Mockumentary, or documentary based on a hoax?
The other day I watched a peculiar documentary titled Paul McCartney Really Is Dead: The Last Testament of George Harrison, directed by Joel Gilbert.
Gilbert claims that on July 31, 2005, the office of Highway 61 Entertainment received a package with no return address, postmarked in London. It contained a mini cassette player and two mini cassettes. The tape cases were hand-labeled “The Last Testament of George Harrison”. Supposedly, George Harrison recorded his own “final confession” in December 1999, as he recovered in hospital from an attack by deranged intruder Michael Abram. Silver says his studio spent five years trying to verify the tapes’ authenticity, but three different “forensic tests” were inconclusive. Despite this setback, he assures us the documentary contains “startling new evidence” that could forever alter the history of rock and roll.
The film’s website offers no further information. We’re left to wonder why anyone possessing these recordings would ship them to an obscure production company, rather than a major daily or a TV network.
If you’re like me, you would expect Silver to describe the methods used to analyze the tapes, the efforts to trace the source of the tapes, and whatnot. But you’ll see nothing like that in this film. Instead, you get an hour and a half of an unconvincing George Harrison soundalike giving an alternative history of the Beatles that could easily be stitched together from decades-old conspiracy theories and anti-rock religious literature from the ’70s and ’80s. If you’re at all familiar with the Paul is Dead/”Faul” rumours, you’ve seen everything this documentary has to offer. The only “new” thing is the somewhat entertaining way in which the material has been crafted into a goofy, cloak-and-dagger narrative.
The tape begins with “George Harrison” describing the knife attack that landed him in hospital. “I don’t know why I was attacked,” he says, “But I have my suspicions.” He tells us that on December 1, 1980, Lennon phoned him to announce he was going public with the truth about Paul McCartney. A week later he was dead.
Two weeks before he was attacked, George said the same thing to “the man we know as Paul McCartney”.
George then gives us a capsule history of the Beatles, which is wholly unnecessary. A man giving his last confession isn’t going to waste precious breath recording the same information available in dozens of coffeetable books. “I remember the girls screaming and crying. It was so strange,” isn’t exactly a stunning new insight into the band’s early years.
The rest of the film details the conspiracy to cover up Paul McCartney’s death, and the clues scattered throughout the Beatles’ music. The basic story is already familiar to any Beatles fan, but here’s a short recap…
In September 1969, Drake University student Tim Harper published an article in the campus newspaper titled “Is Paul McCartney Dead?”. He pointed to clues in the Beatles’ lyrics, films, and album artwork indicating that Paul was no longer among the living. For instance, Paul dressed up as a walrus for Magical Mystery Tour, and the walrus is a symbol of death in the Soviet Union. (This particular clue has no validity at all. Yes, the walrus was Paul, but walruses don’t have any symbolic significance to Russians.)
Within a month, radio djs and college students had spread the theory so widely that WABC’s Ruby Yonge discussed it on-air on October 21st.
By the end of November, the rumours had gained so much steam that New York’s RKO broadcast a TV “trial”, in which illustrious attorney F. Lee Bailey examined the “evidence” presented by Michigan State student Fred LaBour.
The theory soon gained legs and teeth, evolving into a full-grown monster that may never be slain. Rumour had it that Paul had died in a car crash in ’66, or faked his death to escape from public life. But the remaining three Beatles didn’t want to disband, and losing their cutest member would definitely have put a dent in their popularity. So a Paul lookalike (“Faul”) was found and trained to play with the group. In some versions of the story, “Faul” was the winner of a lookalike contest sponsored by a teen magazine, and Paul didn’t give up music entirely; he joined Badfinger, one of the first acts signed by The Beatles’ label, Apple Records.
A November ’69 Life magazine interview with McCartney, in which he insisted he was the real Paul, maimed the rumour but didn’t kill it. If anything, the article fed the mystery and made some people more suspicious. It quoted Dr. Henry Truby of the University of Miami, who compared “Yesterday” to “Hey Jude” and declared them “suspiciously different.” Why would a major magazine devote its front page to the rumour if there wasn’t some meat to it?
The “final testament of George Harrison”, of course, describes the Paul-is-actually-dead scenario, borrowing heavily from the tabloid booklet Paul McCartney Dead: The Great Hoax:
On the rainy night of November 9, 1966, John and Paul bickered in the recording studio over whether to remain kitschy and radio-oriented (Paul) or to become more Dylanesque and message-oriented (John). Shortly before 5 AM, Paul stormed out of the studio and roared off in his white Austin Healey. About three miles from the studio, his car struck a lorry and flipped.
A “police officer” identifying himself only as Maxwell arrived at the studio about an hour later. He said he had been sent by MI5 to deal with a “sensitive matter”; a white Austin Healey had crashed, and a woman named Rita was insisting the dead driver was Paul McCartney.
Maxwell drove the Beatles to scene of the accident to identify the body. A young woman named Rita was sitting near the wrecked car, sobbing. She claimed Paul had offered her a lift. In her excitement, she screamed and threw her arms around him, causing him to crash into the lorry. Rita escaped unharmed before the car exploded, but Paul was decapitated (in the booklet, the unnamed female passenger is also killed, leading readers to wonder how anyone could know she caused the crash).
Though the head was horribly disfigured, it was unmistakably Paul’s. Maxwell made the macabre comment that he looked like a walrus. Sobbing, John pummeled Maxwell with his fists and cried , “No, I am the walrus! I am the walrus.”
(In reality, Paul and girlfriend Jane Asher were vacationing in Kenya and France November 6-19, 1966.)
Maxwell took the remaining three Beatles to an MI5 safehouse and told them the death of Paul McCartney would have to be kept a secret, to avoid a rash of girl suicides. A surgeon could alter another man’s face to resemble Paul’s, and the band could continue as before, using uncompleted material written by Paul to patch together new songs (John estimated they could do 50). Maxwell, who was apparently an MI5 agent rather than a police officer, swore them to secrecy on threat of death.
(Srsly? MI5 gives a flying fig about teenyboppers offing themselves?)
Two days later, as soon as they left the safehouse, the Beatles announced they would no longer be touring. It was arranged for Tiger Beat magazine to sponsor a Paul lookalike contest. No winner was announced, but a new Paul was found: William Campbell (we are shown a photo of a young man with a thick mustache and glasses, vaguely resembling McCartney). Campbell underwent extensive plastic surgery, music lessons, and speech therapy to transform him into “Faul”. The situation reminded John of a Stephen Crane novel, The Open Boat, in which three men seed clues to a fourth companion’s death throughout their poetry. John wanted to do the same thing, which would allow them to reveal the truth about Paul’s death without crossing MI5.
(“The Open Boat” is a short story, not a novel, and the protaganists do not write any poetry. Rather, one of them reflects on a poem while they drift in a boat. The story ends with the death of one of the men.)
There is no evidence that Tiger Beat – or anyone else – held a Paul lookalike contest. William Campbell is variously named William Shears Campbell, William Sheppard Campbell, and William Stuart Campbell. He is said to have been either an actor or a Canadian police officer employed by the Ontario Provincial Police, but no proof of his existence has ever surfaced. In some versions of the rumour, he had a girlfriend named Rita.)
Somehow, Faul was able to fool McCartney’s girlfriend, Jane Asher. But the Beatles forced Faul to break up with her, anyway, just in case.
In George’s opinion, John was too obvious with his clues. He wanted to title their next album Rubber Paul, one of his nicknames for Campbell. But most of the clues are too obscure to be noticed: Faul smoking a “coffin nail”, lyrics like “wiping the dirt from his hands as he walked from the grave”, Faul facing away from the others on the cover of Revolver, etc. Some clues dealt with Paul’s death, while others offered subtle hints that there was something different about Faul. Song titles said to be clues include “I’m Only Sleeping”, “I’m Looking Through You”, and “Act Naturally”. Some of these clues have been contradicted by the Beatles’ own statements over the years. For instance, Lennon said that “Dr. Robert”, supposedly Campbell’s plastic surgeon, was a reference to himself.
The cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (SPLHCB) is a wealth of clues, of course. It’s a funeral scene, with Paul’s name spelled out in yellow flowers atop the grave. The photos are of people Paul would have wanted at his funeral, most of them dead; Stephen Crane holds his hand over Paul’s head in a priest-like fashion.
Then there are the backwards messages. According to George, Lennon coined the word “backmasking” and was the first to use it to hide messages in albums. “Getting Better” supposedly contains the message, “Paul is dead, he lost his hair, his head”, and “SPLHCB Reprieve” holds the obscure clue, “It was a fake mustache.”
The SPLHCB clues were so obvious, George tells us, that even Maxwell caught on. He warned the Beatles to watch their step. Instead, they jammed even more clues into Magical Mystery Tour. On the album cover, “Beatles” upside-down was the phone number of a funeral home, Faul’s walrus costume has a gaping hole in the chest to signify his lack of a soul, and the white figures on the back cover spell out RIP. “A Day in the Life” and “Lovely Rita” are major clues, though anyone who accepts the car crash story will have to wonder why the Beatles made such a sunny, flippant song about the woman who caused their friend’s death.
After more death threats and beatings from Maxwell’s goons, they prudently decided to leave their next album untitled with a blank white cover, but still left lots of clues in the songs.
Here’s where the film gets really funny. Lennon, with Yoko, flees to the U.S. and fakes insanity so that Maxwell will leave him alone. He has a bed-in, makes incoherent statements about peace and love, and just generally acts like a loon.
Meanwhile, Rita threatens to spill the beans unless Faul divorces Linda and marries her. She loses a leg in an accident shortly after making her demand, but this doesn’t stop her from resurfacing later as “Heather Mills”.
So Paul McCartney Really is Dead has its humorous moments. Overall, however, it’s a silly and mean-spirited mockumentary. All of the Beatles are portrayed in the worst possible light. Lennon’s activism is mocked. The real George repeatedly refers to McCartney as “Faul” in an interview. McCartney is a shallow, idiotic, untalented pothead. He’s shown responding to Lennon’s death in a cavalier way. “It’s a drag, isn’t it?” he says to a reporter, chomping gum. In the film’s closing clip, he tells an interviewer, “In that tragedy, there were some good things about it.”
The real story of the Beatles is a lot more complex. McCartney did feud with John and George, but this has a lot to do with Paul’s unwillingness to continue life as a Beatle. In 1970, he actually sued his bandmates to get out of the ten-year contract they signed in ’67.
The notion that post-’66 Paul was an imposter is absurd. Lennon himself lampooned the whole Paul is Dead craze in his ’71 song “How Do You Sleep?”: “Those freaks was right when they said you was dead”. The “clues” unearthed by college journalism majors, radio d.j.s, and fans are just inventive interpretations of ambiguous lyrics and imagery. And let’s face it: The Beatles offered up ambiguity in spades. That’s how folks like Charlie Manson could hear personal messages in every song.
Many of the Paul is Dead clues in Paul McCartney Really is Dead are easily debunked:
- “Taxman” isn’t about the taxidermist who preserved Paul’s body, because taxidermists only preserve animal carcasses. Also, the song is clearly about a taxman.
- Besides, Rubber Soul was released a full year prior to the car crash (I think the real George Harrison would have known this, though I wouldn’t bank on it).
- Heather Mills was born in 1968, over a year after “Rita” caused Paul’s fatal crash. Her early life is well-documented.
- The scar on Paul’s lip, supposedly caused by plastic surgery, was the result of a December 1965 moped accident.
Surprisingly, one iffy-sounded allegation turns out to be fact. John Lennon really did use some backwards vocals in the 1966 song “Rain”, the first known instance of deliberate backmasking. But this song was released in June, 1966.
Despite the dearth of solid evidence (or perhaps because of it), the Paul is Dead mystery still thrives on the Internets. The sites Officially Pronounced Dead? The Great Beatle Death Conspiracy and Is Paul Dead? are devoted exclusively to it. This site offers up facial comparisons of pre- and post-1966 Paul and concludes they were two different men. Dozens of YouTube videos pick over the clues. Even the Uncyclopedia covers the controversy in detail. Paul McCartney Really is Dead offers nothing new, is based on a pathetically transparent hoax, and is just generally a waste of everyone’s time.