The story is told to us by Mr. Kite (George Burns), the mayor of Heartland USA. Heartland was the hometown of the legendary Sgt. Pepper and his band. Now, his descendant, Billy Shears (Peter Frampton), has created a new version of the band along with his buddies, The Hendersons (The Bee Gees). Have you figured out by now that most of the characters in the film are named after characters from Beatles songs? No? How ‘bout if I tell you that Billy’s girlfriend is named Strawberry Fields?
The band is the hit of Heartland, and soon a big-time record producer B.D. (Donald Pleasence), has taken an interest in the group. Billy’s brother, and manager, Dougie (Paul Nicholas), takes the band off to Hollywood where they start livin’ large. Also taking a different sort of interest in the band is another one of B.D.’s groups, Lucy and the Diamonds (Dianne Steinberg with the group Stargard).
Meanwhile, back in Heartland, Mean Mr. Mustard (Frankie Howerd) has been sent by the villainous FVB (which stands for Future Villain Band) to steal the legendary instruments of the original Sgt. Pepper’s band. They have some sort of special powers or something…so with those gone, Mr. Mustard is able to turn Heartland into a regular dump.
Needing help to save the town, Strawberry runs off to Hollywood to get the boys. Together they snatch Mr. Mustard’s van and head off to get the instruments back. Along the way, they have to do battle with a crazy plastic surgeon, Dr. Maxwell (Steve Martin), a creep with a god complex who calls himself The Sun King (Alice Cooper), and finally FVB themselves (Aerosmith).
You could call this film a rock opera. There is no dialogue, except for the narration provided by George Burns. This is probably a good thing since even without any lines, the acting talents of Frampton and the Bee Gees are pretty shaky. But the film’s biggest problem is not the acting, but a simple lack of focus. The story shifts directions many times. At first the film seems like it’s going to be about a small town band dealing with the temptations of Hollywood, then it switches into a silly story about getting back magic instruments.
As for the songs…well, they’re Beatles songs. At least that’s a good start. But many of these versions definitely have a disco slant. Some are just plain weird. I mean, did you ever think you’d hear George Burns singing “Fixing a Hole,” or a version of “She’s Leaving Home” sung by fembots? Of course, one of the musical highlights is Aerosmith’s classic version of “Come Together,” which has far exceeded the success of the movie (which wasn’t hard to start with). I admit to also having a soft spot for Alice Cooper’s creepy take on “Because.” Some could see his scene, which involves teenagers staring at music videos in a zombie-like trance, as being somewhat prophetic a few years before the launch of MTV. I think the musical low-point of the film may be Steve Martin’s version of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” which is sung as if he had cotton balls in his mouth as he waddles around the set like he’s wearing a full diaper.
Yet, with everything that is wrong with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” I am guilty of watching it over and over again. There is something irresistible about it. It is interesting to look at it alongside “Across the Universe.” Both film’s take bizarre turns in the interest of tying in just one more song to the story. Both feature some solid versions of Beatles songs alongside some painfully bad ones (Eddie Izzard doing “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” puh-leeeze). In the case of Sgt Peppers…it may be a disaster, but at least it’s an entertaining disaster.