Friday, May 01, 2009

Things I Like Which No One Else Does

Part Three

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band: The Movie

It occurs to me that explaining my strong affection for this movie might be difficult. I'm not going to try and convince you that it's a good movie, because it's not. It's really not. But I don't like it as an object of camp, and I have no intention of making fun of it. I know camp. Something like Blood Sucking Freaks, which is also a very bad movie, but has no real redeeming factor other than it's universal awefulness, is obviously camp. The thing with Sgt. Pepper is that, while on first (and second and third . . .) examination it just seems like a bad movie, it's also an incredibly sincere movie. That's probably the best word for it: sincere. I think that everyone involved wanted to do their best by the Beatles, because - honestly - why else would they have done this? What else could possibly have compelled the people involved in this movie to make this movie in the first place?

You probably are thinking that the answer to this question is "money", and of course, you're probably right. But there's something else at work. The thing is, the Beatles do funny things to people. It's been almost fifty years - think about that, people! - but the Beatles still have that thing - cache is too small a word. Aura. Glamour. Whatever. Part of it comes from Apple Corps' absolutely zealous protection of the brand. Part of it - a huge part of it - stems from boomer nostalgia. But that can't explain all of it. There are tons and tons of cameos in this film - everyone from Etta James, Curtis Mayfield, Frankie Valli - hell, even John and George were on the set for a day. Why would so many otherwise rational and sane individuals (and Carol Channing) agree to appear on film for something that must have seemed from the very outset, to anyone with two ounces of common sense, like the world's biggest Thanksgiving turkey? Because it's the Beatles.

(Skip ahead to around 5:10)

And I'm not immune myself - far from it. I went through a fairly massive Beatles phase back in high school. Raise your hands if you went through "a fairly massive Beatles thing" in high school - I imagine there's a lot of people who fit that bill, going all the way back to the folks who were actually going to high school when the Fab Four hit Ed Sullivan. And then, after a couple years of listening obsessively - well, I just stopped. I was sick of them. Familiarity, contempt, etc. And to tell you the truth I haven't been able to come back to them since in any meaningful way. Occasionally I'd pull Abbey Road or the self-titled "White Album" down off the shelf, but I knew all those old songs so well it was like staring at a picture of the back of my hand.

But then, a few years ago when I was still living in Worcester and working nights, I DVR'ed a showing of the film on one of the late-night movie channels. I'd never seen it before but I knew all the history and the (negative) hype. And then for whatever reason I felt compelled to watch and rewatch the movie some half-dozen times over the next few weeks. I don't think I erased it off the DVR for a year. It's hypnotic, that's really the only word I can use to describe it.

There's a point near the end of the film where Peter Frampton is singing "Golden Slumbers" over Sandy Farina's coffin and you realize - wait a second - this isn't just absurd, it's so absurd it crashes through to the other side of absurd and comes back to incredibly, monumentally poignant. Because, dammit if it isn't one of the most devastating songs ever written, and not even a clown like Peter Frampton can really fuck it up. And really, it doesn't even matter that he's such a clown: he sells the song, God dammit, he sells that shit like Alec Baldwin just marched into his dressing room and screamed "COFFEE IS FOR CLOSERS!" at the top of his lungs. There's a fifteen minute or so sequence beginning with "Golden Slumbers" where Frampton and the Bee Gees take turns singing all the most melancholy songs from the Beatles' catalog - "Golden Slumbers", "The Long and Winding Road", "A Day In The Life" - and then right when Peter Frampton tries to kill himself by jumping off a building, a magic golden weather vane transforms into Billy Preston, who starts shooting rays of solid blue magic energy from his fingertips, saves Frampton's life and sings "Get Back" - all while wearing a gold lamé marching band outfit.

Regardless of how "bad" the movie is, regardless of how many careers it destroyed and lawsuits it launched, watching the movie you know, you are absolutely 100% certain, that the people who made this movie really believed it, at least for a while. They really believed that music could save your life, and that a sad song could bring the dead back to life, and that sometimes happy endings just happen. Watching this film, you might believe it too - because, for a few awesome moments, despite the silliness, despite the oddity, despite the awfulness, you know that a handful of good songs are all you really need. If you've got "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "You Never Give Me Your Money" - what more do you need, really?

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