July 24, 1978: ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ Disastrous Movie Opens

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The album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles is unanimously recognized as an artistic triumph. The movie of the same name, which opened on July 24, 1978? Not so much.

The Brothers Gibb and Peter Frampton

The Brothers Gibb and Peter Frampton

Conceived and produced by music mogul Robert Stigwood, manager of the Bee Gees, with Peter Frampton‘s manager Dee Anthony serving as executive producer, the film was intended to cash in on the success of both acts. The former group had enjoyed huge sales with their soundtracks to Saturday Night Fever and Grease. The latter artist had recently shot to superstardom with his Frampton Comes Alive album. Bestselling hard rockers Aerosmith were cast as the film’s villains.

Related: Bee Gees and Cream manager Robert Stigwood died in 2016

Also in the cast: Steve MartinAlice CooperBilly Preston and Earth, Wind & Fire.

An ad for the 2-LP soundtrack appeared in the July 28, 1978 issue of Record World. Most of the 4 million copies that were shipped were unsold

A shoe-in box-office success by the power of their popularity and the appeal of Beatles songs from the Sgt. Pepper’s and Abbey Road albums, right?

No. The three brothers Gibb and Frampton were cast as Sgt. Pepper’s Band, yet none of the four had even a smidgeon of acting talent. But that was the least of the movie’s problems. Its plot (as it were) was incomprehensible even with George Burns providing narration. To say that the direction was slipshod is putting it mildly.

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As New York Times critic Janet Maslin pondered in her review: “Is it a film? Is it a record album? Is it a poster, or a T-shirt, or a specially embossed frisbee? Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the ultimate multimedia mishmash, so diversified that it doesn’t fully exist in any one medium at all. This isn’t a movie, it’s a business deal set to music.”

The movie has a 12% positive rating at RottenTomatoes.com.

And a bad deal at that. It cost $18 million to make, grossed only $12+ million in the U.S. Perhaps coincidentally, the careers of all three acts that starred in the movie soon tanked.

In retrospect, it can’t even be appreciated as a guilty pleasure or high camp.

There were high expectations for the  2-LP soundtrack, which shipped three million copies upon its release – the first double album to do so – just three months after the Grease soundtrack hit #1. Both albums were from RSO Records, which expected to cash in once again. Within days of its release, RSO claimed shipments of four million in a industry trade advertisement.

Upon its release, there were reports of Top 40 stations in Miami and Los Angeles playing all 29 songs from the soundtrack.

Four singles were released from the Sgt. Pepper’s soundtrack (though none of them were on the Beatles’ original album). Earth, Wind & Fire’s cover of “Got to Get You Into My Life” did the best, reaching #9 pop and #1 R&B.

Robin Gibb peaked at #15 with “Oh! Darling”; Aerosmith’s cover of “Come Together” got to #23; and Billy Preston’s take on “Get Back” stalled at #86. The soundtrack peaked at #5 on the Record World sales chart as retailers returned millions of unsold copies to RSO.

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  1. Rockin Roll Joel
    #1 Rockin Roll Joel 22 July, 2020, 20:50

    One of the greatest movie musicals ever. George Martin produced the soundtrack. He carefully respected and altered the arrangements on every song but Gotta Get You Into My Life which was masterfully arranged and produced by Earth, Wind & Fire. You have Porcaro and Bernard Purdie on drums. Jeff Beck and Larry Carlton had guitar input. Some of the greatest bass tracking on ANY pop album in history. Screaming bass. Tasty and locked down. Nobody but Frampton and The Bee Gees could have done justice to the vocals and intricacy of the arrangements. Like silk. The problem is it was done so well we took it for granted and whined about acting chops. Mariah Carey sucked in Glitter. Whitney Houston was good in the Bodyguard but not Kevin Costner level, not even close. Madonna in Evita, etc. They are all super talented people lending their charisma and popularity to a movie. Fans love it. I loved, love and always will love it. I am a skilled musician and accomplished drummer and I judge nothing in this film. Respect for every artist and their commitment to respect this legacy of a band and the material. Aerosmith, Alice Cooper and Steve Martin knocked it out of the park. What a joy to watch and/or listen to. We have never before or since experienced a reproduction of a legendary band done on such a high level. Maybe it was just too soon to the breakup of The Beatles and the reverence for the actual album itself that drew such disdain. It’s not the album. It’s a musical. So is American Idiot, Moving Out, Jersey Boys, etc…Those and others similar have killed at the box office and are nowhere near the professional accomplishment and musician level of Sgt. Pepper’s let alone the library of exceptional tunes in the film. I saw Alice Cooper in The Hollywood Vampires right before the pandemic. Girls were screaming for Johnny Depp like a Beatles’ concert. The crowd ate the band up. Steven Tyler came onstage and did Train Kept A Rollin’. Guess the movie did not destroy their careers. Only helped make me love them more. Still crank their version of Come Together over The Beatles and I am a huge Beatles fan. Grow up and respect the greatest talents honoring the legends.

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  2. mickey
    #2 mickey 25 July, 2020, 09:43

    Beatles yes, Sgt. Pepper’s no.

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  3. Special K
    #3 Special K 14 August, 2020, 18:47

    What are you smoking?
    That was the worst movie I ever saw!
    Killed Peter Frampton and the BeeGees career..and didn’t help the Beatles either!!

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