Back in 1978, producer Robert Stigwood unleashed upon the world the horror that is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Not the album, obviously, but the movie. If you’ve heard of the historical (and perhaps hysterical) hatred of disco, this is probably exhibit A in understanding why.
Stigwood was hot off of Saturday Night Fever and Grease–both of which are sleazefests in their own way, really–and with the massive success of both the movie and soundtrack to Fever, the USA was subjected to a kind of musical homogeneity that we can scarcely imagine today.
The problem with disco wasn’t that it was bad, in other words, but that it was mandated. Everything had to be disco. Every producer was trying for that mega-blockbuster-Bee Gee deal. I didn’t listen to much radio, but I still heard a lot of disco, where before I’d been hearing Led Zeppelin and heavy metal, and more importantly a lot of different styles.
For a while, though, total disco immersion. It was inescapable. Hence the massive backlash that would end up with a lot of vinyl deposited in landfills.
So, here we had the callow flavor-of-the-day, in the form of Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees, discofying the music of the grand pop masters. And it’s kind of funny: Frampton’s voice is not unlike McCartneys, and the Bee Gees were certainly capable of carrying the Beatles’ trademark harmonies, even if with a little added nasality.
There are some genuinely high points, as well: Aerosmith’s cover of “Come Together”; Earth, Wind and Fire doing “Got To Get You Into My Life”; and Billy Preston–a guy with Beatles bona fides–saving the day with his version of “Get Back”. Oh, and the lovely and fresh-faced Sandy Farina who gave uncluttered renditions of a few tunes that work really well with a woman’s voice.
The lows are horribly low. It wasn’t felt necessary to actually sing a number of the songs. Frankie Howerd (who?) talks his way through “Mean Mr. Mustard” and the incredibly white-hot super-mega-talent Steve Martin does a version of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” that rivals anything William Shatner ever did. (There’s a universe between his performance here and his later one in Little Shop of Horrors.) George Burns–enjoying one of five or six career revivals–talks and smokes his way through “For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite”.
“She’s Leaving Home” is performed largely by robots. Voice synthesizers were sooo cool in ‘78.
The little town of Heartland is the Warner Bros. lot. You’ve seen it a zillion times. (I used to drive through it sometimes on my way to work.) Gazebo in the middle of a small grass park. Lots of storefronts but no parking. It’s been Gotham, Central City, Chicago (for “ER”), but usually they only show parts of it. Even at the time, I recognized it.
The discofication of most of the songs that are actually performed–I mean, someone thought it’d be good to put in a refrain of “Talkin’ ’bout Lucy!” at the end of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”–robs most of the music of its listenability.
The over-produced sound would ultimately give way to a much cleaner, simpler sound in the ’80s, and a kind of Damnatio Memoria where instead of building on the previous big sound, bands would go back to the ’50s for inspiration. It would be just two years later that Airplane! would knock a tower off a station that promised “disco would live forever”, to huge audience applause and laughter.
The other aspect of this movie is, well, while Stigwood may not himself be sleazy, he’s made some really, really sleazy films. Beside the aforementioned Grease and SNF, there was Tommy and–hell, I thought Bugsy Malone had a kind of sleazy feel. So the camp and corniness in this film is overwhelmed by the sleaze.
It achieves a pornographic sensibility while being positively PG. There is, for example, a drug-fueled orgy, even though no clothing is removed. In the Potterization (Mustardization, actually, in this case) of Heartland, a clean storefront is turned into a (scandal!) video game arcade with lots of dancers writhing around the games.
Right. Because video games are like magnets for sexual activity.
No opportunity for sleaze goes unexplored, giving this film the only “fresh” thing it brings to a pretty shopworn plot. (Smalltown boys make it big and forget their values.) Sex, drugs, and no rock-and-roll.
At this point, I should probably offer a comparison to the recent Across The Universe, but I find that movie so offensive I can’t sit through it.