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Film / Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978)

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Cue the insane calliope...

"A Splendid Time is Guaranteed for All"

A decidedly weird 1978 musical comedy film directed by Michael Schultz and combining the talents of Peter Frampton, The Bee Gees, Frankie Howerd, Donald Pleasence, Steve Martin, George Burns, Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Billy Preston with The Beatles' (then-11-year-old) classic album of the same name, although it also incorporates other late-period Beatles songs (most especially from "Abbey Road"). The involvement of erstwhile Beatles producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick lent the film their reflected credibility.

This All-Star Cast fantasy tries to wrap a storyline around Beatles songs and characters in them, as a vehicle for popular acts of the time: Peter Frampton, the Bee Gees, Alice Cooper, etc. There is no spoken dialogue aside from that of narrator Mr. Kite (Burns), the mayor of Heartland, USA.

A prologue establishes that the original Sgt. Pepper and his bandmates were able to bring peace and harmony to those around them — even warring armies — with their music. After he died, the magical instruments were given over to the care of his hometown of Heartland, and now his grandson Billy Shears (Frampton) has formed a new version of the band with his friends the Henderson Brothers (the Bee Gees). They're good enough that they attract the attention of unscrupulous producer B.D. Hoffler (Pleasence), and soon they are off to Hollywood to experience the hedonistic side of superstardom.

Alas, back home an evil organization known as "F.V.B." has its sights set on the original instruments, for the joy and love they embody is anathema to them. Their main mercenary, the mean Mr. Mustard (Howerd), a "demented ex-real estate agent", arrives in Heartland in his mobile evil lair (complete with two robot henchwomen), easily overpowers Mr. Kite (aided by his goon the Brute) and steals the four instruments for himself, rapidly plunging Heartland into a sleazy, heavily-consumeristic shadow of its former self (as gleefully dominated by Mustard). Billy's girlfriend Strawberry Fields runs away from home and tells the band what happened; together they must track down the stolen instruments if they hope to restore Heartland — which won't be easy thanks to all the treachery surrounding them.

While Aerosmith's take on "Come Together" and Earth, Wind & Fire's cover of "Got to Get You Into My Life" are generally well-regarded, this movie also gave us George Burns singing "Fixing a Hole" and, more infamously, Steve Martin performing "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" with customary scenery-chewing aplomb. The silly story and frequent poor match-ups of songs to situations render it all So Bad, It's Good at best, and it was a major flop, swiftly overshadowed by another rock musical, Grease, at the summer box office. Capitol Records re-released the Beatles' album with the label "The Original Classic" as impressionable teenage girls were under the impression that the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton thought up Sgt. Pepper first, and Yellow Submarine (which bears the credit "starring Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band") made the rounds on TV in syndication.

Compare Across the Universe (2007), another film which wraps a plotline around Beatles songs.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band contains examples of:

  • Accidental Murder: In the climax, as the leader of Future Villain Band strangles Billy Shears, Strawberry Fields pulls him off...and he falls to his death in the struggle. In horror, she staggers back...and the giant dollar sign she was bound to sends her to a Disney Villain Death as well.
  • Adaptation Expansion: The original album is more or less a fantasy concert. The movie starts with a concert...and then there's the whole plot. Also, it incorporates songs from other Beatles albums as well (Abbey Road in particular).
  • All There in the Manual: The comic book adaptation and collectible cards make it clearer that Billy Preston's character is the Sgt. Pepper weather vane come to life as opposed to Sgt. Pepper reincarnated.
  • And Starring: Sandy Farina is credited in the opening titles as "And introducing Sandy Farina as Strawberry Fields". Unfortunately, the film's critical and commercial failure effectively killed any chance she had at a long-term career as an actress.
  • Artistic License – Law: The contracts that B.D. has the band sign are questionably legally binding at best, given that most of them were under the influence of drugs and alcohol while they were signing it (with one getting so shit-faced he passes out, forcing someone else to move his hand so he can sign it).
  • Aside Glance
    • While watching Lucy and the Diamonds perform, Maurice Gibb looks directly into the camera and smirks while lifting his eyebrows.
    • After FVB orders Mean Mr. Mustard to steal the instruments, he turns to the camera and gives an evil grin.
  • Big Bad: F.V.B., which stands for Future Villain Band (Aerosmith).
  • Bittersweet Ending: Turns out to be zigzagged. The instruments are recovered, but Strawberry Fields dies in the process...then Billy Preston appears.
  • Bound and Gagged: Mr. Kite after Mustard and the Brute steal the instruments, and Strawberry Fields in the lair of Future Villain Band.
  • Character Catchphrase: Expect the phrase "WE HATE LOVE. WE HATE JOY. WE LOVE MONEY." to appear several times in relation to F.V.B.
  • Comic-Book Adaptation: Was issue #7 of Marvel Comics Super Special by writer David Anthony Kraft and artists George Pérez and Jim Mooney. It never got published in America due to the movie's poor performance.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: B.D. is the sort who will spike your drink with drugs to make you less resistant to signing his contract (he does this to Billy); Mr. Mustard becomes a smaller-scale version of this within Heartland, opening arcades and fast food restaurants as the town decays without the magic instruments.
  • Cosmic Keystone: A small-scale version — the four magic instruments protect Heartland, USA's Sugar Bowl status.
  • The Cover Changes the Meaning: "When I'm Sixty-Four". The classic love song about growing old together becomes a very creepy cover about Mr. Mustard holding Strawberry Fields hostage and forcing her to tend to his every need.
  • Cult: Reverend Sun leads one that preaches the love of money.
  • Darkest Hour: Strawberry Fields is killed, Heartland is wearing black in mourning, and Billy Shears is about to commit suicide; subverted when Sgt. Pepper intervenes just in the nick of time and restores everything back to the way it was.
  • Deus ex Machina: And it's a whopper. Sgt. Pepper is reborn as Billy Preston and stops Billy Shears' suicide, restores Strawberry to life, punishes the supporting baddies, and returns the town to its original state. Whew!
  • Dirty Old Man: Mean Mr. Mustard was described as a "dirty old man" in the original song, and the film version bears this out when he kidnaps Strawberry Fields — his advances towards her are how "When I'm Sixty-Four" is incorporated into the film. (It's interesting how they managed to take a happy song Paul wrote about his father and turned it into an extremely creepy song about an old man stalking a young woman. Kudos to the acting talents of the late Frankie Howerd in his last film.)
  • Disney Death: Strawberry Fields, and the last quarter of the film deals with the aftermath of the "death" part.
  • Disney Villain Death: The lead singer of Future Villain Band and in a rare heroic example, Strawberry Fields; unusually for this trope, we see the dead bodies on the ground. The heroine gets better.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: The uniforms that the minions of F.V.B. wear pretty much scream "Hitler Youth".
  • Driven to Suicide: Happens with two characters, though it's easy to miss the first case. Both are triggered by the same disaster, the death of Strawberry Fields.
    • The first case is that of Mr. Jones; the means of the demise (car accident) is the setup for "A Day in the Life". It's easy to miss the detail because it only appears as a newspaper headline.
    • In the second case it's subverted with Billy, because Sgt. Pepper reincarnates and saves him.
  • Fembot: Mustard's assistants.
  • Freudian Excuse: Parodied with Father Sun: He used to be Marvin Sunk, a crossing guard who was always teased by the children, so he decided to drop the "k" from his name and become a cult leader in order to brainwash all young people to serve FVB. Makes perfect sense.
  • Gold and White Are Divine: Reborn Sgt. Pepper wears gold and provides gold-and-white outfits to Billy and his bandmates for the big finale.
  • Greed: All the villains love money, the Big Bad most of all.
  • Grief Song: "Golden Slumbers" and "Carry That Weight" at Strawberry's funeral underscore the sorrow of the moment and Billy's subsequent depression.
  • I Have You Now, My Pretty: "When I'm Sixty-Four" is used for this trope.
  • The Ingenue: Strawberry Fields is a "free spirit" example.
  • Jukebox Musical: One of the earliest examples. Plus, it's also 90% a rock opera with Beatles music.
  • Karma Houdini: Dr. Maxwell actually manages to beat the band in a fight and escapes with his money, though presumably his business is ruined after his instrument is taken.
  • A Lighter Shade of Black: Dougie and Lucy are both greedy money-lovers (and the latter is The Vamp), and B.D. is a Corrupt Corporate Executive who's not above spiking drinks to make people join his label, but none of them are interested in world domination like F.V.B. and their lackeys.
  • Magic Music: The original band's special instruments can produce this.
  • Magical Negro: At the end, Billy Preston as Sgt. Pepper comes out of nowhere and fixes everything.
  • Meaningful Funeral: Held for Strawberry Fields. Most, if not all, of Heartland USA gathers for the event by way of honoring her efforts to save the town, which culminated in her death.
  • Mood Whiplash: For the majority of the film up until the climax, it's a lighthearted musical movie. Then Strawberry Fields is suddenly killed, and the film turns into a straight-up drama. When Billy tries to commit suicide by jumping off a building, we suddenly go back to the cheesiness when the Sgt. Pepper weather vane suddenly comes to life (in the form of Billy Preston, no less), and magically fixes everything. Yes, really.
  • Musical Theme Naming: Fittingly, nearly every major character has a name themed after a Beatles song.
  • Narrator: George Burns as Mr. Kite, the only character who speaks onscreen in the film (aside from some robots and computers).
  • Non-Action Guy: Billy Shears is the least competent member of the band in a fight and loses all three times—first he's shocked by Dr. Maxwell, then accidentally electrocutes himself fighting Father Sun, and then is choked by the FVB leader and has to be saved by Strawberry Fields, who's currently being held captive.
  • Non-Actor Vehicle: Most of the cast members are musicians with little or no acting experience; tellingly, they originally had spoken dialogue, but it was all dropped during filming.
  • Novelization: Yep, it had one. As with the Tie-In Novel of Stigwood's Grease, this one has VERY little resemblance to the movie, and seems to be screenwriter Henry Edwards' attempt to fix what was wrong with the film by adding characters and making the story considerably more elaborate. Strangely, the book manages to reference the film in its narrative — the book ends with Sgt. Pepper's band gaining an all-star line-up, as in the film, except the list of celebrities in this unseen band stretches for several pages, ending with the Beatles, the Bee Gees, Peter Frampton, and other figures associated with the film.
  • The Power of Love: When Billy is left unconscious after his fight with Father Sun, Strawberry's love — and the song that gave her her name — brings him around.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: Billy Shears and the Hendersons recover the magical instruments, but Strawberry Fields ends up losing her life, and Heartland is mourning with the town decorated in black. Subverted when Sgt. Pepper pulls off an incredible Deus ex Machina that resurrects Strawberry Fields, stops Billy Shears from committing suicide, and restores Heartland back to its former glory.
  • Quirky Miniboss Squad: FVB's minions include Dr. Maxwell, Father Sun, and Mr. Mustard and the Brute, all of whom are overcome or otherwise stopped by the final showdown.
  • Racial Transformation: The white Sgt. Pepper gets reincarnated into a black man at the end of the film.
  • Remake Cameo: Billy Preston as the reborn Sgt Pepper, the only person on-screen with a true Beatles connection, singing a song ("Get Back") that he in fact contributed to on the original recording even.
  • Rock Opera
  • Saving the World With Art: The film ends with Sgt. Pepper magically coming back to life and restores Heartland back to the way it was, rewinds Billy Shears' suicide, and brings Strawberry Fields back to life by singing "Get Back."
  • Self-Deprecating Humor: The logo for B.D. Records is a spoof of RSO Records' mascot, which was the Bee Gees' label.
  • Sidekicks: The Henderson Brothers are effectively this to Billy Shears, serving as bandmates, buddies, and wide-eyed comic relief while Shears fights villains and serves as the film's romantic lead.
  • Stepford Smiler: Strawberry Fields can be seen as this at times. She wants the best for Billy and the band, but isn't happy being separated from them.
  • Stock Money Bag: During the benefit concert for the city of Heartland USA, a great deal of the money collected from the audience is stored in bags with dollar signs on them.
  • Sugar Bowl: Heartland, USA, thanks to their Cosmic Keystone of the instruments.
  • Tears of Remorse: Billy Shears is driven to these in the wake of Strawberry Fields's death, not only because she died in the act of saving him, but because the chain of events that led to the disaster could have been avoided if he and his bandmates had been able to resist the call of fame and fortune and stayed in Heartland, USA.
  • Telegraph Gag STOP: The protagonists receive a telegram from BD Hoffler, president of Big Deal Records.
    Telegram: We hear your music is great STOP We need a tape of your songs and we need it now STOP And if we like your music we'll make you superstars and the money will never stop STOP Signed BD Hoffler, Hollywood
  • Tempting Fate: Mr. Mustard ends up entering Heartland at the same time the band is playing "Getting Better".
  • Title Drop: A visual example....we see the printing of the actual SPLHCB Soundtrack album during the "Good Morning, Good Morning" sequence.
  • Unconventional Vehicle Chase: While Mean Mr. Mustard is escaping in his van, the protagonists pursue him in a hot air balloon. It has a hand-cranked propeller to give them a little more speed, but, come on, there's little to no way it would be fast compared to a van.
  • Unholy Matrimony: Lucy and Dougie Shears (Billy's brother and the manager of the new Lonely Hearts Club Band) are brought together by their mutual love of money.
  • The Vamp: Lucy and the Diamonds' main purpose is to seduce Billy and the band.
  • Villain Love Song: "When I'm Sixty-Four" for Mr. Mustard towards Strawberry. She's disgusted by it.
  • Villain Song:
    • "Mean Mr. Mustard" is sung by his robot servants and would ordinarily be a case of "The Villain Sucks" Song, but he wholeheartedly, cheerfully agrees with its description of him.
    • "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" for Dr. Maxwell Edison.
    • "Because" for Father Sun.
    • "You Never Give Me Your Money" for Lucy and Dougie.
    • "Come Together" for Future Villain Band.
  • Villain Recruitment Song: "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" (the opening section) for B.D.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The Future Villain Band itself and their dancers disappear shortly after the lead singer is killed by Strawberry Fields. It is unclear if it's a case of the rest of the band being Killed Offscreen, or if the reclamation of the instruments made them disappear.
  • Widow's Weeds: The entire town wears black for Strawberry Fields's funeral.
  • World-Healing Wave: Invoked by the reborn Sgt. Pepper in the denouement. He returns the town of Heartland USA to normal at lightning speed.
  • World-Wrecking Wave: Heartland, USA instantly becomes a Wretched Hive without the original band's instruments. Even when they are returned to their rightful place and the town is cleaned up, the townspeople are still too upset by Strawberry Fields's death for it to be the Sugar Bowl it once was.
  • Wretched Hive: Heartland, USA is this without its instruments, with Mr. Mustard its effective ruler.

Alternative Title(s): Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band