By Margot Winick
The documentary “The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” currently playing on HBO, is a treat for anyone who grew up in the disco era, tracing the rise to fame that the sibling trio of Barry, Maurice & Robin Gibb, experienced from their childhood years in Australia in the 1950s to their reinvention in Miami in the ‘70s and beyond. But for Beatles fans, this in-depth biopic surprisingly omitted the 1978 “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” film that the Bee Gees starred in, along with Peter Frampton.
The film, originally panned by critics but now a cult classic, was concocted by Bee Gees manager Robert Stigwood and was based on the legendary Beatles record. It took the plot and characters from a series of characters born in Beatles music, with George Burns as the narrator Mr. Kite, relating a tale of Billy Shears, played by rock star Peter Frampton, and the creation of the celebrated marching band of Heartland, featuring the Hendersons (the Bee Gees), who must overcome the corrupting influences of the music industry to save their town.
A few years earlier, Stigwood, who worked with Brian Epstein NEMS management department and later merged companies, had produced an off- Broadway adaptation of Sgt. Pepper, with little input from the Beatles other than the use of 29 songs, mostly from Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road. Ted Neely of “Jesus Christ Superstar” fame played Billy Shears, a musician who becomes a star with the help of Maxwell’s Silver Hammermen, a biker gang. The production included helium filled weather balloons, a 30-foot Lucille Ball look alike Statue of Liberty, and life size busts of contemporary rockers like Mick Jagger and David Cassidy. John Lennon, with May Pang on his arm, attended the opening night at the Beacon Theater, Nov. 17, 1974. Critics overwhelmingly panned the show, and including that the Beatles songs flowed into each other, offending true fans. The show closed months later.
Stigwood hoped magic would strike in a refreshed film version starring his megastar clients who were selling millions of records and playing to sellout venues internationally. He even lined up George Martin to serve as the film’s musical director, where he produced and arranged the soundtrack. Beatles collaborator Billy Preston played Sgt. Pepper, comedian Steve Martin was Dr. Maxwell Edison, and Alice Cooper was the Sun King. In tribute to the Beatles “Sgt. Pepper” album cover, several late ‘70s music stars make cameos in the film, which was released in July 1978, about seven months after the smash “Saturday Night Fever,” whose bestselling soundtrack figures prominently in the Bee Gees documentary which was also produced by Stigwood.
But, the “Sgt. Pepper” film would have much trouble staying alive, and was met with comments from critic Leonard Maltin that it “ranges from tolerable to embarrassing. As for the Bee Gees’ acting, well, if you can’t say something nice…” The soundtrack album, however, reached the Top 10 and million-selling status, with Robin Gibb’s “Oh! Darling,” Aerosmith’s “Come Together” and Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Got To Get You Into My Life” scoring Top 40 hits.
When asked about the film and the impact its failure had on the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton, George Harrison, said in 1979, “I think it’s damaged their images, their careers and they didn’t need to do that. It’s just like The Beatles trying to do the Rolling Stones. The Rolling Stones can do it better.” Ouch.
Even if the Beatles source material couldn’t save the production, the Bee Gees in “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” should have merited a few minutes in the overview of their musical journey.