The 1967 Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, #1 on Rolling Stone’s list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” is widely regarded as a seminal cultural artifact. The 1978 Bee Gees film of the same name is not.
It all looked so promising. The material was without equal, using not only Sgt. Pepper but also the majestic Abbey Road album. The film’s producer, Robert Stigwood, was the mastermind behind two all-conquering ’70s soundtracks, Grease and Saturday Night Fever. And the musical director was none other than the Beatles’ sound genius, George Martin.
Starring and singing would be the trio who set Saturday Night alight, the Bee Gees (Stigwood was their manager). Also appearing: some of the ’70s biggest musical giants, including Alice Cooper, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Peter Frampton — whose 1976 live album was at the time the biggest selling live-record ever.
Last but by no means least was a plethora of veteran actors, headed up by the legendary George Burns — and here surely was a recipe for box-office success.
It was not. It was a recipe for disaster — and perhaps the ingredient that spoilt the dish was hubris. Before the film was released, Bee Gee Robin Gibb stated: “When our Sgt. Pepper comes out, it will be, in effect, as if theirs never existed.”
Then there was the ‘plot.’ You really don’t want to know. Look, I mean, the lead character, ‘Billy Shears,’ played by Frampton, had a girlfriend named ‘Strawberry Fields.’ He later had a fling with a singer called ‘Lucy,’ in the sky, whose backing band is called ‘The Diamonds.’ And so on and so forth.
All this was completely overshadowed by the phenomenal finale — a real-life approximation of the original album cover. On screen was one of the biggest — and most random — assemblage of celebrities ever to occur. Etta James! Aerosmith! Dame Edna Everage!
The reviews… were not kind. Although there’s no shortage of contenders for most cutting, special mention goes to the New York Times‘ Janet Maslin, who wrote: “Watching it feels like playing shuffleboard at the absolute insistence of a bossy shipboard social director.”
But hey, the film made $20.4 million against the budget of $13 million, so, it wasn’t all bad.