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):
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 geocities.com went down a few years ago and archive.org is sometimes wonky (most notably, the archive doesn't always capture photos/files):
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!