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The New York Times

INVENTING A PLOT FOR 'SGT. PEPPER'

by Henry Edwards, July 15, 1978

How do you write a motion picture entitled "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"? That was the problem I had to solve when producer Robert Stigwood asked me to do just that at our first meeting 27 months ago. The result will come before the critics this Friday.

The maverick producer had first tried to put "Sgt. Pepper" on the stage. The result was an evening of razzle-dazzle production numbers that tried to duplicate the sound of the classic Beatles album. It was an artistic failure, but the production was selling tickets at the Beacon Theater when Mr. Stigwood closed it after seven weeks. He wanted to rethink it -- for film. If there's one rule that stands above all in Hollywood, it's that if at first you don't succeed, don't, under any circumstances, try again. Mr. Stigwood was preparing to break this rule.

I told him that a film strictly adapted from the Beatles' LP would not work either. His film of "Sgt. Pepper" would have to be an original conception. It could not be set in England or in the late 1960's; it could not be written or directed in the style of any of the Beatles movies, especially Richard Lester's "A Hard Day's Night" or "Help!" Nor could it rely on any of the psychedelic effects which were the substance of the animated "Yellow Submarine."

The situation was not unlike that faced by filmmakers during the heyday of the motion picture musical. Usually, their solution was to construct a plot around the most famous compositions of a songwriter or songwriting team. The classic MGM musical "The Bandwagon," for example, bore no relation to the 1931 stage success; the film consisted, instead, of a good-natured plot frequently interrupted by the best songs in the Howard Dietz / Arthur Schwartz catalogue. "Sgt. Pepper" could very well be the first contemporary movie musical based upon this old principle.

When Mr. Stigwood and I talked, the entire music industry was abuzz with the startling success of the tassel-haired rock performer Peter Frampton, whose gentle, folk-flavored romantic approach was breaking LP sales records as they'd never been broken before. Old-fashioned sentiment and melody were in, and it seemed to me that a contemporary pop movie should reflect this return to romance. So I decided to cast "Sgt. Pepper" in the tradition of those American films that presented a vision of an unspoiled small town whose innocence was threatened by villainy from the slick, mean city.

The tradition dates back to D.W. Griffith, and the 10 MGM Andy Hardy films made between 1937 and 1947 -- Louis B. Mayer's all-time favorite productions -- are perhaps the best examples of it. By the end of World War II, however, Americans had become too sophisticated for the ingenuousness embodied in these movies. Yet their picture of a simple world in which good always triumphs over evil seems current once again -- as witness "Star Wars."

For partisans of the good, "Sgt. Pepper" -- with tongue in cheek -- would create a storybook town where everyone is red, white and true-blue: Heartland, whose motto is "Kindness above all else." Heartland retains these old-fashioned virtues because it is protected by the spirit of magic, symbolized by four magical instruments and the Beatles songs pouring continuously from the Heartland bandstand.

Embodying this music are the town's four favorite sons, The Lonely Hearts Club Band (Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees), and the plot turns on what happens when they are asked to leave Heartland for stardom. Worse, the magical instruments are stolen by the mean-spirited, loud, heavy-metal, money-loving Future Villain Band (Aerosmith). The minute these instruments are gone, the worst of all possible things does happen to Heartland -- the town suddenly goes punk!

Mr. Stigwood listened to these ideas, aware that giving them his O.K. would result in a film as unconventional as it would be expensive. Grinning, he said, "It has the right feel to me." And he granted the film one speaking character, the kind, elderly mayor of Heartland, Mr. Kite.

Now, my work began in earnest. Each of the 25 Beatles selections had to be assigned one of two functions: either to reveal character ("Mean Mr. Mustard," "Maxwell's Silver Hammer") or to push forward the action ("She's Leaving Home," "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite").

To integrate some of these songs, however, seemed to me more complicated than the most devilish double-crostic. When I had problems, Mr. Stigwood, a tax exile, would summon me to his palatial estate on Bermuda. "The better you feel the more creative you can be," he said. So conferences were held around the pool. A champagne toast greeted the solution to a difficult question.

Mr. Stigwood eradicated the notion that there could be a "wrong" solution. He felt he could stimulate good work by never displaying a disapproving attitude. Everyone working on "Sgt. Pepper" felt this generosity.

Meanwhile, production designer Brian Eatwell ("The Three Musketeers," "The Man Who Fell To Earth") scouted for a location for Heartland. One day, almost by accident, Mr. Eatwell discovered that Andy Hardy's old hometown was still intact on MGM's Backlot No. 2. The entire "Sgt. Pepper" production staff sped to Culver City.

There it was -- a rotting, splintering, yet still somewhat jaunty edition of Main Street, U.S.A. Two shifts of 90 carpenters -- each putting in 12-hour days -- worked around the clock. Buildings were moved from one end of the lot to the other. They were redesigned and refaced. They were coated in fresh pastel paint. And red hearts were painted on everything, including the coffin in which Strawberry Fields would be buried at the end of the film.

As the first day of shooting drew near, the key production figures were flown to Mr. Stigwood's hotel villa on an Acapulco hillside. We sipped margaritas as we watched the sun go down. As the waiter cleared away the glasses, the producer announced that the film was over budget.

For example, I had originally decided that the Future Villain Band would be introduced in a scene set in Congress. Mr. Eatwell had discovered a U.S. Senate set used in "Billy Jack Goes to Washington." We thought our problems were solved. But the set was in Burbank and the shooting was in Culver City, 29 minutes away. And the cost of dismantling, moving and reassembling the set was $147,000. In addition, the projected cost of the special effects, extras, rehearsal time, choreography, two days of pre-lighting, and three days of filming was somewhere between $425,000 and $500,000 -- for five minutes of film. The Future Villain Band suddenly canceled its date in Congress, and played instead in a dark, eerie cavern.

He had been watching the figures for "The Wiz," whose production costs were already double the original estimate of $10 million. Mr. Stigwood did not want to spend more than $12 million on "Pepper." Though this figure seems huge, the high cost of rights to the Beatles' title and their music and the fancy figures commanded by the world's most popular rock stars left little room in the budget for inessentials.

More drinks were served, followed by an elegant Mexican dinner. Page by page, we discussed ways of "doing it for less." One way was to eliminate location shooting in New York. This would eliminate not only the travel expenses but also the cost of one day's shooting, $75,000 -- in the fall, there's more daylight in Los Angeles than in New York. A spinning disco dance floor was also cut when Mr. Stigwood remembered that the lighted dance floor used in his "Saturday Night Fever" cost $12,000.

The traditional method of reducing the cost of a movie is simply to excise whole scenes. But at the Acapulco meeting, Mr. Stigwood interrupted the discussion of which chunks should go: "I love it all too much," he said, "for any of it to be discarded. Let's just find ways to do it for less."

With belts sufficiently tightened, we were ready to begin. At 7 A.M., on the morning of Oct. 17, 1977, 300 extras, each carrying a balloon adorned with a single red heart, surged around the Heartland bandstand. On cue, George Burns, in his role as Mr. Kite, appeared at the steps of Heartland's City Hall. The extras cheered, and the Heartland Fair was ready to begin.

"It was 20 years ago today..." sang English pop star Paul Nicholas, dashing from the Heartland City Hall, through the throng, to the bandstand. As he reached the steps, The Bee Gees suddenly made their entrance, to the accompaniment of a horn section made up of the Heartland Old Timers Jazz Ensemble. (Their sound would later be dubbed by the Tower of Power horns.)

"We're Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band..." sang The Bee Gees, as the extras released their balloons, suddenly splattering the sky with little red hearts.

"So may I introduce to you, the one and only Billy Shears..." sang The Bee Gees as Peter Frampton took his place on the bandstand.

After three takes, I wandered away from the shooting to prowl the back streets of Heartland. The movie had been staged so many times in my mind that the experience, exhilarating as it was, seemed almost anticlimactic. Suddenly, I spotted Mr. Stigwood relaxing on the porch of a white-framed Heartland house. I joined him in the comfort and serenity of his make-believe world.

"I love this set," he said to me. "It's just so very, very pretty. I've always tried to present music in the best setting possible. That's why I've been determined against all odds to do this movie. If it succeeds, finally we'll have a way of putting wonderful music on film."

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