Fixing A Hole: An Appreciation of SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND

By Sir Alvin D. Ecarma



My first real exposure to the Beatles growing up was not through their albums or their movies, but through what seemed to be endless screenings in the early 1980s of Michael (CAR WASH, THE LAST DRAGON) Schultz’s SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND.  In my formative years, cable was something reserved for well-heeled folks willing to spring for S.E.T.I.-sized satellite dishes, so the off-the-air, analog local broadcast landscape was divided six ways: the major network affiliates of NBC, ABC, and CBS and three local affiliates: WTTG, WDCA and WETA. WTTG somehow finagled a VHF slot like the major television networks so when they aired something, it came in crisp and clear; WDCA and WETA, the local public TV station, aired on UHF channels so their reception vacillated between fuzz and snow a goodly portion of the time.


The upshot of this seemed to be that WTTG didn’t have the cash to actually have a film library of any consequence.  So while WDCA could screen things like all the Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns, choice Godzilla titles, and the entire PLANET OF THE APES series, WTTG usually had a sorry mix of films for their all-day, weekend movie matinees. Set up in a block of three or four films on Saturday and Sunday, one title would actually get changed up (I must give them credit for showing FROGS, EMPIRE OF THE ANTS, WESTWORLD and the Dr. Phibes movies) while sandwiched between what my faulty memory recalls as an unhealthy, regular rotation of Altman’s BREWSTER McCLOUD, 1967’s CASINO ROYALE and SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND.

Coming to the film blind and with no context as a child, I was instantly smitten by the music and visuals and anointed the movie with the kind of honor only an eight-year old boy could bestow on a film of such caliber: a poorly executed, audio cassette recording made by pressing a tape deck reeeeeal close to the TV speaker. The kind of fidelity brought to the sound was of a sort that made Edison-era, wax-cylinder technology look like 6.1 digital surround. I like to think the big, noisy button clicks after each song and background mutterings of “Shut up! I’m recording this!” added a little bit of childhood magic.


Anyway, for reasons I can probably chalk up to misguided nostalgia, I decided to re-visit the film some fifteen or so years later. In the intervening time, I had become more than aware of its terrible reputation and how it’s considered a four-star disaster. After re-watching the film, I agree— but only to an extent.

The film centers around Heartland, USA, a mythical, mid-Western everytown, and it’s Favorite Son, Sgt. Pepper. Bestowed with magical instruments of unknown origin, Sgt. Pepper and his band play their way into history through a prologue montage that shows them ending the first World War, raising America’s spirits during The Great Depression, and boosting troop morale during World War Two (although it should be noted that the band doesn’t see fit to do their part to end wartime hostilities in either the European or Pacific theaters of war{{1}}.)


Soon after, Sgt. Pepper passes away and the rest of the group retires, but their instruments are put into the Heartland museum with their presence assuring the tiny hamlet peace and tranquility for so long as they remain. The band’s musical mantle is taken up by Billy Shears (Peter Frampton) and the Hennessy Brothers (the Bee Gees) with their reputation spreading far and wide. Their storied sound quickly pricks the ears of music mogul B.D. Hoffler (Donald Pleasence) who offers them a Standard Rich & Famous Contract and an invite to Hollywood, California. With the band’s exit from Heartland for the Sodom and Gomorrah of the West Coast, Mean Mr. Mustard (Frankie Howerd) is able to creep into town and steal the Sgt. Pepper instruments for the mysterious F.V.B. (Aerosmith). The theft leaves an emptiness in Heartland’s soul that corrupts its all-American home spun ways and sends it spiraling into an abyss of vile immorality. Billy’s girlfriend Strawberry Fields (Sandy Farina) re-unites with Billy and the band and she tells them that they must regain each of the Sgt. Pepper’s instruments in order bring harmony and clean living back to Heartland, USA.

If the previous synopsis seems at all coherent, please note that I actually sat down and attempted to figure out the plot and the dramatic conflict at the center of the story; if you choose to actually watch the movie unprepared, your brain will soon be scrambling for all the over-used tropes that involve screenplays written on the backs of gin-soaked cocktail napkins by cocaine-crazed screen writers who were doing so much Columbian White that there’s a grotesque dolphin-like blow hole carved out in the middle of their faces. The fact is that the Sgt. Pepper’s album was not a rock opera with any linear narrative, but a psychedelic concept album that denied logic. The best anyone could do was to use the names of characters in the songs as the names of characters in the movie and when a song mentioned something specific like a circus, a newspaper headline about someone “blowing their mind out in a car”, or perhaps a horse dancing a waltz, a circus is seen, a newspaper headline is shown about someone “blowing their mind out in a car”, and a horse dances a waltz{{2}}. Clumsily structured, the film initially goes for a fairy-tale, fable conceit with magic instruments, briefly stumbles into A STAR IS BORN territory of innocent dreamers crushed by nefarious A&R types, before it drops that and switches back into a fanciful questing plot that is less like the search for the Holy Grail in EXCALIBUR and more like GI Joe’s pursuit of the M.A.S.S. device or the Weather Controller.


Acting-wise, the film doesn’t fare that much better. Probably because they were dealing with musicians and singers and not trained actors, all of the plot points are either communicated in song or through the narration of George Burns as the mayor, Mr. Kite. The Bee Gees don’t embarrass themselves even though they sometimes look straight into the camera, but Sandy Farina appears heavily medicated throughout the production and Peter Frampton looks like a donkey kicked him in the back of the head.

With all these debits against it —concept, execution, acting— the film should be a total, unmitigated, unwatchable disaster. But gawd damn it all, what makes this movie work is the music because no matter what, we’re talking about the Beatles and an all-star musical line-up full of artists working at the top of their game. Evaluating it as a film, the movie fails but as a visual tribute album it succeeds.


The main cover songs are anchored by Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees, all of whom have been cruelly dismissed as hacks since roughly 1980. The Bee Gees had the style, talent and flair that kicked off a string of hits (the SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER soundtrack wasn’t small potatoes, folks) and they kept cranking them out quietly in the background for people like Kenny Rogers after the Disco Backlash— the backlash of which is probably the number one reason they get no respect{{3}}. The group’s renditions of the songs are respectful and reverential, and are only enhanced with some of their trademark harmonizing and a more full-bodied accompaniment; it’s not like they just took the songs and added heavy grinding beats and “pew-pew” laser sound effects.  No slacker himself, Frampton does a solid job as well; like the Bee Gees, he keeps to the original style and flow, and is wise enough not to bring his talking guitar into the mix.

Where the film is vastly underrated musically are the special guest covers. Paul Nicholas, best known for the appalling soft-rock hit “Heaven On The Seventh Floor”, does some great work, alongside Dianne Steinberg, performing “You Never Give Me Your Money”, Alice Cooper does a macabre and killer “Because”, and  Aerosmith turns “Come Together” into the muscular rock anthem it was always meant to be. Not to be outdone, Earth, Wind & Fire’s version  of “Got To Get You Into My Life” is rightly considered a classic and Billy Preston’s “Get Back”— well, f*ck you Sir Paul because that sound you hear is the fifth Beatle blowing you out of the water.


Sure, about a third of the tracks don’t work. Sandy Farina’s performances of “Strawberry Fields” and “Here Comes The Sun” are flat and uninspired and so is Stargard’s “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.”  And things really hit the fan with anything that approaches a novelty track so you won’t hear me defend the brutal slaughter of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” by Steve Martin in full wild-and-crazy mode, the borderline senile ramblings of George Burn’s “Fixing A Hole”, Frankie Howerd’s “When I’m Sixty-four’ or even the one time when the Bee Gees themselves drop the ball with “She’s Leaving Home”, a garbled mash up of tinny vocals and synthesizer doodlings.

I know there’s no pleasing purists, so whatever. They can go listen to their mono vinyl pressings of the original album whenever they feel like it. This movie isn’t going to change their mind. But to dismiss the entire endeavor as utter worthlessness is unmerited and desperately unfair. That the film is severely flawed, there is no doubt. But as a worthy salute to the Beatles legacy (lousy novelty tracks excepted) it is an absolute winner. Arguably there are only a few great movies by and/or about the Fab Four but if you feel the need to heap an ungodly amount of shame and hate on something completely idiotic, stupid and disgraceful made in their name, please focus your ire on THE MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR. Now there’s a goddamn piece of shit.






(c)2011 Alvin Ecarma


[[1]]1. Historians speculate that Supreme Allied Command ended all Swing Jazz strike force operations after Glenn Miller’s tragic death at the hands of the Gestapo.[[1]]


[[2]]2. This may explain many inexplicable things in the film but does not even begin to rationalize Mr. Mustard’s latex & vinyl, electronic sex bots.[[2]]


[[3]]3. No one is permitted to enjoy Disco on anything but an ironic level and the Bee Gees will be forever linked to polyester bell bottoms and feathered hair. Due to bi-partisan committee legislation in the early 1990s, the US Congress has officially mandated that the Brothers Gibb be relegated to camp and kitsch and no one shall ever be permitted to make a Broadway musical out of their greatest hits. (You go to hell, ABBA.)[[3]]



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