Julie Taymor’s “Across the Universe,” a story of love and rebellion in the turbulent 1960s, uses characters, situations, words and music from the songs of the Beatles. You can forgive fans of the Fab Four if they’re skeptical; the last time someone attempted something similar, things got ugly.
Following 1968’s animated “Yellow Submarine” (with which the Beatles had very little involvement) and the bizarre “All This and World War II” (a 1976 documentary juxtaposing vintage newsreel footage with covers of Beatles songs), came an attempt at a big-budget musical fantasy based on what many considered the Beatles’ greatest album: “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
Partially based on a 1974 stage musical, the 1978 movie (which also included songs from Abbey Road and Revolver) was produced by Robert Stigwood, a top-flight rock manager and label head who’d had prior rock movie successes with “Jesus Christ Superstar” (1973), the Who’s “Tommy” (1975), “Saturday Night Fever” (1977) and then-current smash “Grease.” People trusted Stigwood’s instincts. Maybe the idea of putting ’70s chart-toppers Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees in front of the camera to bring Beatles songs to life wasn’t so horrible. What ended up onscreen proved otherwise.
During World War I, the town of Heartland U.S.A. sends Sgt. Pepper and his Lonely Hearts Club (marching) Band into a European theater in order to bring inspiration to the fighting forces, helping to win the war. Upon his death in 1958, Pepper leaves the custody of his magical instruments, which guarantee the ongoing happiness of mankind, in the care of Heartland’s mayor, Mr. Kite (George Burns, wearing the first of the film’s many bad toupees).
Thirty years later, Pepper’s grandson, Billy Shears (Frampton) starts a new Lonely Hearts Club Band with his pals, Mark, Dave and Bob Henderson (the Bee Gees). Almost instantly, the band gets an offer from Big Deal Records’ head honcho B.D. Hoffler (Donald Pleasence in another bad wig). So off they jet to Hollywood, separating Billy for the first time from his true love, Strawberry Fields (Sandy Farina in her first and last performance).
As soon as the band hits L.A., the debauchery of the music biz is in evidence: the booze, the drugs, the sex, the payola, the convertible limousines. After signing with B.D., the band quickly records and releases a record that becomes an overnight smash, putting them on a sellout tour and the cover of Time magazine.
Meanwhile, Heartland has fallen prey to the mean Mr. Mustard (British character actor Frankie Howerd in bad rug #3), an agent of the FVB (Future Villain Band), which instructs him to steal the original Sgt. Pepper’s magical instruments and distribute them to various evil accomplices. Without the instruments’ guarding force, Heartland falls into an iniquitous spiral not seen since Bedford Falls became Pottersville. Casinos, liquor stores and — horrors! — video arcades pop up on the streets, which are now frequented by hookers, pimps and punk rockers!
Desperate to save the town, the wide-eyed (literally) Strawberry boards a bus for Hollywood, only to find the salacious Lucy and the Diamonds trying to taint the purity of Billy and the LHCB. But when she explains what’s happened to Heartland, they all go in search of the stolen instruments.
Their first stop is the lair of Dr. Maxwell, played by a wild ‘n’ crazy Steve Martin (in his big-screen debut). Maxwell, who uses his magical silver hammer to turn old people into young automatons in servitude to FVB, loses possession of Sgt. Pepper’s heart-shaped cornet in a tepid battle with our satin-clad heroes. After finding the drum left in Mustard’s van, the band retrieves the tuba from FVB’s brainwasher, Father Sun, played by an obviously bored Alice Cooper.
Finally, the LHCB attacks and somehow manages to defeat the corruptive FVB, played by the Bee Gees’ antithesis, Aerosmith. However, Strawberry is killed in the melee. After a funeral befitting Snow White (including glass coffin), a suicidal Billy leaps off the Fields home roof. But wait! A weather vane magically transforms into the reincarnated Sgt. Pepper (now mysteriously black in the form of Billy Preston), who shoots lasers from his fingers that in turn save Billy, transform the villains into Catholic clergy, return the town to its former wholesome self and resurrect the dead Strawberry! Talk about a deus ex machina!
Abruptly, the film ends with a huge singalong of the title theme, as the cast is joined by a bizarre menagerie of ’70s stars (some super, some not), including Robert Palmer, José Feliciano, Helen Reddy, Heart, Hank Williams Jr., Peter Allen and, uh, Sha Na Na?! Additionally (adding to the bad wig count), we have Carol Channing, Wolfman Jack, Tina Turner, Frankie Valli, Connie Stevens and, again, uh, Dame Edna!?
It’s a perfectly strange cap to a perfectly strange film. For one thing, aside from George Burns’ narration, there’s no dialogue at all in the movie other than sung lyrics. While this was partially done to avoid having the leads’ very British accents come out of the mouths of very American characters, the fact that the inexperienced “actors” were left stranded in the land of broad pantomime doesn’t help the film. On top of that, some of the more abstract lyrics (“He wear no shoeshine, he got toe jam football!”) don’t quite work in a film that’s using them as the literal screenplay.
So what’s left is the music — and with precious few exceptions, that’s a miss as well. Frampton’s presence and voice are both too slight to carry the weight of Lennon and McCartney, and the Bee Gees’ lovely harmonizing has no place to go. Earth, Wind & Fire pull off an entertaining (if funk-lite) version of “Got to Get You Into My Life,” but Alice Cooper’s mere recitation of “Because” is as embarrassing as George Burns’ soft-shoe take on “Fixing a Hole.” Doing a down-and-dirty version of “Come Together,” Aerosmith are the only act to emerge from the film with their reputation unscathed, probably because they got to play the bad guys in this train wreck!
Frequent Beatles guest player Billy Preston’s “Get Back” sounds great (and he’s got moves that rival James Brown’s), but his involvement in this project feels almost like a betrayal. But not as much as the soundtrack’s producer and arranger, actual Beatles producer George Martin!
Ultimately, the movie feels like a ’70s TV variety show à la “Donny and Marie,” comprised of awkward skits featuring non-acting musicians cut together with splashy musical numbers. Perhaps not surprisingly, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was a critical and box-office dud.
Over the years, the film has slowly built a minor cult of the “so bad it’s good” variety. The lack of dialogue makes shout-along viewings difficult, but there are still plenty of jaw-dropping elements (Billy’s white overalls! Completely inaccurate lip-synching! Female robot massage!) that make this a great DVD to throw on at a party.
The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album remains a controversial touchstone. While many (including Rolling Stone magazine) cite it as the greatest rock album of all time, there is a school of thought that says its ambitious structure and inventive recording methods took rock into the more serious realm of art, making it more pretentious and less vital (The New York Times compared the record to a spoiled child).
Certainly no one ever has or will argue that the movie version is anything close to “art,” but you can’t totally hate a movie that answers the question, “What would Ed Wood have done if he lived in the disco era?”
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