REEL MOTION: “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”: Beatlemania meets disco fever

Dec 30, 2019

Do you like cult cinema that is steeped in nostalgia for vaudeville-esque variety shows filled with inexplicable celebrity pairings and cameos? Do you like the Bee Gees, Peter Frampton, Aerosmith, the excesses of the disco era, God himself, and creepy robots that live in a sketchy surveillance vans? How about a finale that features everyone from Carole Channing to Sha Na Na? Then Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the movie for you.

The 1978 film version of Sgt. Pepper’s was brainchild of producer Robert Stigwood, who we can thank for Grease, Saturday Night Fever, and Tommy, among others. Nearly a decade after the Beatles’ roof-top concert and the band’s break up becoming public knowledge in 1970, the corners of pop culture that weren’t consumed by a disco inferno were about to be consumed with reminders of the Beatles glory days, thanks to a litany of attempts by others to catch the band’s lightning in a secondhand bottle. Stigwood’s effort was only among the first to use the Beatles’ music in film and theater in ways the Beatles may not have approved had they had control over their own catalog.  

At the time, however, this was an amazing idea…on paper. Despite the involvement of major talent (with a wide range of acting ability), barrier-breaking director Michael Schultz, George Martin providing musical direction, and a genuinely awesome performance of Come Together by Aerosmith as the film’s villains; this film did not, in fact, come together. Although it did make $20 million at the box office, it was considered a bomb by Universal. (On the bright side, the soundtrack did go platinum. Probably because no one had to watch the Bee Gees or Frampton act while they listened.)

When asked about the film during a Rolling Stone interview in 1979, George Harrison expressed his sympathy for Stigwood, the Bee Gees and Frampton saying, "I think it's damaged their images, their careers, and they didn't need to do that. It's just like the Beatles trying to do the Rolling Stones. The Rolling Stones can do it better." The film was harshly ridiculed by critics from the New York Times, Variety, and Rolling Stone to name a few.

Forty-one years later, this high-concept train wreck has aged like a fine box of wine, mellowing from career-damaging embarrassment to so-bad-it’s-good cult classic.  

In honor of the film’s cult status, the Northrop Film Series is taking things on the road and there will be two screenings of Sgt. Pepper’s on Jan 16 at the Trylon Cinema, home of classic and nearly forgotten films and refuge for Twin Cities film buffs of all sorts. The event remains free like all of the other Northrop Film Series screenings, but reservations are required. Sign up for the wait list as all seats have currently be claimed. The first screening is at 7:00 pm and the second starts at 9:30 pm.

This screening pairs with the Northrop Dance Series presentation of Mark Morris Dance Group’s Pepperland at Northrop on Sat, Jan 25 at 7:30 pm.   

Shayna Houp is Northrop’s Artist Services Manager and curates the Film Series each season.

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