Forty years ago this weekend the Beatles released their epochal concept album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Nearly everyone can tell you exactly where and when they first heard it.
A second pop-cultural event called Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band occurred 11 years later, in July. With its gloppy small-town-vs.-evil-city story line and Norman-Rockwell-on-acid imagery, it may be the worst rock film ever made. And almost no one remembers it.
In 1977 and 1978, producer Robert Stigwood was riding high on the success of Saturday Night Fever. That's when he and director Michael Schultz and writer Henry Edwards put together the brain-stunning fusillade of bad choices that became the Sgt. Pepper movie.
Setting their tale in the innocent hamlet of "Heartland," they Americanized the Beatles' material, and then cast Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees as Billy Shears and the Hendersons. George Burns as Heartland's mayor ("Mr. Kite!") narrated the fiasco to bury their British and British-Australian accents.
The dumb literalness of the numbers dropped the jaws of critics and audiences alike: You haven't lived, or died, until you've experienced Frampton singing "Long and Winding Road" while moping down a long and winding road -- or the Bee Gees murdering "Carry that Weight" while carrying a coffin.
But the anniversary celebrations unfolding this summer should also remind us that the Beatles set off a wild resurgence of creativity in American and British movies.
"We started the year the Beatles quit," said Monty Python co-founder, cartoonist and director Terry Gilliam, adding, "[George Harrison] was convinced whatever that spirit was that animated the Beatles just drifted over to Python."
The Beatles gave a career to that seminal director Richard Lester when they let him make A Hard Day's Night (1964). His example catalyzed peers such as the great John Boorman (Having a Wild Weekend, Hope & Glory.)
And as a subject, the Beatles inspired Robert Zemeckis (I Wanna Hold Your Hand) Iain Softley (Backbeat), Christopher Munch (The Hours and Times) and Eric Idle, whose 1978 TV parody of the Beatles (renamed the Rutles), All You Need is Cash, is the unacknowledged mother of all mockumentaries.
It all comes back to A Hard Day's Night, which retains its snap and sparkle no matter how many times you see it. With its exuberant mix of satire and surrealism, it still shows movie directors of all kinds that they can exploit advertising and video techniques for irony and lighter-than-air lyricism.
It contains the roots of "day-in-the-life" pop chronicles such as 8 Mile and burlesques like This is Spinal Tap! But the movie's reach also extends to absurdists like David O. Russell, who stops the headlong action of his Gulf War epic Three Kings to illustrate the route a bullet takes inside the human body.
Four guys, having fun
The Beatles never wanted any part of a throwaway rock film. They were movie-lovers with terrific high-and-low taste. According to biographer Philip Norman, their original bassist, Stu Sutcliffe, named them for the biker gang "the Beetles" in Brando's The Wild One (1954); John Lennon made a pun out of it. And John, George, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr adored the hyperbolic comic stylishness of Frank Tashlin's The Girl Can't Help It (1956), which showcased Fats Domino and Little Richard in color and wide-screen.
So when Lester, an American in London, and Welsh-born screenwriter Alun Owen, came up with the idea of depicting how the Beatles' phenomenal skill had encased them in a celebrity "cocoon," the Beatles embraced it.
They trusted Lester because he played piano, had made one music film (It's Trad, Dad aka Ring-a-Ding Rhythm), and most important had directed the beloved Peter Sellers-Spike Milligan comedy group the Goons, both on TV and in a famous short, The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film (1959).
In A Hard Day's Night, the Beatles break out of their "cocoon" in an exhilarating sequence set to "Can't Buy Me Love" -- the musical group shakes off their keepers and, in an open field, expresses their elation by running, jumping and standing still. Music-video directors have fed off sequences like these for 43 years. In A Hard Day's Night the emotion goes beyond mere playfulness. When John, Paul and George buck up a "sulking" Ringo by nudging him to perform "If I Fell," they prove Ringo's summary of the group in The Beatles Anthology: the Beatles were "just four guys who loved each other."
They admitted that marijuana threw their comic timing off in their follow-up with Lester, the piquant, colorful lark Help! (1965). But Lester used the occasion to perfect his quicksilver style of shooting and editing. And just thinking about the Beatles on skis can still make you feel like anything goes.
But they're more like "four guys who loved each other" when played by other vocal actors in the 1968 animated feature, Yellow Submarine. The Beatles' spirit traveled to director George Dunning and designer Heinz Edelmann the way it would to Monty Python. The whirling jokes and psychedelic-baroque splendor mesh beautifully.
John Lasseter (Toy Story, Cars) fell in love with Yellow Submarine for "telling a story in a striking graphic way." Lasseter and his Pixar team continue to emulate its off-the-cuff comedy and all-out, trailblazing pop.
George did more than lend his spirit to Monty Python. He poured money into Life of Brian (1980), then put its unexpected profits into HandMade Films. Among a string of contemporary classics, his company underwrote Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits (1981) and Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa (1986), the first international hits for both directors.
HandMade also funded Alan (The History Boys) Bennett's first produced screenplay, A Private Function. Bennett complained that film people fail to see his screenplays as "ready-made movie material" -- since in his scripts, "the infantry is recruited from aunties, and wheelchairs make up the armored division." But Harrison continued the Beatles' tradition of finding the transcendent in locations as mundane as Penny Lane.
That's where all these movies come together. A Hard Day's Night and Yellow Submarine were sometimes denigrated for being flashy. Actually, they're gloriously handmade.
Hear clips of Paul McCartney's new single and from the Amnesty International album at baltimoresun.com / beatles