Friday, February 16, 2007
The Bookshelf #2: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Used bookstores are the best kind, really. The books are cheaper, slightly aged (but seldom beyond the point of readability), and they carry the weirdest stuff sometimes. Case in point: SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND, a novelization of a bad musical with little dialogue to start with which began filming without a script. I had to have this, really, if only to see how they did it. And Henry Edwards, the film's screenwriter (as such), is the author, which adds a bit of curiosity value. And though I'm as much a Beatles fan as anyone, the misbegotten 70s musical is a nicely sacrilegious thrill, so spectacularly missing the point that it becomes amusing in itself, and I hoped for the same from the book.
I wasn't disappointed. Most novelizations are pretty flat affairs, not going far beyond what you can see on the screen (the original point of such books being to provide a sort of recollection of the film because home video wasn't available), and generally being written by people who would most likely rather be doing their own work but need a paycheck. This is a change. Edwards seems almost enthused about the project, and goes beyond the meager elements of the film to add all kinds of extra stuff. It's still not good, but it didn't make me want to hurl it across the room either.
The plot. Oh, yes, there is a plot. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was a legendary band hailing from the town of Heartland, U.S.A., a magical small-town utopia of the sort beloved by early sitcoms and conservative politicians. They played throughout WW1 and WW2 and the 50s and brought happiness and joy to millions, right up until the point when Sgt. Pepper himself died. The legacy has now been passed to young Billy Shears, nicest of the nicest, and local boys Mark, Dave, and Bob Henderson. As soon as they start playing, they get an offer from Big Deal Records to come to LA and make an album, and are suddenly bigger than Jesus. While they're away (one can only assume they write home every day), Mean Mr. Mustard, a real estate agent under the command of the mysterious FVB, comes into Heartland, steals the magical instruments of the original Lonely Hearts Club Band, and buys up the town, turning it into a sleazy dump. He's also got his eye on Billy's girlfriend, the oh-so-lovely-and-perfect Strawberry Fields.
It's crazier and dumber than it sounds. Both movie and book take this really surreal approach to the story, so that Heartland isn't just a nice town, it's freaking PLEASANTVILLE, and everyone there is the bestest and nicest they can be, and no good ever comes from leaving it. La-La Land is corrupt and full of drugs and sex and no good ever comes from going there. The book is written in the present tense, full of short sentences written in brash prose. Exclamation points abound. I'll excerpt some of this.
"The crowd boogies in front of the bandstand. The brashy boys and the silly girls leap high into the air! When the band sings of love, the audience shouts back, 'We love you!' And they do! No music has ever made them so happy, has ever made them want to dance and sing, has ever made them feel that every single day will be sunny from this day on."
The prose is so similar to that of a children's book that one is shocked when references to sex and drugs pop up. In the meantime, Edwards manages to sneak in all sorts of goofy backstory that wasn't in the movie- we learn about the silly and brashy girls and boys (respectively) such as Peter and Mimi and Hans and Carrie, and Butcher Jack and Farmer Jasper and Teacher Ellen and Postman Hank. It's like a cross between Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon and those STAR WARS anthologies wherein every visible character in the films is given a backstory longer than ULYSSES. Even the incomprehensible robots that serve Mr. Mustard are given distinct personalities. This is what makes me think that Edwards actually put some effort into this gig, like he had all this detail worked out in his head but couldn't fit it into the script. Or maybe he had to fill 190 pages- at one point, he actually just starts listing famous pop stars and acts, and goes on for five pages in a litany that makes the Book of Numbers seem action-packed. There is actually one added detail in the whole thing that I sort of liked- in an obvious jab at the Church of Scientology, we learn that Mustard was recruited by FVB when he took a free personality quiz that classed him as a complete loser, and was offered the opportunity to make himself a winner by joining up. It becomes a running gag for FVB's other minions (I'd tell you what FVB is, but let's just say it's unbelievably stupid), and it's kinda funny. Obvious, but funny.
Oh, yeah, the songs- they're written out in verse, with distinct borders and their own typeface. I actually rushed through them since they lose something sans music, but it's nice to have an extra lyric sheet handy. Half of the dubious joy in watching the movie is seeing great songs mangled by the goofiest renditions imaginable, from George Burns' "Fixing A Hole" to Steve Martin's "Maxwell's Silver Hammer"- my personal favorite is the version of "Mean Mr. Mustard" performed by Mustard's incomprehensible robots. (There's actually a good performance or two mingled in there, and Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees make an okay cover band, but I'm getting off track.) Just seeing the lyrics doesn't have that same shock value.
Many things went wrong when making "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (or, more accurately, "Most of Sgt. Pepper plus most of Abbey Road plus some other songs") into a movie, but reading this I finally pinned down the big miscalculation. "Sgt. Pepper" the album came from the crazy idealistic neo-bohemian side of the counterculture of the late sixties, the side that believed war was best opposed by surrealism and the words "peace" and "love" flying over Terry Gilliam landscapes. It was about freedom and beauty and everyone both doing their own thing and connecting with each other, at least in theory. It was very much a leftish hippie kind of scene. This story, on the other hand, is vaguely fearful and conservative; it has at its center a small town that's utterly perfect in its isolation, that is best when nobody upsets the status quo, and the enemies are from the decadent and permissive world outside. It comes out of the weary cynicism of the late seventies, which would soon give way to the early eighties and "Morning in America." It's also completely un-British, and though the Beatles were undoubtedly influenced by American culture (even leaving out American jazz and rock), you can't read the lyrics of, say, "A Day in the Life" and not recognize it as something written by a Brit. The two just don't mix, and seeing the psychedelic Englishness of Lennon and McCartney and occasionally Harrison's lyrics sitting right alongside Edwards' Dick-and-Jane prose just highlights it.
Which is not to say that reading this book is an unpleasant experience. It's vaguely amusing, certainly friendly, and not any sort of challenge or slog. It is completely disposable and at the same time a unique cultural artifact, wonderful in its sheer wrongness. I can't recommend this book at all, but I bought it, I read it, and I think I'll keep it.