When Ben Elton revealed to the world he’d created a rock muscial by taking loads of Queen songs, sticking them together and doing little plot holes round the edges, good folk recoiled in horror. Those with long memories and plush, strokeable beards, however, merely nodded sagely and noted with sorrow the return of Sergeant Pepperism. After all, Elton was doing nothing that Robert Stigwood, spoon-toting record impresario and Saturday Night Fever mastermind, hadn’t attempted twenty years before.
In the town of Heartland, presided over by Mr Kite, Billy Shears, with a little help from his friends The Hendersons, reforms the titular mythical band in order to reclaim the magical brass instruments of peace, which have been stolen by evil estate agent Mean Mr Mustard and plastic surgeon Maxwell Edison, who turns people into head-wobbling versions of the Hitler Youth with his silver hammer… and it goes on like this. If it sounds like someone had just thrown bits of paper with Beatles songs onto the floor, then joined them up with “and then”s, that’s petty much the case, by the admission of the scriptwriter (who mysteriously doesn’t seem to have worked on anything else since). With so little effort made on the script, it was only natural that all the stops would be pulled out for everything else.
The cast groans with the great and good. Oh, and Peter Frampton, who takes the romantic ‘lead’ as Billy Shears, aided on his quest to retrieve the crappy cornets by The Hendersons (The Bee Gees) and the hitherto unknown Dougie Shears (Paul Nicholas). We say ‘lead’ as there’s no real acting involved: the only spoken dialogue comes from Mr Kite (George Burns), who links everything together in the most cumbersome way, suggesting enormous rewrites at the last minute.
While Frampo and the Gibbs shoulder most of the numbers (some not too badly, we’ll admit), the rest of the cast get a tune each, with varying results. Burns creaking around a bandstand in a white suit mumbling Fixing a Hole to a couple of unidentified children may have a certain geriatric charm, but Frankie Howerd vamping his way through When I’m 64 to tied up heroine Strawberry Fields in the back of a computerised camper van doesn’t. Steve Martin’s goofball rendition of Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, meanwhile, may murder the song, but at least he has the audience on his side. Best of the bunch is probably Aerosmith’s fairly straight version of Come Together atop a pile of giant film canisters, and it’s a tie for worst between Alice Cooper’s reverb-drenched Because and She’s Leaving Home (Vocoder version). Sad to say, George Martin willingly offered his production services for the heavily-remaindered soundtrack.
What went right? Well, the production design, while bizarre in places, does look grand in the plastic fantastic style you’d expect from Brian Eatwell of Abominable Dr Phibes fame. The depiction of Barry Gibb gleefully snorting cocaine is unique in cinema history, we feel. And, er, it’s a small amount of fun perusing the closing scene’s “just like the LP cover” gathering of gratuitous guest stars to spot the likes of Robert Palmer, Peter Noone, Barbara Dickson, Marcella Detroit and Dame Edna. We’re reaching here, as you can see. Oh yes, Earth, Wind and Fire are quite good, but have nothing at all to do with the rest of the film.
As with most ’60s hangeover fare, the ‘message’ seems to be that, hey, music just wants to be free, stop using it to make piles of cash, you cynical breadheads. Which would be rich coming from the Stigwood stable at the best of times, but in a film that embodies that cynicism in quite possibly its purest state, it’s palpably obscene. By all means watch for head-slapping retro giggles, but be prepeared to feel strangely soiled afterwards.