SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND (1978) – Someone needs to fix the hole

The following is my entry in The Pop Stars Moonlighting Blogathon, being hosted by Gill at the blog Realweegiemidget Reviews from March 12-14, 2020. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ takes on pop stars who decided to try movie acting as a second career!

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With Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a splendid time is guaranteed for all…lovers of bad movies, that is. This movie was conceived at a time when wishful thinking about a Beatles reunion was at its peak, and when producer Robert Stigwood and stars The Bee Gees and Peter Frampton could seemingly do no wrong. So Stigwood snapped up the rights to classic Beatles tunes and, with the simple thinking that 3 + 1 = 4, he put Frampton and The Brothers Gibb together to make a quartet. The only problem was, that quartet wasn’t The Beatles.

The plot bears a vague similarity to the great Beatles cartoon Yellow Submarine (and please, the resemblance ends there), by way of Sgt. Pepper’s band rescuing Frampton’s girlfriend (named Strawberry Fields in the movie…you know, “Strawberry Fields Forever”?) from some evildoers, particularly a ferocious band played by Aerosmith. But considering that Aerosmith does one of the few decent Beatles cover versions in the movie (“Come Together”), one would wish for Strawberry to come to her senses and become a groupie for the evil band.

But then, this wafer-thin plot is really only an excuse to gather an all-star cast (including Steve Martin, poor guy, in his feature-film debut) and make them warble half-baked versions of Beatles hits. The nadir is probably George Burns doing “Fixing a Hole” (in his throat, from the sound of it).

I suppose you can’t blame Stigwood, the Gibbs, et al. for trying to cash in on a craze. One person you can blame, though, is veteran Beatles producer George Martin, who inexplicably got involved in this mess as its music producer. At the time, Martin supposedly bragged that the soundtrack album shipped more units than the Beatles’ 1967 original album. But when the movie laid a giant egg in theaters across the country, most of those huge shipments were either sent back or were laid to rest in the $1.98 bargain bin. Since then, Martin, whose has appeared in many Beatles tributes (such as the Beatles Anthology video set), has been noticeably reticent about his contribution to this stinker.

As one critic put it at the time, if you listen to the soundtrack album backwards, you can hear Paul McCartney saying, “I wish I was dead! I wish I was dead!”

MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR (1967) – Weak tea from The Beatles

Why all this fuzz about the Beatles you ask? Get your answer by clicking on the above image!

Magical Mystery Tour – Released Dec. 8, 1967

After a string of amazing successes, The Beatles hit a wall with their self-directed TV-movie Magical Mystery Tour. Intended to depict a wild bus tour across England, the movie was broadcast on Boxing Day and was savaged by the critics. But while the movie remains a malnourished oddity, the soundtrack is as charming as anything The Fabs ever did.

(NOTE: In Britain, the movie’s soundtrack album initially consisted of two extended-play (EP) discs containing only the songs from the movie. In America, Capitol Records — ever eager to milk the cash cow — consigned the movie’s songs to Side 1 of the album and filled Side 2 with songs from recent Beatles singles. A decade later, in 1976, the British version of the album was revised to coincide with the America version.)

Magical Mystery Tour: An appropriately jaunty tune that certainly promised far more than the movie delivered. The song still plays wonderfully for people who wouldn’t be caught dead watching the movie.

The Fool on the Hill: A very nice “story” song from Paul. The final lyric, where Paul’s voice (as the Fool?) goes from whimsical resignation to bitter anger, adds a nice bit of punctuation that keeps the song from schmaltziness. Lovely flute work, too, especially in the song’s bridge.

Flying: Truly The Beatles’ most modest instrumental, to the point that most American radio stations used it to “fade” to a local newscast. And yet, the fact that they used the same-sounding mellotron as Strawberry Fields Forever on this song constitutes a sort of hubris that makes the song itself stand out, doesn’t it? Well, doesn’t it??

Blue Jay Way: Inspired by a trip to Los Angeles, George’s underrated (as always) contribution to the movie’s soundtrack perfect conveys its sense of eerie disorientation. We apologize that the phrase “Don’t be long” gets repeated a few dozen times at song’s end, but maybe that was supposed to add to the confusion.

Your Mother Should Know: The two officially released versions of this song offer a dramatic study in contrasts. The version for the Magical Mystery Tour soundtrack is Paul in typical vaudeville mode (as in When I’m Sixty-Four). the version that surfaced on Anthology 2 comes off, frankly, like a neo-Nazi march; when Paul sings “Let’s all get up and dance to a song” in the latter version, he sounds as though he’s ordering the listener to do so at gunpoint.

I Am the Walrus: Most of John Lennon’s free-associational Beatles songs sound like something stuck together to fill studio time. But on this one, John really went out on a surrealistic limb, coming up with outrageous imagery with some of the most fascinating sounds ever in a pop song (heard to best effect in true stereo, as on the latter-day compilation LOVE). A real trip.

Hello Goodbye: Paul has often been taken to task for his trivial lyrics, but this one certainly isn’t any fluffier than the “tomato/tomahto” routine in Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off. And if you can’t enjoy his “hey-la” jig at the end, maybe you should say goodbye.

Strawberry Fields Forever: This one is John Lennon’s real glass onion. Whereas its companion piece — the “double-A-side” song Penny Lane — radiates its own sweet, simple nostalgia, this song is like a multi-layered radio program, creating the atmosphere of a man lost in adulthood and looking for a long-gone place that, if it wasn’t secure in itself, created a feeling of security. And if the song’s aural richness isn’t enough to evoke this atmosphere, there’s the Lennon voice that, as producer George Martin has said, “can still send chills up my spine.” If you want to enjoy the level-by-level creation of this masterpiece, go directly to Anthology 2.

Penny Lane: A lovely (and lovingly nostalgic) counterpoint to John’s Strawberry Fields Forever, a song about an old Liverpool neighborhood, with imagery vivid enough that it really does gets in your ears and eyes.

Baby You’re a Rich Man: How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people? Beautiful enough, I guess, that you don’t have to write coherent lyrics.

The majority of Beatles music is of meticulously high quality, but then there are a few songs where it seems they just wrote any little thing that came to mind. The song’s cutesy question/answer format, which made for some nice wordplay in With a Little Help from My Friends, doesn’t help a thing here — what does it mean to be “tuned to a natural E,” anyway? What a thing to do!

All You Need Is Love: Grandly touching, especially in its naivete — in 1967, it probably did seem that love was all you’d need to solve the world’s problems. Unfortunately, the later assassination of this song’s writer provided a heavily ironic afterthought. One of John Lennon’s loveliest pieces, nevertheless.

What do you think of Magical Mystery Tour and/or any of its songs (or the movie, for that matter)? Tell us what you think in the “Comments” section below. Next up for review: The White Album.


HALLELUJAH, I’M A BUM (1933) – Singing a song of socialism

The following is my first of two entries in The Unemployment Blogathon, being hosted at this blog from Oct. 4 – 6, 2019. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ takes on a wide range of movies that relate to the subject of getting a job!

Hallelujah, I’m a Bum is surely the strangest movie musical I’ve ever seen. As with a lot of movies intended as Big Statements, at first it seems to have a lot on its mind, but it eventually surrenders to the hoariest of movie tropes.

If nothing else, the movie offers a novel twist on U.S. society as it was affected by the Great Depression. Al Jolson, the box-office smash of his time, plays Bumper, the unofficial “mayor of Central Park.” Bumper has seemingly hundreds of followers — park layabouts who are happy to follow Bumper’s philosophy of not looking for employment that isn’t available anyway. The only naysayer in the Central Park group is a socialist street sweeper named Egghead (Harry Langdon), who is the constant butt of the bums’ jokes simply for wanting to work so hard.

(Bumper also has a sidekick, a cheery black man named Acorn [Edgar Connor]. In modern terms, Acorn seems like a glaring stereotype. But if you know anything about Al Jolson’s filmography, you can be grateful that Jolson didn’t ask to play the part of Acorn himself.)

Rounding out the starring quartet is the actual mayor of New York City, John Hastings. (He is played by Frank Morgan, later to gain film immortality in the titular role of The Wizard of Oz — and this movie, which came out six years earlier, has a surprising reference to the later film.) At first, it seems surprising that Hastings is so willing to make friends with Bumper instead of arresting him, but the duo turn out to be in synch with each other’s roguish personalities.

It is at this point that the movie is at its most intriguing, turning upside down the popular Depression attitude of “We shall overcome.” What if the entire country had decided to embrace its inevitable poverty rather than fight it? And the movie is helped along in its offbeat viewpoint with its musical dialogue — “talk-singing” songs composed by the legendary Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.

Sadly, it is also at this point that the movie resigns itself to conventional movie plotting, when it introduces us to Hastings’ girlfriend June. As played by Madge Evans, she is lovely and charming — so much so that we quickly get tired of Hastings’ wild accusations, backed up by no evidence, that June is cheating on him.

(SPOILER PARAGRAPH ALERT) Suddenly, a movie that had bubbled over with originality quickly succumbs to the most naked of plot contrivances (AMNESIA!!), as well as what the late film critic Roger Ebert deemed “The Idiot Plot,” wherein the characters’ misunderstandings could be resolved instantly if one or the other of them didn’t behave like total idiots. And when Bumper ends up falling for June, the Great Depression suddenly seems like the least of this movie’s catastrophes.

All of the movie’s performances are quite wonderful. (Jolson, in particular, scores points just by underplaying like never before.) It’s just a pity that the movie’s makers (including top-notch screenwriters Ben Hecht and S.N. Behrman) didn’t have either the courage or the stamina to steer their unique scenario all the way to the end.

(If you liked this blogathon entry, click here to read my second entry discussing the 1974 TV-movie Thursday’s Game.)

THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) – Step into the sun, step into the light

The following is my entry in The Wizard of Oz Blogathon, being hosted by the blog Taking Up Room from Aug. 23-25, 2019. Click on the above banner to read bloggers’ takes on a variety of topics related to this classic movie musical!

At first, I felt intimidated at the thought of writing for this blogathon. What is there to say about this delightful movie that hasn’t been said in the past 80 years? But the best aspect of The Wizard of Oz is that it is so stuffed full of goodies big and small, you can look around in its deepest nooks and crannies and find something to write about.

As with most Oz fans, I’ve been watching this movie ever since I was a kid. (Remember CBS’ annual broadcasts of the movie in TV’s pre-cable days?) So by the time I was an adult, I would have imagined that I knew every aspect of the film — including its delightful score — by heart. But until the multi-CD release of the movie’s complete soundtrack by Rhino Records in the mid-1990’s, I was barely aware of one of the movie’s sonic treats.

After the movie’s starring quartet (shown above) recover from the Wicked Witch’s poppy-induced stupor, they’re more eager to reach the magical city of Oz than before. “Let’s run!” says Dorothy — which they do, to a pleasant enough song titled “Optimistic Voices.”

But it’s only when you hear the isolated version of the song that you realize how truly happy the tune makes you. Short as it is (a little over a minute long), it’s as charming an earworm as anything in the movie.

The song’s music is by Herbert Stothart and Harold Arlen, who wrote the lyrics with E.Y. “Yip” Harburg. Arlen and Harburg wrote hundreds of songs together, and 1939 was definitely a banner year for them. Besides their winning an Oscar for Judy Garland’s iconic song “Over the Rainbow” (which was saved at the last minute from getting cut from the movie), they also wrote Groucho Marx’s memorable warbler “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” for the Marx Brothers comedy At the Circus.

Legend has it that the song was written to bolster the spirits of moviegoers who were suffering through the Great Depression, much as the tune “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” was intended for Walt Disney’s 1933 cartoon The Three Little Pigs. In any case, the movie has quite a bit of fun with the song. When it begins, the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) gives a startled look as he wonders where the music is coming from. Eventually, the quartet skips toward Oz in time to the music.

As with everything else its creators touched, “Optimistic Voices” has become one of the musical gems of The Wizard of Oz that never gets old. Not bad for a minute of marginal music.

MARY POPPINS RETURNS (2018) – They can still make ’em like they used to

With a sequel that comes over a half-century after the original movie, there are bound to be nitpickers who can find nothing better to do than pick it apart. Are the songs in Mary Poppins Returns as memorable as those in Mary Poppins (1964)? Is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s attempt at a British accent as inauthentic as Dick Van Dyke’s was in the first film? These are questions best left to movie historians. For a movie such as this, the only valid question is, does it work on your terms personally? For me, it was practically perfect.

There are two kinds of Disney movies. There are the silly ones which practically declare from the outset that they’re harmless falderdash (The Shaggy Dog, The Absent-Minded Professor). Then there are the best kind of Disney movies that unashamedly aim straight for your heart (the Disney cartoon classics, the original Santa Clause, and yes, even Mary Poppins). There was every reason to believe that Mary Poppins Returns, even if well-intentioned, would end up in the first batch. But a half-hour into the new movie, I got that Omigaw-I’m-a-kid-again feeling, and I knew I’d been sucked in.

The movie’s setting is about 20 years after that of the first film. Jane and Michael Banks (Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw) are now adults but still live together in their old family home, Jane seeing to the needs of Michael and his three children — John (Nathanael Saleh), Anabel (Pixie Davies), and Georgie (Joel Dawson) — since Michael’s wife died the previous year.

A pair of bank lawyers visit the Banks to inform them that they have five days to pay back a loan that Michael took against the house, or they will be evicted from it. Eventually, they realize that their father owned shares in the bank, and those could be used to pay off the loan. If only they can find those shares — and have them recognized by Mr. Wilkins (Colin Firth), Michael’s boss at the bank and an old family acquaintance who might not be as kind as he initially appears.

With the Banks family in dire straits again, there is nothing for it but for magical nanny Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) to come floating into their lives again — this time via a kite, in one of this sequel’s many wonderful nods to the first movie. And Blunt takes this ethereal character, chucks any fears about comparisons to Julie Andrews out the window, and makes it her own. Blunt’s Poppins is nicely nonchalant about the many miracles she manages to perform for the Bankses. She also plays Mary a bit more vainly than Andrews did — but if you could go flying on an umbrella and turning bathtubs into oceans, wouldn’t you be a bit smug too?

The movie feels like, not just classic Disney, but classic movies where everyone involved seems to have given everything to make their movie the best possible. Co-writer/choreographer/director Rob Marshall knows his way around a movie musical (Chicago) and was the right person to helm this — its two hours fly by. The songs, co-written by Hollywood music wizard Marc Shaiman, invite comparison to The Sherman Brothers’ 1964 score, and they’re mostly worthy of that comparison. (If you don’t get a lump in your throat when Poppins comforts the children about their late mother with “The Place Where the Lost Things Go,” you’re a stronger moviegoer than I am.) The old-fashioned, full-bodied animation-and-live-action sequences dazzled me more than anything since Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

And that cast! Miranda plays Jack, a street lamp lighter who serves as Mary’s merry Greek chorus. Maybe his British accent isn’t perfect, but his enthusiasm more than makes up for it. One critic described the three Banks children as “somewhat undifferentiated,” with which I heartily disagree. Saleh, Davies, and especially Dawson are the best sort of child actors, ones who act like real children instead of cutesy moppets. Finally, there are three Big Actor supporting roles that will be a delight to anyone who doesn’t already know about them, so I’ll skip the spoiler and let you discover them for yourself.

The genre of Hollywood movie musical has gone the way of the Hollywood Western — mostly moribund, but occasionally done once more just to show that it can still be done. Mary Poppins Returns shows they can still be done in the grand old style, and that they ought to be done a lot more often.