Things take a dark turn when Strawberry Fields is killed and Frampton’s Billy Shears attempts to kill himself. All is saved in the film’s final, head-spinning twist: a weathervane in the shape of Sgt. Pepper comes to life, transforming into the singer and real-life Beatles pal Billy Preston, who magically saves everyone.
The film finishes with an ensemble rendition of the Sgt. Pepper’s title track – a rabble seemingly inspired by the original album cover. Singers among the rabble include Tina Turner, Donovan, Robert Palmer, Wilson Pickett, and Sha-Na-Na.
Expectations were high for the album-film combo. The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack was released during the making of the film and was an instant sensation – the biggest selling album of the year. Bootleggers assumed that Sgt. Pepper’s would be a similar hit and produced countless knock-off copies.
The film was panned but wasn’t a bomb – it made back $20 million. The album, meanwhile, was hurt by the film’s reviews. It debuted at No. 5. In the US but dropped out of the top 100 within six weeks. There were so many bootleg copies in circulation that retailers returned 4 million albums – a million more than had been distributed in the first place. It went reverse platinum. The FBI claimed that bootlegs were being dumped on California roadsides by the truckful.
George Harrison commented on the film. “I just feel sorry for Robert Stigwood, the Bee Gees and Pete Frampton for doing it,” he said, “because they had established themselves in their own right as decent artists and suddenly… it’s like the classic thing of greed. The more you make the more you want to make, until you become so greedy that ultimately you put a foot wrong. And even though Sgt. Pepper is no doubt a financial success, I think it’s damaged their images, their careers, and they didn’t need to do that.”
It wasn’t a totally wasted venture for the Bee Gees: they wrote three No. 1s during an afternoon break on the film — Tragedy, Too Much Heaven, and Shadow Dancing. “The drugs must have been good that day,” said Maurice.
Peter Frampton’s career was hurt, but more likely by a car crash he had the same year – he broke both hands, both feet, an arm, and ribs. Frampton didn’t entirely regret the film. “I wouldn’t want people to see it, but it was fun to do,” he wrote.
But watched now, taken an ironic helping of salt, the Sgt. Pepper’s movie is bordering on fun – a lurid, naff fairground of a film. “It’s a curio,” says Richard Mills. “With a little bit more care, in a different context, it could have been good. What is it they say in Spinal Tap? There’s a fine line between clever and rubbish.”