By Alan Hurst
The team challenge to write about the most worthless film each of us had ever seen was a head scratcher. Worthless to me meant that it had to have zero redeeming qualities: a waste of talent, time and money that should have been stopped at some point during production. But coming up with that one film proved elusive.
The Blair Witch Project (1999) was one film I hated and could never begin to watch again, but I can’t say it was worthless. Boring – yes. Nauseating – definitely. But it struck a chord with moviegoers that year. You couldn’t pay me to watch the vile The Cook, the Thief, His Wife an Her Lover (1989) again but that’s also a film that has its champions. Another title that came to mind for me was The Swarm (1978), one of the last of the disaster films so popular in the seventies and probably the worst of the genre, but it’s not without some tacky moments of enjoyment.
Which brings me to another film released that same year – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Coming on the heals of Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease (1978) – both produced by Robert Stigwood – for brief time it felt like this was all part of the resurrection of the film musical, seventies style. But this film killed any hope of that.
Stigwood had purchased the rights to 29 Beatles songs and had attempted to pull together a stage show which morphed into a movie musical, primarily filled with songs from two classic Beatles albums: “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Abbey Road”. Henry Edwards, a writer for the New York Times with no prior screen writing experience, was hired to write a story and script. Michael Shultz, who had directed Car Wash (1976), was hired to direct and the then very popular Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees were cast in the leads, along with George Burns, Steve Martin, Alice Cooper, Aerosmith, and Earth Wind and Fire in supporting roles.
The movie is a mess. A colorful mess, but still a big, boring mess. The nonsensical plot is something about a town that will become corrupted if the musical instruments stored there are ever stolen. The original Sgt. Pepper band was a success in the early part of the century and now it’s up to the leader’s grandson (Frampton) to carry on the tradition with the help of the Henderson brothers (the Bee Gees) and ensure the magical musical instruments don’t end up in the wrong hands. There are a lot of silly twists and turns, but that’s basically the gist of it. Even as an 18-year old watching this in 1978 I remember sitting there thinking: WTF?
Not one bit of the story or its execution makes any sense and the film looks incredibly cheap, even with a $13 million budget (not small in 1978). Despite an infusion of primary and pastel colors throughout, everything looked like it was temporary – like sets on an old variety show.
Frampton wasn’t much of a screen presence and even less of an actor, and the film essentially helped derail his career. The Bee Gees weren’t any better on the acting front and this helped accelerate the backlash against them after their phenomenal and deserved success with the music and soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever.
The only person to emerge unscathed in some form was veteran George Burns, who played the town’s mayor and provided some narration to help clarify things.
The film’s best element – The Beatles music – didn’t help here either. Performances of the classic catalogue range from bad to indifferent. But I think it also drove a younger generation to search out the original albums, which I supposed is some kind of backhanded benefit of the film.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.