The strange story behind the movie!

In a thread titled "How did this movie get made?," I attempted to answer that question -- but since I quickly realized I've learned more about this movie than any person rightfully should, I thought I'd give this monstrous tale its own thread. I could summarize by simply stating, "It was the pet project of mogul producer Robert Stigwood," but there's much more to the story. Hope you've got a few minutes...

Robert Stigwood produced two Beatles stage plays in the early 70s: "John, Paul, George, Ringo... and Bert," and "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band on the Road." The latter played at NYC's The Beacon Theater in 1974 with Ted Neely (Jesus Christ Superstar) as Billy Shears and Alaina Hall (Sesame Street) as Lucy.

John Lennon stopped by the theater to show his support with girlfriend May Pang at his side (Yoko also attended solo) and he received a 20 minute standing ovation (self-described as one of the greatest moments of his life) before sitting down to perform with the band. Footage from this event appears in Lennon's "Whatever Gets You Through the Night" music video (and allegedly much more footage was shot).

Performances were selling out but the show was deemed an artistic failure by both critics and those working behind the scenes, so it closed after 7 weeks with a total of 66 performances. With stars in his eyes thanks to the audience's enthusiasm over the play, Stigwood coerced NY Times writer Henry Edwards to write a screenplay. The basic plot of the play was similar to the film's but all the flash and razzle-dazzle had to be expanded and reinterpreted for the screen. Daunted since he'd never written a script and because Stigwood would only allow him to write one speaking role, Edwards conceived the wholesome '70s All-American stoner sensibilities of the movie's storyline (which was sort of incongruous since neither The Beatles nor half of the film's stars were American).

Stigwood's RSO Records (the Robert Stigwood Organization, now owned by Universal Music) was a powerhouse by the late 70s, so he convinced Frampton and the brothers Gibb that starring in a film adaptation of the Sgt. Pepper play would be a wise career move. The Bee Gees had already received positive reviews for thier Beatles covers featured in the oddball documentary "All This and WWII" (which consists of WII footage scored entirely with Beatles covers by other popular artists) -- the album sold well but the accompanying film was universally lambasted. Since none of them had acting experience, all were skeptical from the getgo - but once filming had commenced it was quickly apparent to Frampton and the Gibbs that they'd made a bad decision.

With those heavyweights attached, Stigwood went about recruiting others... and often had to settle for second-choices. KISS was approached to play FVB but they instead opted to star in their own corny film "The Phantom of the Park," so Aerosmith was cast. Donna Summer passed on playing Lucy, so Diane Steinberg-Lewis hoped it was the opportunity she needed to bolster her career, as did her backup singers, Stargard. Sadly it didn't help any of them. Olivia Newton-John turned down the part of Strawberry (she was embarrassed by her bizarro 1970 sci-fi/fantasy flick "Toomorrow" and apprehensive of making another film) so they discovered doe-eyed singer Sandy Farina in a coast-to-coast talent search.

Rock Hudson and Doris Day wouldn't play Strawberry's parents, and first choice Bob Hope rejected Mr. Kite, so George Burns was given the part. Burns was a Beatles fan and had already recorded "With a Little Help from My Friends" and "Your Mother Should Know" (the latter of which was performed by a female singer as the intro to his oft-performed "I'll Buy the Ring (and Change Your Name to Mine)") for his 1969 album "George Burns Sings," which featured artwork that was a mock-up of the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper" album cover. Burns later wrote, "A lot of people didn't see me as a musical-comedy star, and after seeing me sing with The Bee Gees in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, they still didn't think so."

Stigwood couldn't find a musician to agree to portray Dr. Maxwell (which was a bigger role in the play and quite different in early drafts of the script), so he gave the part to Steve Martin, who'd recently exploded with his comedy routines and as a frequent guest-host on "Saturday Night Live." While likely not the first choice, Paul Nicholas was a longtime associate of Stigwood's who had received positive notices for his nefarious roles in Ken Russell's acid trips "Tommy" (which was Stigwood-produced) and "Lisztomania" (in which he portrayed 19th century German composer Richard Wagner as a literal Nazi vampire!) so he was given the role of the greedy Dougie Shears.

The Beatles wouldn't reunite to play the original band in the prologue and plans to have Paul McCartney portray the titular Sgt. fell through, so the role of the Sgt. Pepper weathervane was given to Billy Preston, who'd played piano on the original recording of "Get Back." He later regretted agreeing to appear and allegedly tried to get his name taken off the movie. Fifth Beatle George Martin has always seemed eager to jump at the chance to relive former glory, so he came on to produce all the music.

Stigwood got the "special guests" by sending everyone in the entertainment industry an all-expense-paid invitation to appear in a film touted as the blockbuster of 1978. Since Stigwood, Frampton and the Bee Gees were all on top of the world at the time and the Beatles popularity has never waned (excluding a brief period in the 60s after Lennon compared the band's fame with Jesus Christ's) there was no reason for any of them to think it wouldn't be a huge success -- it was the last day of principal photography and none of 'em were around to witness the spectacle that came before. Plus it was a week before Christmas, so the entire event was sort of like a celeb-filled Christmas party... and clearly some of them began nipping at the eggnog early into the 7-hour shoot! It's worth noting that the prominently-featured (and totally out of place!) Carol Channing was a close personal friend of George Burns (they headlined shows together for a few years in the early '60s), though I can't say if that had any bearing on why she wound up with so much screen time...

Although Stigwood lavished the film with money, no one was especially happy with the script (or lack thereof) but he assured everyone that editing and elaborate special effects would mask the script's shortcomings. (Ha-ha!) Variety show veteran Chris Bearde ("Laugh-In," "Sonny & Cher," etc.) was hired to direct but was fired in pre-production and replaced by "Car Wash" director Michael Schultz. The Bee Gees, Frampton and Aerosmith all became disenchanted with their roles quickly, and behind-the-scenes squabbles ensued. Then Stigwood almost lost one of his stars -- shock-rocker Alice Cooper (who began his career in high school with a Beatles parody) had committed to the movie before committing himself to a psych ward to deal with his alcoholism, but he was granted a 3-day pass to shoot his scenes. Cooper's longtime wife Cheryl, a professional ballerina, accompanied him and is also featured in the movie as one of the dancers.

There was an enormous promotional push but the film didn't fare well at the box-office. Compounding the film's troubles, Frampton was pissed when he saw The Bee Gees had received alphabetical billing above him (his contract stipulated they share equal billing) so the credits were ultimately altered to give him first billing. The brothers Gibb didn't care and soon began denouncing the movie and entire experience to the press.

Dr. Pepper had a massive tie-in ad campaign (fairly ironic considering Paul McCartney's original title for the Beatles' concept album was "Dr. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band") which included a free movie poster with purchase of the soft drink and an offer to mail away for two sampler-45s featuring excerpts from the soundtrack. To suit the occasion, the company altered their familiar commercial jingle: "Be a Pepper! See Sgt. Pepper! Drink Dr. Pepper! Hear Sgt. Pepper!" And as for that soundtrack...

Like the rest of RSO's then-current releases ("Grease," "Saturday Night Fever," etc.) the double-album was alleged to have been selling like hotcakes since songs were in heavy rotation on the radio. In addition to a gatefold cover, the album came with an original poster (an artist's rendering of Frampton and the Bee Gees in hot air balloon attire, riding a horn that's spewing Strawberries!) and two flyers advertising more posters available for purchase by mail-order... unfortunately, these extras coupled with residuals for artists and songwriters drove up the cost. Music buyers were put off by the bloated price tag, the Billboard sale records were grossly exaggerated and cases of the LPs were later discovered in landfills -- RSO had foolishly attempted to disguise the fact that the albums weren't really selling as well as records indicated (languishing sales means those LPs should've instead been dumped into cutout bargain bins) so clearly there were some shady business dealings going-on. Matter of fact, today it's more difficult to find a copy of the LP without the poster and flyers, which proves that the soundtrack wasn't very popular.

Marvel Comics commissioned artist George Perez to render the movie for an issue of their Super Special series, but the film was considered such a dismal failure out of the gate that issue #7 was skipped altogether. It's rumored that the Marvel Super Special was printed but all copies were destroyed (can't confirm or deny that, but there's no copies in existence that I'm aware of), however it was published elsewhere in the world with foreign text -- best of luck finding a non-digital (or English) copy, they're pretty rare. Here's scans of the French version:

Along with iron-ons, trading cards, posters, magazine spreads, souvenir programs and various other merchandise, two books were published: a novelization by Edwards based on an earlier draft of his script and a fluffy "Scrapbook" credited to Stigwood and producer Dee Anthony which was mainly a photo-book focused on the amiable aspects of making the movie. Here's the second book (I never got around to scanning the novel): dMovieScrapbook

Thanks to the vast amount of talent involved, the film's reputation has grown over the years. Unfortunately a lot of said talent appears in the finale, but the widescreen 2.35:1 film was badly cropped for TV (both on VHS and, weirdly, also for the recent hi-def transfer), so you can't even see half of them. George Harrison, Paul and Linda McCartney are alleged to be uncredited guests, but it's highly doubtful -- and it doesn't help matters that a bearded Jimmy Seals of Seals and Croft bears a striking similarity to Paul.

The film has often been blamed for ruining the careers of everyone involved, though that's not really fair. The Bee Gees troubles began with RSO, but both they and Earth, Wind and Fire suffered from the '80s disco backlash. Aerosmith was torn apart by drugs, Alice Cooper by alcohol (he quickly relapsed but dried out for good in 1983). Paul Nicholas only had one minor hit song ("Heaven on the 7th Floor") but he's continued to work on stage and British TV. Diane Steinberg's career stalled out but she's been happily married to The Steve Miller Band's Kenny Lee Lewis for almost three decades, and the couple have two daughters. Sandy Farina co-wrote Barbra Streisand's 1979 song "Kiss Me in the Rain" and then found success doing voice-overs and commercial jingles and as a realtor. George Burns boosted his career with the "Oh God" trilogy; Donald Pleasance found his greatest success with the same year's "Halloween;" and Steve Martin walked away from his first movie completely unscathed. As for Frampton, he never reclaimed the level of success he achieved with "Frampton Comes Alive," so he frequently uses this film as a scapegoat. Of course, director Michael Schultz's career DID suffer; he's been primarily relegated to episodic TV ever since (including a forgotten TV sequel to Martin's "The Jerk," which doubled as a series pilot). And then there's Stigwood, whose regal excesses led to his company's eventual and inevitable downfall in 1983.

There's a great old fan site for the film with more info, but went down a few years ago and is sometimes wonky (most notably, the archive doesn't always capture photos/files): lywood/Set/7578/SgtPepperMain.html

And there's also a blog that features photos of the movie's memorabilia:

As an aside, if you're looking for another "How the hell did this get made?" career-killing disco cult movie with an equally bizarre backstory (Hebrew stage shows, animal chaos, attempted suicide!) check out "The Apple" from 1980. Doesn't have the star power but it's so flashy, strange and overindulgent that it almost makes "Sgt Pepper" and "Xanadu" look tame by comparison!


The Bee Gees had already received positive reviews for their first recording of "A Day in the Life," featured in the oddball documentary "All This and WWII"

Slight correction, "A Day in the Life" on "All This and World War II" was done by Frankie Valli, not the Bee Gees. Lou Reizner had them cut more songs than what ended up on the "All This and World War II" album but other artists laying down vocals reduced the number to three, "A Day in the Life" was however not among their leftovers.

500 years ago on the planet Zeist


Thanks for the correction. I double-checked a lot of that post and should've known better than to go off the top of my head with that one -- it was "Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight" on the WWII album, which is directly followed by "A Day in the Life" in the Sgt Pepper movie. Right sequence, wrong song. Only saw WWII once (found it relentlessly depressing) and was never compelled to listen to the album more than 2 or 3 times. I'm not especially a Bee Gees fan and had completely forgotten they recorded "The Sun King" and "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window" for that album too.

If anyone else notices some other stupid mistake I've made or has more to add, chime in. Willing to bet there's many more interesting aspects of the making of this film that I've yet to discover.


Man, that's a ton of info. Thanks for that, it was extremely interesting! I've had an interest in this movie since I found out my old bass teacher, Stanley Sheldon, did some of the bass work in it. I also have a friend who was the manager of the Allman Brothers Band and one-time president of Clear Channels entertainment division , Joe Benintende , who is the spitting image of the character BD Hoffler and I wonder if that was the inspiration for the look. Again, thanks for the research !


Before the Gibbs were disillusioned, Barry Gibb told Rolling Stone that the 1978 Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band movie would lead to their covers becoming the definitive versions of the Lennon-McCartney works.

"Kids today don't know the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper. And when those who do see our film and hear us doing it, that will be the version they relate to and remember. Unfortunately, the Beatles will be secondary. You see, there is no such thing as the Beatles. They don't exist as a band and never performed Sgt. Pepper live, in any case. When ours comes out, it wiIl be, in effect, as if theirs never existed.

"When you heard the Beatles do Long Tall Sally or Roll Over Beethoven, did you care about Little Richard's or Chuck Berry's version? The only credit the Beatles get on this film is for songwriting."


That was interesting, but at least one thing doesn't ring true, at least as written: "Performances were selling out but the show was deemed an artistic failure and it closed after 7 weeks with a total of 66 performances." That gives the impression that the show closed because it was "deemed an artistic failure" (by whom? critics, I suppose), despite the fact that it continued to sell out.

That would never happen. If the show is selling out, no one involved with the show would care whatsoever that anyone like a bunch of critics or whoever decided it was an artistic failure. Unless something is planned to be a short run and it's not possible to extend it for some logistical reason (which the producers would do anything to try to get around), shows would only close because they're losing rather than making money.

Re the comments about the "ruined careers" I definitely agree with everything you say there (about folks using the film as a scapegoat instead and so on). Re Frampton, I detailed why it wasn't true that this film negatively affected his career in another thread here, too (though I'm not sure it still exists--I haven't checked).

I love the film, by the way, and have since it was released. As a teen at the time, I saw it a few times while it was still in theaters. Many people I knew and I had the album, etc., and I've always (including still) loved the film's version of the music (though I don't doubt that it didn't sell nearly as well as was claimed--tons of people I knew also had all four KISS solo albums (I also was and still am a huge KISS fan), but I do not at all doubt the account of how those sales figures were also ridiculously inflated by foolishly printing an initial run of one million copies of each album, most of which went unsold).

Anyway, I appreciate all the work you did for that post.

The comic book scans are really cool, too.


Interesting Bee Gees quote -- but I wonder if it was said before filming had commenced or if they were doing fluffy press to try to ensure the film would be a hit. From late '78 onward, they never had anything nice to say about the movie that I'm aware of.

As best as I've been able to discern about the play (information's pretty scarce), shows were selling out but it was a technical nightmare and really expensive to produce and so, as often happens, various changes were made throughout the show's run to try to improve the story and drive down the production costs -- plus critics weren't so nice, though they rarely are. A lot of times shows close, get reworked and later relaunched, and that might've happened with this one too if Stigwood hadn't had such resounding success with the film versions of "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Tommy."


Excellent post :)

The movie came out when I was about 10, and my brother and I saw it a zillion times when it went into the dollar theater in our neighborhood. We adored it!! I cried my little eyes out when Strawberry died.

I'm currently watching it on Netflix with my 5 year old (she's loving it!!!! Lol!!!) I noticed something....there's the scene where Mr. Mustard makes the town trashy, and there's a pimp surrounded by hookers/dancers and I could swear that it's Crater Face from Grease (RIP)

I love all the background info!!!


Viinie's post is quite full of information and fairly well written, but his clear bias against the film shines through. Tons of the album being found in landfills? Can you back this up? I think not! The original Broadway show selling out, but closing after seven weeks? That doesn't even begin to make any sense at all! George Martin was certainly not trying to "relive past glorys" and was on record, even at the time as being somewhat relcutant to produce, but being convinced by his wife to do so as he didn't want anyone else to do it improperly and the totally bogus implication that the album didn't sell well in 1978, which is pure bull. Even when the film was dying in theaters, the album continued selling well. Using words like "allegedly" doesn't convince anyone otherwise! The film bombed, sure, but it's not the fiasco that he believes he can convince you it was. I won a pair of tickets to see this film pre-release at a special midnight showing back in 1978, so I do know a bit of what I'm saying!


The album sold well for a couple weeks after release but then tanked.

There may have been tons of the album dumped in landfills, but there were also thousands and thousands available in the cutout bins of major record stores for a couple of years until the mid-80s. (This also goes for the "All This and World War II" album.)


4) You ever seen Superman $#$# his pants? Case closed.


I'm not biased against the film at all, it's been a favorite of mine since I was a kid - otherwise I wouldn't have bothered compiling that epic story. (Matter of fact, I contributed a lot of stuff to the defunct Geocities site that's linked above). As an adult, I recognize the crap factor, but the movie's still a helluva lot of fun. I didn't provide references because this is an imdb message board and I didn't expect the length to get away from me when I began composing. A few things came off the top of my head, but a lot of this was info I'd found in newspapers, books and online. As I began researching to check my facts for that post, I kept finding more and more information.

The thing about the albums being found in landfills came from a book about The Bee Gees, though I don't recall the title (pretty sure I read it on google books while I was researching this). It's been noted in countless places that mass-production and low sales of the album heavily contributed to PolyGram Records' financial woes. Every time I've seen the album (which I've seen A LOT of copies of in the last four decades), I've gotta pull out the poster to look at it... cuz I love the film and think the poster's kinda awesome. I've only seen a handful of copies without the poster and/or flyers in my life, which is really bizarre (try finding an original pressing of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album with the insert intact - I've only ever stumbled on one). If the album was truly a best-seller, those posters would be really hard to find today. However, I'm guessing the singles actually sold well, since I've rarely seen copies of them and remember "Got to Get You Into My Life" and "Come Together" in endless rotation on the radio.

A Broadway show selling out but closing after seven weeks certainly isn't unheard of... look up the legendary "Carrie: The Musical" (in its original 1988 incarnation, audiences were eating it up but critics were denouncing it and everyone was squabbling backstage, so the investors pulled out). I didn't know Sgt. Pepper originated from a stage show until about a decade ago, so all I have to go on is what I've read online... and there's not a great deal of info available.

All I was implying about George Martin is that he seems to have jumped at the chance to do anything and everything Beatles-related in the years since they split. Never heard his views about the film that I recall, and I've never heard that his wife convinced him to produce the music. Can you back this up?

Sorry if I'm being defensive, but I put a lot of time and energy into writing that - and if I were pulling random factoids out of my ass, I'd have gushed about what a hit it was (because I adore every cheese-filled moment of the film!). But let's face it, the movie was a big flop that's been perceived as even more of one as the years have passed.


Thanks for the great reportage...I'm so bored with people who bash this film as being the "worst thing ever made" or can only respond "wtf, man!"

Even at the time, as a little kid (the perfect audience for this movie, I believe) I knew it wasn't "Citizen Kane," and a pretty obvious cash-in, and my brother and I didn't care--the music was great, the colors and crazy art direction and the speed it raced along...further, the "story..." I know a lot of people who thought "Pink Floyd The Wall" was the greatest piece of cinematic art ever conjured when it came out...I liked it, but did that have a great story? ANY story?

The director of SPLHCB, who seems like a sensitive, intelligent man, was very earnest defending the film in an interview I read a few years ago; he said he saw the movie as a series of music videos, ala "Tommy" and when you consider MTV was just around the corner it makes Shultz and Russell seem rather genius in retrospect, despite Sgt. Pepper being made with a lot of hubris.

"The Wiz," "Tommy," and "Jesus Christ Superstar" also get similarly bashed, and yet I know a wide group of people (in Hollywood, with opinions That Matter) who will privately defend these movies as bursting with imagination, vivacity, and wonderful music (and "Tommy," at least, was a hit). It really does seem to parallel the bigger picture of a majority "bashing" a minority simply for being "different," but that's another topic. Hopefully there will always be room for wildly ambitious and off-the-wall projects like "The Apple" or all we'll be left with is TV Crime shows and The Kardashians.

Oh, and a famous friend of mine was in the cast of the "Sgt Pepper" live show and claims to have some artwork and other things from it but as yet I can't get her to dig that stuff out of her closet!

Nilbog! It's goblin spelled backwards! This is their kingdom!


Tony, I dunno who your friend is, but for the love of God, keep needling her to unearth her mementos. When last I checked (while writing the OP), there was hardly any info anywhere about the live incarnation of the show.