Almost universally derided since it’s 1978 release, Robert Stigwood’s screen version of the famous Beatles album has become a minor cult film in it’s own right. With the recent death of yet another Bee Gee, leaving only bearded falsetto wonder Barry to carry the can, I thought it was time to re-visit the film, which I had not seen since it’s UK TV premiere sometime in the early to mid 80s. At that time, my only interest in the film was Alice Cooper and Aerosmith (this was before they had got back together and cleaned up their act, and virtually no one in the UK gave a monkeys about them) When I remembered one of my favourite comedians is in it – Frankie Howerd and genre legend Donald Pleasence, my keenness to re-watch was increased.
The film’s story (such as it is) centres around the lovely town of Heartland, USA, where the eponymous band leader and his group have been playing their way through most of America’s history, helping stop wars, overcoming the depression, etc. When the good Sgt. dies, the instruments are left to the town – while they exist there, the town will always have peace and tranquility. The music must continue, though, and the Henderson brothers (The Bee Gees) team up with Pepper’s grandson, Billy Shears (Peter Frampton) to keep the spirit alive. Aided by Billy’s more reckless brother, Dougie (Paul Nicholas) they head out for fame and fortune, signing a contract with sleazy mogul B.D. Brockhurst (Pleasence).
Things go bad in Heartland when the instruments are stolen by Mean Mr Mustard (Howerd) under the orders of FVB – The Future Villain Band (Aerosmith). They get one instrument, Father Sun (Cooper) gets one, and the other goes to Maxwell (Steve Martin). Heartland in ruins, it’s leader (and the narrator) Mr Kite (George Burns) appeals for the band to track them down and return them to their rightful place.
I suppose the big thing people have against the film is the re-arrangement of the Beatles songs. Now, I’m certainly not as precious about them, because some of the treatments here are quite good (special note going to Aerosmith’s groove through ‘Come Together’, and Alice’s sinister, Zappa-esque ‘Because’). Beatle producer George Martin worked on the soundtrack, and since he was always considered the ‘fifth Beatle’ that’s good enough endorsement for me. Stigwood had produced a stageshow of the songs (and those from Abbey Road which are included here too), and while he had the rights to use them decided to make the film. He had been involved with the Ken Russell film version of The Who’s Tommy, along with the other hits Saturday Night Fever and Grease you can imagine why he thought the Beatles music would be a shoe-in at the box office. Sadly, it was not to be. The film flopped big time, and like I mentioned, it is – if ever mentioned at all – usually badly thought of.
Now, re-watching it, I’m surprised to say, I actually quite enjoyed it. Sure, some of the songs don’t lend themselves to the interpretation they are given. Burn’s rendition of ‘Fixin’ A Hole’ is a train wreck, and a lot of the lyrics are interpreted literally. Steve Martin’s ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ is as annoying as he is (never really liked him. There I said it), but Howerd’s turn as Mustard is brilliant. All his standard traits are present and he even gets a oooooo in during ‘When I’m 64’. His servant, Brute is played by 7ft Carel Struycken in his first role, later to be in Twin Peaks and the remake of The Addams Family, who suffers from acromegaly, the same disease the great Rondo Hatton suffered from.
Director Michael Schultz had previous had a hit with the disco tinged Car Wash and later made a few films with Richard Pryor, Greased Lightning and Carbon Copy, before heading to TV and directing shows as varied as Bruce Campbell vehicle The Adventures of Brisco County Jr, Charmed and Ally McBeal and recently did some episodes of Chuck.
The film is colourful, the songs are great (although they may be enjoyed more if, like me, you’re not the biggest or purest Beatles fan), and there’s a great spot the star section at the end for the reprise. (If you’re under 40 I imagine you’d struggle for a lot of them though). Just like Tommy, I think this has probably improved with age. You can enjoy the camp without having to worry about taking it too seriously.
Go on, give it a go. You never know, you might like it.
6 out of 10
|Producer Robert Stigwood (left, centre row) in the finale|