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The best way to watch Sgt. Peppers movie is with your eyes closed
Steve Martin does a wild-and-crazy rendition of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" in "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (1978), now on Blu-ray. - photo by Chris Hicks
Of all the movies out there that could be candidates for a Blu-ray upgrade, the 1978 musical Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band with nary a Beatle in sight seems the least likely to rise to the top. But here it is, in a brand-new hi-def release from the Shout! Factory.

Its been 39 years since the film was in theaters, and this Blu-ray comes hot on the heels of the 50th anniversary celebration of the Beatles seminal record album.

The film was a flop during its initial release, though it has since gained some cult status as a weird amalgam of ill-fitting bits and pieces, as if a bunch of unrelated movies were crumbled, shaken in a bag and then dumped out at the feet of some deranged filmmaker.

The narrative is merely a thin strand on which to hang nearly 30 Beatles songs, mostly from the Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road albums, and the general style and tone of the movie has been lifted from those old big-budget, Technicolor, lets-put-on-a-show musicals filmed on the MGM back lot.

The primary setting is the wholesome small town of Heartland, which resembles Disneylands Main Street, complete with a 19th-century bandstand that hosts Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, which rocks out with Beatles tunes. As Sesame Street used to sing, one of these things is not like the other.

George Burns, who was 82 at the time, hosts and narrates, and plays the town mayor, Mr. Kite. And his is the only spoken dialogue.

The film begins with a World War I spoof as Sgt. Pepper and his band bring the war to a standstill, then follows them through history up to the late 1950s, when the bandleader dies, leaving his legacy to his grandson, Billy Shears.

Eventually, Billy (Peter Frampton) and the Hendersons (the Bee Gees Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb) reform the band and are soon lured to the big city and musical stardom, which, of course, leads to the seamy lifestyle of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll (or at least the PG-rated equivalent).

All of this makes things sound pretty straightforward but there are many bizarre digressions that make no sense whatsoever and characters that seem to drop in from other movies. And most of the madcap comedy is just too cartoony and silly to provoke laughs. (Same with too many characters named after Beatles songs, from Mr. Mustard to Strawberry Fields.)

Along the way, Frampton and the Gibb brothers perform a wide range of Beatles tunes, while other songs are covered by Burns, who solos on Fixing a Hole (and chimes in on a couple of others); Alice Cooper, who performs in his singular comic-horror manner on Because; and Aerosmiths wild version of Come Together, which concludes with Steven Tyler taking a header to his death.

The best are Earth, Wind & Fire on Got to Get You Into My Life, which actually charted to No. 9; Billy Preston on Get Back, notable because Preston also played his electric piano on the Beatles original version (hes often cited as the only musician to get a credit on a Beatles record other than the Fab Four themselves); and Steve Martins completely wacked-out interpretation of Maxwells Silver Hammer (which plays like a warmup for his role as the dentist in the 1986 film Little Shop of Horrors).

Although their acting leaves much to be desired (even without spoken dialogue), Frampton and the Bee Gees do quite well on the songs, and Sandy Farina also acquits herself nicely on a trio of tunes.

Then, at the end of the film, everyone comes together for a mass rendition of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, staged like a rehearsal for We Are the World, with Donovan, Jose Feliciano, Peter Noone, Robert Palmer, Bonnie Raitt, Helen Reddy, Chita Rivera, Seals & Crofts, Tina Turner, Frankie Valli, Gwen Verdon and even Connie Stevens and Carol Channing, among many others.

So heres the thing: The best way to watch this movie is to not watch it at all, but rather to listen to it. If you close your eyes, its actually not bad. Which is to say that the Beatles covers range from a few that are just strange to more that are pretty darn good.

Maybe that shouldnt be a surprise, though, since the songs were arranged, directed, conducted and produced by George Martin, the Beatles record producer and overseer of their legacy ever since (until his death last year).

So now, some 40 years later, how does Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band stand up against other movies built around Beatles songs, like Yellow Submarine (1968), All This and World War II (1976), I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978), I Am Sam (2001) and Across the Universe (2007)?

For the movie, well, lets just say its not quite at the bottom. And for the soundtrack, its closer to the top.
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