Friday, January 25, 2013
Why Sgt. Pepper the Motion Picture Might Be the Most Transcendently Bad Film Ever
I've often said of William Shatner that his schtick cannot be called irony, that he in fact transcends irony. There is not a word in the English language that can quite describe him. Flipping channels a couple of days ago, I was reminded of this when I caught a couple minutes of a film that has always left me even more dumbfounded than Shatner's rendition of "Rocket Man": the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band movie. It is awful on a truly transcendant level, so awful that seeing for the first time was a unique experience, like watching a supernova explode or a baby calf being born. It was so inhumanly awful that I enjoyed it more than just about any other film I've seen in recent years. Something this wretched is an accomplishment, a challenge to the stars with a raised fist daring the fates to make something worse. (Xanadu comes close, but no cigar.)
I'll begin with the premise, which sounded so asinine that I steered clear of this movie for a long time: the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton play Beatles songs as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. To answer your question, yes, this is 1978, the only year it would have been possible to construct this Frankenstein's monster of camp. They all have names from Beatles songs, and have dedicated themselves to saving the town of Heartland from the machinations of Mean Mr Mustard. Frampton's love interest is named "Strawberry Fields," Steve Martin (in his first film role!) sings "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" as a demented doctor, and George Burns plays Mr. Kite. You truly haven't lived until you've watched him sing "Fixing a Hole" in a Nimoy-worthy performance. I'm still trying to cleanse my ears with the steel wool in my sink, which is less painful than hearing it again.
Frampton and the Brothers Gibb utter not a word of dialogue, they mostly clown and make silly faces for the camera in a manner reminiscent of a home video recording, rather than a multi-million dollar motion picture. Beatles songs play through almost the whole film, their vitality sapped by hokey arrangements, Frampton's shite singing, and the worst kind of cocaine-infused late seventies soft rock accompaniment. Robin Gibb's singing of "Oh! Darling," and some spirited performances by Earth, Wind, and Fire and Aerosmith are about the only musical numbers where I didn't cry with pain or laugh with incredulity (especially when two vocoderized robots sing "She's Leaving Home.") It takes a lot of effort to completely drain the life out of a good song, a task worthy of Fred Durst-esque levels of suckitude, but this film manages to ruin at least a dozen classic McCartney-Lennon compositions. Ruin might be too kind. These sonic gems are deflowered, disembowled, dismembered, and their corpses desecrated.
And then there's the contextual placement of the songs in the movie. The character Strawberry Fields actually sings the song "Strawberry Fields," apparently about herself, to herself. When Barry Gibb sings "A Day in the Life," he utters the line "I'd love to turn you on" to his BROTHERS! (When he combs his prodigious disco mane during the line "got up, got outa bed, dragged a comb across my head" I let a cackle almost painful in its violence.) "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" is sung by a sultry women named, you guessed it, Lucy, but in a menacing tone that completely belies the fanciful, pleasant world evoked by the lyrics. Best of all, Sgt. Pepper (played by a prancing, grinning Billy Preston) resurrects Strawberry Fields from the grave while singing "Get Back," referring to her as "Loretta" and completely distorting the irony of the song's lyrics. (At least Preston played on the original track.)
At this point I didn't think the film could possibly go any lower or be any more ridiculous, but boy, was I wrong! It ends with a bunch of mid-level 70s celebrities singing the reprise of the title song, making poorly choreographed disco-by-numbers moves in the process. For some reason the camera keeps finding Carol Channing, whose eerie grin unfortunately distracts from a young Tina Turner standing right beside her. Many of the assembled celebs look bored, stoned, hungover, or all three. The hokey dancing, awful wardrobes, shaggy haircuts, and complete lack of taste on display manage to encapsulate all that was wrong about the 70s and put it into one coke-addled package.
When I finished watching Pepper, I then realized its disturbing implications. Is it actually so bad that it is beyond bad? That made me wonder if there is anything in the world that is as good as Pepper is bad. Can evil in fact sink deeper than virtue can soar high? Furthermore, does a truly horrible piece of culture leave a more lasting imprint on my psyche than a sublime one? Or is something this bad sublime in its own way? Needless to say, I think I'll have to see it again.