty, sexy version of "Come Together."
For all that, it is not altogether fair to judge a movie simply for redesigning incredibly popular songs, even when those songs are by the Beatles. Instead, let us judge Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band for being completely inane. It would be one thing if the film couched its incoherence in a balls-out zany style as does Baz Lurhmann (or, come to think of it, Julie Taymor). But the film commits another great sin: it treats the cavalcade of grotesques that make up the narrative as nothing particularly special. If the terrible acts committed against the Beatles are what make Sgt. Pepper an awful film, it's the languid ease with which those numbers are filmed that make it a chore to watch. One imagines that Schultz knew what he'd gotten himself involved with, and willfully treated it with the utter lack of respect that it so richly deserved; thus the scenes are mostly a combination of psychopathic and boring, a combination that calls to mind another great cinematic botch from 1978, The Star Wars Holiday Special. Like that notorious work of evil, Sgt. Pepper is tedious and hallucinogenic in equal measure at the same time, and it is quite nearly that film's equal in badness.
There is nothing whatsoever good about this film - the acting! the costumes! the vile ending that suggests the classic album cover, with such notables as Seals & Crofts, Dame Edna and Leif Garrett! - but lest you suppose I have nothing to say good about it, let me point out that the tremendous failure of both film and soundtrack led eventually to the demise of Robert Stigwood's RSO label. I do not know Stigwood, and I do not know if he is essentially evil or not, but I do know that the mind which could conceive of something this wretched deserves punishment for it.