I have a confession to make....
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
But then who doesn't, right? It's widely considered to be one of the most revolutionary and important musical works of all time, so professing your love for it is hardly controversial. Except, of course, I'm NOT talking about the record album.
No, I'm talking about
And this DEFINITELY puts me in the minority, as the general consensus seems to be that this 1978 musical is a) a terrible sacrilege to the musical legacy of the men who composed the songs that define its existence, b) a tacky example of the worst show business excesses of its era and c) just an enormous piece of shit altogether. I'll admit that this response does not strike me as being terribly unreasonable. This is not a movie for the literal minded or for those who take ANYTHING at all seriously. In order to appreciate this Robert Stigwood production, one must be possessed of a special, whimsical soul that is capable of being delighted by that which most others will invariably dismiss as "stupid" or "silly". Now, I'm not saying that the grand majority who lack the ability to enjoy the odd pleasures of this film are cold, gray, soulless automatons who go through life never knowing what the sensation of joy feels like, but I am willing to suggest it. Does my liking this film make me a better person than those who don't? Probably, but it does seem a tad arrogant to say so with complete certainty.
Chances are many of you reading this have never seen the film and thus do not know on which side of this uneven divide you fall. Here then is the quickest test to find out for sure, a brief clip of George Burns (as Mr. Kite) singing his own version of Fixing A Hole:
Personally, I find this clip to be incredibly sweet and charming--a perfect example of a form of pure showmanship that is largely extinct in today's cultural arena. So used are we to charmless celebrities whose fame has nothing to do with any discernible talent, but rather their ability to sell tabloids to nosy womenfolk, that we forget there was a time when performers like Mr. Burns were expected to be able to do it all--sing, dance and act. True, they weren't expected to be good at all three, but in most cases their natural charisma allowed you to ignore the kind of defects that might take down a less affable entertainer. That said, I suspect that there are many people who will view this clip, roll their eyes and dismiss it as the apotheosis of lameness, largely because it features a performer who was considered old-fashioned before their parents were born. Now, I'm not saying these snide folks are guilty of the kind of disturbing ageism that some of us had hoped had gone the way of the Dodo, but it is an accusation I find hard to resist. Does not liking this clip mean that you hate old people? Probably, but chances are your grandmother knows better than I do.
But then the presence of Mr. Burns as the film's narrator (an important role in a film otherwise completely devoid of dialogue--Sgt. Pepper being that most 70s of all projects, a rock opera) is not the major reason so many people seem to dislike it. No, that burden is placed squarely on three hairy brothers from down under:
By the time the movie was made the Brothers Gibb were already well on their way to becoming the Celine Dions of their day. That is to say, the more popular they became with the masses the more the cultural commentators of this world lamented their existence, essentially insisting that no one who took their music even the slightest bit seriously could enjoy listening to Staying Alive if only because it was so successful there was no way it could be any good. Hip people hew closely to the principle that a project is only worthy of their attention if no one else in the world has noticed it, which makes them pretentious bastards. Now, I'm not saying that an inability to appreciate the musical stylings of the Bee-Gees automatically makes you a pretentious bastard. Does not liking them indicate that you're an elitest snob who clearly deserves a major beating? Probably, but I'd leave that up to Barry and Robin to decide (Maurice, unfortunately, being far too dead at this point to offer up a relevant opinion).
But more than their essential uncoolness, what irked many people about the appearance of the Bee-Gees in the film was the genre of music for which the trio had become most famous. Despite their being around since the mid-sixties, it was their disco soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever that catapulted them into superstar status and even at the ultimate height of its heyday, many people dismissed disco out of hand as a genre unworthy of their attention. Though they would claim that it was the essential frivolity of the music that they disdained, the truth was that the major reason so many music fans adamantly insisted that "Disco Suck[ed]!" was because of its popularity with gay men. The Village People serve as the clearest example of disco as a gay phenomenon, but the rise of divas such as Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor, as well as the overt glam of such otherwise hetero acts as Earth, Wind & Fire (who also appear in Sgt. Pepper) and the images of clearly homosexual men dancing to the music in popular nightclubs such as "Studio 54", were more than enough to frighten uptight rocker dudes into thinking that approving of anything related to the genre would put an automatic question mark on their masculinity. Now, I'm not saying that disapproving of the Bee-Gees meant that a person was a rabid homophobe. Does not liking joyful dance music always indicate that a person is more likely to commit a violent hate crime? Probably, but I'll leave it to your gay cousin to decide (and if you don't have a gay cousin, then that either means you're someone else's gay cousin or have some serious soul-searching to do sometime in your future).
Some of you cleverer folks, however, will have noticed that there is a fourth, non-Gibb member of the group shown in the above clip. He, of course, is Peter Frampton. Watch this to get a better look at him:
It is entirely acceptable to hate Peter Frampton. I don't, but in this case at least, I can forgive those who do.
Moving on, some people apparently take issue with the performance of Miss Sandy Farina as Strawberry Fields--arguing that since it marked both her first and last significant film role that she clearly did not deserve to be showcased in an effort of this magnitude. I'll let you decide for yourself by offering up this clip of her performing the song from which her character received her exotic name:
I don't see what these folks are talking about. Miss Farina was clearly a talented singer and an attractive young woman and it wasn't like the film demanded strong thespic skills from her. No, my guess is that the antipathy she received was the result of Beatles' fans automatic distrust of any women who came close to the music of their idols. In much the same way many of them took to thinking of Yoko Ono as the devil, while they also demonized Linda McCartney for being in Wings, so too did they curse this lovely young woman for having the nerve to perform music she should know was above her station. Now, I'm not saying that people who don't like her performance are all evil misogynists. Does not liking Sandy Farina serve as proof of an unconscious hatred towards the entire female gender? Probably, but I'll leave it to Gloria Steinem to tell you why.
Another reason so many people seem to hate the film is that in order to reach a happy conclusion it resorts to that oldest of all possible theatrical cliches--the deus ex machina:
Call me overly PC if you want, but I cannot help but worry that the reason so many folks are disturbed by this conclusion is because in this case the "God in the Machine" is a black man (Billy Preston to be exact). Compound this with the fact that the film was directed by Michael Schultz, whose previous hits Cooley High, Car Wash and Which Way Is Up? had made him the most successful African-American filmmaker to make his mark in Hollywood up to that time and it is hard not to suspect that an undercurrent of bigotry informs many people's dislike of the film. Now, I'm not saying hating Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band means you're a despicable racist. Actually, I am. Deal with it.
Finally the film ends, some would say infamously, with a lip-syncing chorus of late 70s era c-list celebrities, including: Peter Allen, Keith Allison, George Benson, Elvin Bishop, Stephen Bishop, Jack Bruce, Keith Carradine, Carol Channing, Charlotte Crossley, Sharon Redd, Ula Hedwig, Jim Dandy, Sarah Dash, Rick Derringer, Barbara Dickson, Donovon, Randy Edelman, Yvonne Elliman, Jose Feliciano, Leif Garrett, Geraldine Granger, Adrian Gurvitz, Billy Harper, Eddie Harris, Heart (aka Ann and Nancy Wilson), Nona Hendryx, Barry Humphries, Etta James, Dr. John, Bruce Jonston, D.C. LaRue, Jo Leb, Marcella Detroit, Mark Lindsay, Nils Lofgren, Jackie Lomax, John Mayall, Curtis Mayfield, 'Cousin Brucie' Morrow, Peter Noone, Alan O'Day, Lee Oskar, The Paley Brothers, Robert Palmer, Wilson Pickett, Anita Pointer, Bonnie Raitt, Helen Reddy, Minnie Riperton, Chita Rivera, Johnny Rivers, Monti Rock III, Danielle Rowe, Sha-Na-Na, Del Shannon, Joe Simon, Jim Seals, Dash Croft, Connie Stevens, Al Stewart, John Stewart (presumably a different John Stewart), Tina Turner, Frankie Valli, Gwen Verdon, Diane Vincent, Grover Washington Jr, Hank Williams Jr, Johnny Winter, Wolfman Jack, Bobby Womack, Alan White, Lenny White and Margaret Whiting (note: those in bold indicate people I've actually heard of):
This, I am willing to concede, is every bit as terrible as most people think it is, but I would argue that it is the single flaw that otherwise highlights the perfection of everything that has preceded it.
Now, I'm sure that those of you who keep up on your recent films are aware that just last year another film, Across the Universe, attempted to turn the Beatles' songbook into a full-fledged musical and I suspect you're assuming this is where I tear that effort apart as a cheap imitator and pathetic also-ran, but I simply cannot do it. As imagined and directed by Julie Taymor, the film is a flat-out, no-bullshit, jump-for-joy artistic triumph. As much as I love Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (and I DO love it, even more so every time I see it), Across the Universe is clearly in a different league altogether. Whereas the first film is a silly little piece of fluff you have to be a serious asshole to hate, the latter film dances on the edge of being something wholly profound, so much so that a person's decision not to embrace it indicates as much a failure of the intellect as well as the soul. It is a film I will never forget, if only for how it transformed "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" from a simple declaration of love into a moving lament of forbidden longing: