So what does the you-have to-see it-to-believe-it 1978 film version of the The Beatles’ groundbreaking album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (this year celebrating its 50th anniversary) have to do with black cinema? Let me explain, but first on a personal note…
Back in early 1978, I made my first trip to Los Angeles to work on a film project and I wound up on the MGM studio lot when it was still in existence. I wandered around the place (“Wow! It’s Sylvester Stallone”) and there to my amazement was the outdoor backlot set I was told was built for the big musical climax in “Sgt Pepper”, which had completed filming just a few weeks earlier and had not been struck down yet.
I was in total awe walking around the set, not so much because of the movie or who was in it, but who made it and what it represented. The film was directed by Michael Schultz who arguably – during the late 70’s to early 80’s – aside from Sidney Poitier, was the biggest and most successful black director in Hollywood at the time. He started with “Cooley High” and went on to make “Car Wash”, “Which Way is Up?” and had yet to make “The Last Dragon”. And this was years before the black film renaissance of the early 90’s with Spike Lee, Ernest Dickerson and John Singleton. Back then, if you were black and you wanted to be a director, you wanted to be like Schultz.
In the late 70’s, there were some black directors doing occasional movie and TV work and, of course, many others working in independent cinema completely outside the studio system, such as Charles Burnett and Haile Gerima. But Schultz represented a dream, as it were. A black director who was working on Hollywood studio movies and being very successful at it. Poitier had an unfair advantage being in Hollywood since the 1950s, which made him an insider, so he didn’t count in a way. He was a long time industry favorite and had the connections. But Schultz was an outsider who started working in New York theater and went on to low budget indie films, and conquered Hollywood. He was a sort of pioneer and inspiration for those would-be black directors who wanted to have a career making movies at the studio level.
So “Sgt Pepper” was a HUGE deal at the time. This wasn’t some low budget film aimed specifically at black audiences. This was a genuine, heavily promoted, multi-million dollar Hollywood production, made for a mass audience, and a black director was at the helm for the first time. Free at last!
Unfortunately, when the film came out later that later that summer, to my and other people’s horror, it turned out to be a disaster. Of course it was a bad idea in the first place. Taking a classic concept album by the The Beatles as the premise for a film without The Beatles, but with The Bee Gees instead, trying and miserably failing to capture the spirit and tone of the earlier great 60’s Beatles movies directed by Richard Lester, “A Hard day’s Night” and “Help”.
It was doomed to fail no matter who the director was. Martin Scorsese couldn’t have done any better.
The film is one of those car wreck kind of things – you know it’s horrible to watch, but you can’t turn your eyes away from it.
Although “Sgt Pepper” has gained cult status over the years as a favorite of those who love the “so bad, it’s good” films. And yes, the failure of the film did hurt Schultz’s career for a while, but he did bounce back, making more films; and now at age 78, he’s still prolifically working, directing TV shows, with almost 100 credits to his name, including episodes of “Black-ish” “Once Upon a Time” and “Arrow” this season.
And just to show how things progress, it’s no longer a big deal when black directors direct big budget Hollywood films. Antoine Fuqua, Tim Story and F. Gary Gray (still the most successful worldwide grossing black director) have several of them to their credits. There’s Ava DuVernay and Disney’s “A Wrinkle in Time”, Gina Price-Bythewood’s and her upcoming”Silver and Black” Marvel film and of course there’s Ryan Coogler and “Black Panther” just to name a few. But one could argue that Schultz paved the way for all of them.
I bring all this up as the DVD label Shout Factory has announced that they will be releasing “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” for the first time on blu-ray DVD on Sept. 26. Maybe the film has gotten better with time in a campy sort of way, or maybe it hasn’t, but I’m interested to get it just for nostalgia’s sake. Shout Factory will later announce the blu-ray’s special feature and extras since those are still being worked on right now, but one hopes that there will be an interview with Schultz, or even better a director’s commentary by him so he can discuss the whole experience of making it and where it all went so wrong).
Here’s a trailer for the film with commentary from Trailers From Hell guru, screenwriter Josh Olsen who clearly has fascination for the film as well, and who I agree with 100% that the 70’s were Hollywood’s “last golden era”.