Films that seem to have everything going for them don’t always get to where they’re going, as was the case with SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND, which premiered in New York on July 13, 1978.
The film was loosely based on the 1974 Off-Broadway production SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND ON THE ROAD, directed by Tom O’Horgan, who had staged the Broadway mega-hits HAIR & JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. His adaptation of The Beatles’ legendary album was buried by the critics and closed after 66 performances.
Nonetheless, Robert Stigwood, who’d already produced the blockbusters SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977) & GREASE (1978), though he’d have another hit with PEPPER’S even though The Beatles, themselves, weren’t involved. But Stigwood thought wrong. PEPPER’S cost $20M to produce and only grossed $20.4M. Critics on Rotten Tomatoes hated it with 11% and audiences were just 44%.
PEPPER’S all-star cast included The Bee Gees (Barry, Robin & Maurice Gibb), Peter Frampton, Steve Martin, Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, George Burns & Billy Preston. Preston was the only one in the film who’d worked with The Beatles — playing piano on their classic 1967 LP.
The long list of actors & singers who reportedly said no to PEPPER’S includes Elton John, Olivia Newton-John, Donna Summer, Bob Hope, Rock Hudson, Doris Day, Barry Manilow & Andy Gibb for the Billy Shears role that went to Frampton.
Chris Bearde, a veteran TV director, was originally to direct but was dropped by Stigwood before shooting began. When Stigwood asked Michael Schultz (WHICH WAY IS UP?) to come on board, Schultz was about to pass — but recalled turning down Stigwood’s last offer — to direct GREASE, which Randal Kleiser (THE BLUE LAGOON) then made for $6M. It did $396.3M worldwide.
After two weeks of filming, The Bee Gees tried but failed, to get released from PEPPER’S, despite their having previously done the highly acclaimed soundtrack for Stigwood’s SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. They later claimed PEPPER’S hurt their popularity because critics accused them of trying to imitate The Beatles.
As for The Fab Four, when PEPPER’S premiered only Paul McCartney & Ringo Starr attended. In an interview years later, George Harrison was asked about Frampton & The Bee Gees being in the movie and replied, “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.”
“The same thing is happening to us in real life…we are incredibly happy to say…that is happening to us in the film, and it’s fantastic!” – Barry Gibb