First off, here's my impromptu list of required elements in a musical:
- Excellent performances from ALL the principal characters. They must be able to sing and dance (or at the very least warble and move to basic choreography). But "acting ability" is also at the top of the list, as it should be in any film...just because it's a "musical" doesn't mean you don't need to "act."
- Excellent songs. Not just well-written but well-performed too.
- Enthusiasm. You just can't sell a musical unless you look like you MEAN it.
- Interesting set-pieces.
- Professional back-up dancers.
The musicals that DIDN'T succeed tended to lack this CRUCIAL enthusiasm, and I believe this is because they were "committee" efforts that were trying to cash in by bringing in the NEWEST stars and the NEWEST fads. They put "stardom" above "acting ability" and "chemistry. "The Wiz" and "Xanadu" were largely overshadowed by their gimmicky concepts: "Diana Ross in a funky urban remake with Michael Jackson" and "rotoscoped Newton-John on roller-skates with animation by Don Bluth, and oh yeah, the Tubes," respectively.
But the only thing more embarassing than watching Gene Kelly in a giant pinball machine is paying careful attention to 1978s "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band." It has the requisite well-written songs and the professional back-up dancers, but those two bonuses only highlight how awful everything else is.
It goes without saying that Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees don't belong here, and I don't mean in an "isn't Diana Ross awfully old to play Dorothy?" sort of way. I mean that they're unsuited to the music and that they cannot act. They sound insecure and they look insecure, in every scene, all of the time. They're the main characters in the film but they CANNOT deliver enthusiasm...they're too busy remembering not to look at the camera. Nothing spoils a sad, pivotal scene more than the Gibb brothers tidying up their receeding rock-star hair in a funeral procession.
George Burns comes in second as Most Unsuited to his role. As Mr. Kite he actually does quite well, but when called upon to sing "Fixing a Hole" with small children, my goodness...if you only watch ONE thing in the movie, WATCH THIS. In case you missed it, here's his inspired contribution to the songwriting of Lennon and McCartney, painfully transcribed from the DVD:
"Oh one and-a two... one two three, da-dah, bah, bah, ba-ba-ba-bah, bah, bah,
ba-ba-buh-bah... dee-dee, dee-dee, dee-doo, dee-diddly-diddly-diddly ...and
This "white man scat" comes with dance steps that the children can remember but he can't.
So we've got iconic songs that are gorgeously written, being performed by bloodless disco hipsters or bloodless non-singers (don't be surprised that I'm lumping Donald Pleasance in the second category). It doesn't help that the song production is anemic, perhaps George Martin's revenge for all those years he didn't get any credit. Sometimes the performances ARE good, though...Dianne ("who?") Steinberg is the one bright light as an actress, singer, and sufferer of a pre-movie bikini wax. Billy Preston's "Get Back" is inspired, though the scene itself was obviously shot after the filmmakers ran out of money. Aerosmith kicks butt (even if they get beaten up by The Bee Gees...SERIOUSLY) and Sandy ("WHO?") Farina also had some talent behind her rabbity overbitten face. And even though Steve Martin can't sing, he at least LOOKS like he's having fun.
What does that leave us? The set-pieces, while obviously expensive, look like they were cut out of a cheap pop-up book. You have the king of toilet jokes (Frankie Howerd) managing to turn "When I'm Sixty-Four" into a naughty little number. Not to mention the cheesy '70s sex routine, which means Robin Gibb going pop-eyed and falling over when presented with raunchy women wearing Parliament's cast-offs (Stargard, AKA "WHO???").
At least "Sgt. Pepper's" has the professional back-up dancers. They're REALLY the best part of the movie. Don't watch the principal characters, just look at the people dancing around behind them. Pay particular attention to "The Computerettes," two professional ballerinas in creepy outfits who sing like the Bee Gees filtered through a vocoder.
To give credit where credit is due: Steinberg and Paul "Cousin Kevin" Nicholas singing "You Never Give Me Your Money," Barry Gibb's "A Day in the Life," and Farina's "Strawberry Fields Forever" are all gems. And, honestly, the scriptwriters have done a pretty good job of making a coherent, clever, child-friendly plot out of a bunch of disconnected (and often mystically drug-inspired) songs.
It's also worth it for the "slice of the '70s" scene at the end, featuring an esoteric collection of people who worked closely with The Beatles at some point in their careers (but mostly Carol Channing fluffing her words).
And hey, who's that near the back? It's Marcy Levy! And to think I drank booze and did a flygirl dance with that woman!