Thursday, June 1, 2017

Theory Thursday: "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" the Movie is Underrated

Scene from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album turns 50 years old.
Theory: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band movie is underrated.

The Beatles is one of those bands that doesn't really need an introduction. Everything that could be said about them has been said, and that is meant as a compliment. They are a phenomenal band full of influential songs. One such case is the album "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." It was a concept album that revolutionized the music industry while continuing to create a new sonic landscape. It's impossible to not think of any song from that album as anything short of a masterpiece. It ranks in a certain pantheon as colloquialism for "Definitive example of the medium." It's a Citizen Kane of music. Most people would love to have an album as revered and talked about as "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band." It's a work of art.

But if I can be honest, The Beatles are an inherently silly band. Okay, they have some powerful serious songs like "Let It Be" and "The Long and Winding Road." However, I want you to consider that if that was all that they were, they wouldn't be the iconic status that we hold them as. It was because they were silly that they were allowed to evolve into something grander and more acclaimed. It can be seen on the "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" artwork where the group stands in flamboyant outfits before an iconic cutout of characters. A band that took itself seriously wouldn't do it, let alone release songs like "Fixing a Hole" or "Being for a Benefit of Mr. Kite." As it stands, anyone who refutes this need look no further than one of their biggest hits, the cryptic lyrics inside "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds." It may just be a description of a creative art project, or it could be LSD. Who knows. Does it matter. No. Why? Because it's silly and works as an expression of music at its core.

Which brings me to another point: few artists get what The Beatles were about when they covered the songs. This is no more true than in film. I for one think that the 2007 film Across the Universe is an abomination to The Beatles' legacy by removing the innovative silliness with pretentious art school fluff. It is a bad sign when even Bono singing "I Am the Walrus" is removed of inspired and abstract imagery in favor of some deeper and serious meaning. Sure, it could work in the film's own warped sensibility, but the film in general lacks a sense of fun and life that these songs should have. I'm not expecting clownish versions of every song (Joe Cocker's "With a Little Help from My Friends" is definitely a masterpiece, but because it reinvents the style to fit his intent), but I also want it recognized that The Beatles had personality.

Which brings me to my main point. I have heard similar complaints that I just gave Across the Universe lobbied at the 1978 film directed by Michael Schultz called Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. I will accept that it was a bomb financially, but I feel like it is misunderstood to suggest that it is an abomination to The Beatles' legacy. Maybe it wasn't entirely a great idea to cast Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees as the lead actors, just because they aren't professionally so. Yet it's part of the warped genius of the movie, which pits a hodgepodge of actors from the era to reinterpret The Beatles music and turn it into a story that is so genuinely silly that it would be considered a masterpiece if it starred those four lads from Liverpool. Instead, it updates it to the late disco era and brings aboard a mix of professional singers and comedians who all interpret the music to their liking. 

The easy and forgivable argument is that the story is bad. It's more of an excuse to get to Beatles covers in music video form. Still, for a group who did such silly things as "The Magical Mystery Tour," is it wrong to have the aging George Burns sing "Fixing a Hole" or have Steve Martin sing, in a manic brilliance, "Maxwell Silver Hammer"? These are by no means traditional covers, but neither was anything that The Beatles did. They experimented with sound and incorporated instruments that didn't fit into conventional style. If nothing else, this movie has one of the greatest representations of why The Beatles mattered in the soundtrack. The fact is that people of varying talents could interpret the music to fit whatever they were trying to do. Even "Mean Mr. Mustard" gets a weird synthesizer cover that is way too comical to be taken seriously. 

I could go on about the brilliance of this soundtrack, including Alice Cooper's cult-like cover of "Because" where he sings out the lyrics for three syllables too long. There's even more conventional covers in Aerosmith's "Come Together," which is the most in keeping with the original, just with Steven Tyler's raspy voice. Still, this is a vaudeville of performances that coalesce in a wonderful dedication to The Beatles. Again, the story may be too dull and Frampton or any one Bee Gee may not be great actors, but it's such a wonderful experience of creativity that if nothing else, it leaves an impression. It's what The Beatles did best. They pushed boundaries when it came to sensibility, and no film has better captured that (outside of their own run) better than Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. It's trippy, just like The Beatles. It is creative, just like The Beatles. It tries to reinvent the wheel, just like The Beatles.

I suppose it is difficult to disassociate soundtrack from movie, but I would like to encourage readers to just listen to any of this film's many covers. They're all brilliant in their own way, capturing a curious tic about The Beatles that works either in comedy, somberness, or plot development. Maybe it doesn't have the best movie around it, but I do think that it has the atmosphere down pretty well. It's a film that tries to do something fun with the music and inspires people to be creative. It doesn't always work, but you don't become icons by being too serious. You don't get a superhero character named after one of your songs (Guardians of the Galaxy's Rocket Raccoon is a deliberate reference to "Rocky Raccoon"). The Beatles are fun. Across the Universe is not. Even if Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band isn't the greatest movie, it's still a great experience to hear the strangest group of singers imaginable cover The Beatles. You're not getting that anywhere else. Just stop taking yourself so seriously, okay?

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