Worst or “Worst”: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Now, a trio of what could charitably be called “rock ‘n’ roll films” for Worst or “Worst”. It’s gonna get weird.

You gotta love a movie that tells you what you are getting in its first second. Here, that would be a robotic text visible on the screen that reads something like the tiny village of, ahem, “Fleu de Coup”.

What an awful joke, and furthermore, what a nonsensical one. The clear implication is that our heroes, the titular Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (played, with performative anonymity at that, by Peter Frampton and the then ubiquitous Bee Gees), are to leave their small town for corporate fun-time and fame, before they, you know, return and save the day and all that. But if everyone else stays in the village – necessitated by the fact that it is still a functional village after they leave, and thus something that needs to be saved in the first place – the name couldn’t be further from the truth. And I know what you are thinking; no, this film is not remotely clever. It does not have one clever bone in its body, and the irony is not intentional.

There is no where to go from that moment but up, and yet Sgt Peppers achieves the rare feat of matching its lowness handily. But first, just what the hell is this film? An ode to the Beatles, something it achieves by ruining every one of their songs it could get its hands on? A puff-piece designed to over-expose then-current flavors of the moment Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees, which it accomplishes by making Frampton look like a gangly malformation of small-town America and the Bee Gees like three smug book-cover models caught up in their own egos? An actual film with an audience, which it accomplishes by being antiseptic when it isn’t out-and-out broken?

One supposes it doesn’t matter what the intent was, but simply what is distilled on the screen. But man, with a film this weird, and this bad, it just begs the question of intent, doesn’t it? Begging this question also happens to be utilitarian, for it affords us the benefit of losing ourselves in our own mind and distancing ourselves from the actual success of the film. And, incidentally, from figuring out where to begin untangling the fibers of our discontent. Befitting the film, let us start with the music, because almost the entirety of the film is music. I mean, excepting some narration by George Burns, the entirety of the movie is music, which is, at any rate, a really fascinating idea for a music film about the totality of music in our lives and the visionary status of the Beatles. To have that film tell its own distinctly visual story to the tone of that music, to allow that music to serve as a medium of artistic expression to preserve that music’s essential essence whilst also enhancing it with the visual medium. That is, at any rate, a great idea for a film about Beatles songs.

The film’s songs are awful.

Really. Awful. Except for maybe Aerosmith’s contribution. (They play the villain band here, and the fact that the villains have the best song and the only one with any real human urgency or feeling to it says all we need to know about the film’s interest in making the heroes look good). The Bad Boys from Boston dip “Come Together” into a rock ‘n’ roll sewage and out emerges just the filthiest goddamn thing: beaten-up, eaten-apart, torn down from a pedestal and thus paradoxically elevated to a rock music altar, sounding like the nasty, garbled version Lennon was imagining but couldn’t get past the censors.

And a demented variation on “Because” by Alice Cooper that is so off-base with the rest of the film it cannot but demand attention. Both versions, incidentally, sell the idea of the Beatles versions (the swampiness of “Come Together”, the melancholy haunt of “Because”) whilst reading those versions past themselves in exciting new ways. Which scares me, frankly, making me think, as it does, that the other songs here are honest to the spirit of the Beatles originals and that, in actuality, those originals are corrupt and soulless to the core. Thankfully, this film pulls a new trick out of its hat every so often, like the awe-inspiringly, hypnotically, rampagingly ludicrous Vincent Price con-man parlor trick take on the opening of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” that I know it is all the film’s fault for tainting this music with evil.

What variant of evil, you might ask? The evil of ’70s pop culture, to be precise, making this film, if nothing else, a prime document of its time, just as the Beatles albums themselves, and masterpiece adaptations of them like the film versions of A Hard Day’s Night and Yellow Submarine, were documents of their time. Yet the version of the late ’70s this film essays is one you want to run far away from, perverting the pure psychedelic insanity of the 1960s into a stilted, corporate version masquerading in the skin of that spirit. That is exactly what the film comes off as, vaguely alluding to the free-wheeling spirit of those other films and albums and then shooting that spirit dead, stuffing its skin with hundred dollar bill straw, and propping it up on a stage with a plastic guitar. What once was the madcap mania of the id is now untamed ego and all the worse for it, creating something that is equal parts unexplainable monstrosity of deluded wishfully-innovative experimentalism and deeply conformist functionalism. Yes, you read that right. This film manages to be become both the worst of independent artistic excess and mindless corporate drivel. Rather, it manages to become what it is: mindless corporate drivel pretending to be independent artistic excess, and its idea of excess becomes a gross parody of genuine non-narrative art.

God, the version of “Here Come the Sun” is so redundantly California, stripping all the earnest childlike naivete of the song and trading it in for contrived meaning. The arch-lounge-act take on “Nowhere Man” is even worse. The cornball horns and floppy accompaniment on the title track turn it into the theme song from the non-existing cartoon adaptation you would expect might be produced as a tie-in to the film. I do not even know what to use for “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, which is, who cares? You keep waiting for William Shatner to show up.

Also, and here is the real blunder, the weirdly literal, face-value take on some of the material late in the film is so painfully at odds with the rest of the film’s very broad, scatter-shot attempt to cram any song into any space based on a word or even an impression of a word. This particular contrast, by the way, absolutely severs the film’s connection to its own non-logical logic right from the ground up, splitting it into two disharmonious halves. On one hand, it forces the film to throw the story into off-the-road nooks and crannies that do nothing but waste time, killing the momentum of the story entirely. At the same time, however, it refuses to just give in to these side-treks and still wishes to tell a cohesive tale all the same, two impulses which are deadening to each other. The earlier Beatles films worked because they did not try to steamroll a narrative onto the music; in fact, they openly flaunted the fact that they feigned to create narrative and then threw those narratives out the window. They understood that music, and especially the pop-anarchism of the 1960s, is best served by visual pop-anarchism only tenuously connected to a story in any means. The films melded to the rambunctious spirit of the music, rather than attempting to shoe-horn in a normative narrative onto music that only tenuously has anything to do with narrative, and in fact often openly and actively rejects narrative. If this film really wishes to go all out into the surrealist nonsense it so obviously sometimes becomes, it needs to commit and leave the story back before it began. Story, definitionally, is almost always necessarily limiting to the impulses of free-form nonsense, and it makes the surrealism in this film come off less like a genuine artistic endeavor and more like the movie forgetting its lines.

Trying to tell a narrative and stick to it, however, would be fine if the narrative it found was actually well-told in any means, or if it stuck to the narrative in the first place without randomly lurching off into half-hearted attempts to include songs that have nothing to do with the narrative. What we have instead is a work that exists neither as superior narrative with songs melded on to it or a deep, thoughtful dissection of those songs in a free-flowing visual medium, but some sort of liminal beast that tries to have it both ways and fails at both. One can not go from “here is our narrative, now let us find a song that has nothing to do with this narrative to pair to it” and then hop over to “here is this Beatles song, quick, throw a narrative on to the music and pretend it makes sense”. One has to pick their poison and stick to it until one develops an immunity and start using the madness of experimentation for one’s own purposes, rather than going back and forth between poisons like a two-fisted pile of decay. That, my friends, will get you dead, and Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band is beyond dead. This is a child’s idea of cotton candy art trying to be corporate entertainment trying to be art again, and it has absolutely no idea what any of those words mean separately, let alone together.

I need a palette cleanser to remind me what bad is supposed to mean. Where’s a milquetoast biopic when you need it?

PS: the songs are also filmed with beyond-tepid under-ambition and a garish menagerie of off-putting lighting, so there you go. Bad songs badly told. Good for you film. And, while we are at it, screw the Bee Gees and Frampton and their wimpy, water-ish, flavorless singing throughout.

Score:

How good is it really?: 0.5/5 (one of the most flagrantly abysmal movies I have ever witnessed)

But how “good” is it?: 2/5 (points for some of the grotesque individual sequences, but altogether it is far too invested in its punishingly mundane story that it never lets loose and raises into bad-movie heaven)

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