Paul McCartney was twenty years old when the Beatles came to fame, and only twenty-four when, as legend has it, he was killed in a car accident in 1966 and replaced with a lookalike. Now, nearly fifty years later, if today’s McCartney is not the same man as the Beatle who recorded Help! and A Hard Day’s Night, he would still have used that name twice as long as the man born with it. And he would have had a musical career twelve times as long.
Perhaps this legacy is what has contributed to the steady decline of belief in the classic Paul Is Dead (PID) conspiracy theory. According to a 2013 survey by PPP, only 5 percent of respondents believe Paul McCartney died in 1966, a figure that barely surpasses the 4 percent of respondents who believe lizard people run the world. Popular conspiracy theories never completely disappear, but PIDers are as rare a breed of conspiracist as they come.
This makes the 2010 film Paul McCartney Really Is Dead: The Last Testament of George Harrison a curious outlier. The ninety-five-minute, direct-to-DVD “documentary,” produced by a company whose previous output included several Bob Dylan retrospectives and a couple of neocon political documentaries, proffered what it claimed was new and explosive evidence in support of the PID rumors. As the back of the DVD case explained:
In the summer of 2005, a package arrived at the Hollywood offices of Highway 61 Entertainment from London with no return address. Inside were two mini-cassette audio tapes dated December 30, 1999 and labeled The Last Testament of George Harrison. A voice identical to Harrison tells a shocking story . . .
Until now, the “Paul is Dead” mystery that exploded worldwide in 1969 was considered a hoax…Highway 61 Entertainment has corroborated most of George Harrison’s stunning account of the conspiracy to hide McCartney’s tragic death. Harrison’s complete audio tapes narrate this film that includes all the newly unearthed evidence. The Last Testament of George Harrison may prove to be the most important document of rock and roll history, leaving little doubt that PAUL McCARTNEY REALLY IS DEAD!
The same text also appeared on the film’s website, PaulReallyIsDead.com, along with high-resolution pictures of the envelope, mini-cassette recorder, and tapes. The film itself opens with the director, Joel Gilbert, telling the same story of how he received these tapes, and the years he spent studying them before making the movie.
Gilbert also gave several interviews about the film, mostly to music websites. Over and over he told the backstory of the tapes, why he believed they were authentic, and why he thought the conspiracy story was compelling. He told ClassicBands.com that he’d taken the tapes to three different labs for analysis, and that they authenticated the voice as the real George Harrison. When DIY Magazine noted that the narrator didn’t sound at all like Harrison, Gilbert insisted that his interviewer was wrongly comparing the voice to the young Harrison, rather than Harrison as he sounded in the late 1990s. He told InDigest that he hoped 20/20 or 60 Minutes would do a more in-depth investigation of the material he’d presented in the film. And in a 2011 interview, several months after the film’s release, Gilbert claimed that he was legally protected in claiming that his film featured George Harrison’s voice because “the film is both journalism and a documentary.”
That, however, was all in 2010 and 2011. A visitor to PaulReallyIsDead.com today will get a far different impression of the film, as the site now prominently states: “The ‘Paul is Dead’ urban legend that exploded worldwide in 1969 was considered a hoax. In this mockumentary spoof of “Paul-Is-Dead,” a voice on mysterious tapes reveals a secret Beatles history, chronicling McCartney’s fatal accident. . . .”
The Highway 61 Entertainment website now lists the film under “Spoofs/Mockumentaries,” a category that the site didn’t have until 2012; before that, the production company simply called it a documentary. The film’s IMDb page similarly labeled it a documentary in 2010; today it is labeled “fantasy.” Reviewers in 2010 certainly saw it as a documentary, even when they didn’t think it was a very good one. One critic called it “one of the worst things ever put out using the Beatles name,” and another summed it up as being “so f*cking stupid.”
It’s hard to blame them, because the film might as well be a video demonstration of Poe’s Law and the impossibility of distinguishing between sincere extreme beliefs and parodies of the same. As the film presents it, the real Paul McCartney died in an automobile collision in 1966, and an MI-5 agent named “Maxwell” orchestrated an effort to replace him with a doppelganger, one William Campbell, who underwent plastic surgery to look more like Paul.
After this initial backstory, the bulk of the film is devoted to laying out the “evidence” for McCartney’s death and replacement, much if not all of it borrowed directly from existing PID claims. The film’s contention is that the surviving Beatles grew tired of the deception imposed upon them and sought to reveal the fraud through hints in their work. The film then spends most of the next hour of its running time detailing these supposed clues. But the resulting attention given to double meanings in lyrics and hidden messages on album covers doesn’t make for an entertaining satire; it makes for a boring catalogue of scattered conspiracist ideas.
In short, if an actual PID conspiracy theorist made a documentary film, it would look almost exactly like this, minus the claim that the narration is actually George Harrison’s voice.
The times the film departs from PID lore also don’t do much to cement it as a spoof of those beliefs, so much as a poorly researched conspiracy film. As reviewers pointed out, the film makes multiple errors in dates, citing “clues” about Paul’s death in lyrics and pictures that were actually produced before his supposed 1966 crash. Gilbert claims McCartney’s second wife Heather Mills was a witness to the 1966 crash, even though Mills wasn’t born until 1968.
He told DIY Magazine that “Dick Clark’s American Bandstand held a Paul McCartney look-alike contest in late 1966. This is a fact. However, no winner was ever announced, and we know for a fact that William Campbell had entered.” Literally none of those “facts” are true; Campbell was made up by a Michigan Daily writer in 1969, who invented many of the PID claims.
Perhaps most interestingly, the film offers up at least one bit of “evidence” that Gilbert seems to have faked himself. In its closing minutes, during a montage, the film shows footage of George Harrison being interviewed on Australia’s The Midday Show, where he twice refers to “Faul,” the PID term for False-Paul. But the original interview footage doesn’t feature this mistake; in the 1988 interview, Harrison clearly says “Paul” every time. Gilbert actually used altered audio of the Harrison interview to fool his audience, and then dropped the manipulated footage into a clip montage. Nothing about the clip itself tips its hand that it’s supposed to be satirical instead of sincerely conspiratorial; only by finding and comparing the original footage does one discover that it’s been manipulated.
Paul McCartney Really Is Dead wasn’t Gilbert’s final foray into celebrity conspiracy theories. In some 2011 interviews, Gilbert called his McCartney film a “Rock-U-Mystery” and said he had another such film in the works. Eventually released in January 2012, Elvis Found Alive had Gilbert claiming that he’d uncovered FOIA documentation that led him to a still-living Elvis Presley, who granted him an interview, supplied the narration for Gilbert’s new film, and recorded a new album that Gilbert then released. The film itself is even more absurd than the McCartney movie, since everything about Presley’s “life” after 1977 had to be completely fabricated. Occasionally the author’s own voice peeks through, as when “Elvis” shares some unexpectedly strong opinions about Barack Obama and his supposed socialist agenda.
Nonetheless, just like the Paul film, Elvis Found Alive was marketed as a documentary. And just as the Paul website was edited, a similar change was made to ElvisFoundAlive.com. Where the site once read “ELVIS has been FOUND, ALIVE!”, today it starts “In this new mockumentary spoof of Elvis theories, Elvis has been FOUND ALIVE!”
Even though the films were released some sixteen months apart, their websites were edited and altered at roughly the same time. According to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, PaulReallyIsDead.com redesignated its film to be a “mockumentary spoof” sometime between March 6 and May 2, 2012, and ElvisFoundAlive.com was edited between April 15 and June 20, 2012.
That period of time was not insignificant for Gilbert, because in April 2012 he began publicizing his next “documentary,” a purported exposé of Barack Obama’s Communist roots titled Dreams From My Real Father, by launching a website and doing early promotional interviews. On the surface, Dreams has every indication of being in exactly the same vein as Gilbert’s McCartney and Elvis films. It purports to be a documentary exposé of a famous individual’s life, pushing an alternate historical narrative of conspiracies and cover-ups, assembled from archival footage without any original interviews, and tied together with a voiceover narration by a celebrity impersonator. The difference is that, both in 2012 and today, Gilbert insists that Dreams is totally serious. He even mailed copies of it to millions of voters in swing states just before the 2012 election.
But as hard as it would be to sell the public on a “documentary” about Obama’s secret Communist past, it would be even harder when the studio’s last two celebrity-centric films were laughable nonsense packaged as “documentary” features. So just as the publicity for Dreams From My Real Father began, the McCartney and Elvis films were retroactively designated to be “spoofs.”
The satirical conspiracy documentary isn’t unheard of, but it’s not common. The 2002 French mockumentary Dark Side of the Moon pretended that the Apollo 11 moon landing was a Stanley Kubrick-directed fake orchestrated by the CIA and featured creatively edited interview clips and fake witnesses played by actors as part of its feint. Sociology students shown the movie as part of a conspiracy theory study confused it for a serious film. Incident at Loch Ness, a 2004 mockumentary by Werner Herzog and Zak Penn, purported to show an encounter with the Loch Ness monster in behind-the-scenes footage of a Herzog film, but the entire movie is actually a nested film-within-a-film-within-a-film, with all the stars playing themselves. Both of these films, however, succeed as entertainment in their own right; an ignorant view might confuse Dark Side of the Moon with an actual conspiracy film, but there’s no mistaking the intention of its creators.
But where those succeed, Paul McCartney Really Is Dead still fails. Not only because it’s mostly a bland recitation of supposed conspiratorial clues, but because it doesn’t seem to serve any purpose other than to promote the Paul Is Dead conspiracy theory. It’s difficult to view Paul as a satire of conspiracy theories, when it is basically just a straightforward presentation of those conspiracy theories. It’s not persuasive enough to be compelling and not outrageous enough to be entertaining.
So is this a case of a conflicted conspiracy theorist, an elaborate exercise in performance art, or an exercise of the crassest sort of commercialism? Is Gilbert part of the 5 percent who still cling to the Paul Is Dead conspiracy, or did he just pretend to adopt its beliefs for the sake of selling DVDs? Was the film rebranded as a “spoof” to be more honest, or was that simply Gilbert putting distance between his silly Rock-U-Mystery films and the new conspiracy film that he hoped would turn the 2012 election?
Whatever the motivation, the film does succeed in doing one thing: its failure demonstrates that even if the Paul Is Dead conspiracy theory isn’t pushing up daisies itself, it’s certainly on life support. Even a flashy DVD can’t make it seem credible to modern audiences. So whereas most celebrity death conspiracy theories, be they JFK or Tupac or Princess Diana, begin with an actual death and live on as part of the person’s legacy, Paul McCartney may actually accomplish the novel feat of outliving his own celebrity death conspiracy theory.
James, Gary. 2010. Gary James’ Interview with the Producer of Paul McCartney Really Is Dead, The Last Testament of George Harrison. Online at http://www.classicbands.com/JoelGilbertInterview.html.
Kapranos, Alexia. 2010. “Paul Really Is Dead” Says New Documentary. DIY Magazine (June 28). Online at http://diymag.com/archive/paul-really-is-dead-says-new-documentary.
Marinucci, Steve. 2010. Review: ‘Paul McCartney Really Is Dead’ DVD is beyond bad – it’s tasteless and stupid. AXS Entertainment (July 12). Online at http://www.examiner.com/article/review-paul-mccartney-really-is-dead-dvd-is-beyond-bad-it-s-tasteless-and-stupid.
Mavis, Paul. 2010. Paul McCartney Really Is Dead: The Last Testament of George Harrison. DVDTalk (August 30). Online at http://www.dvdtalk.com/reviews/45598/paul-mccartney-really-is-dead-the-last-testament-of-george-harrison/.
McGahee, Geno. 2011. The Beatles, Boxing, and Bob Dylan: Joel Gilbert Speaks. Scared Stiff Reviews (February 6). Online at http://www.scaredstiffreviews.com/?p=662.
Nelson, Dustin Luke. 2010. An Interview with Joel Gilbert, director of Paul Really Is Dead. InDigest (November 1). Online at http://indigestmag.com/blog/?p=5589#.VA_dnvldUrV.
Williams, Jim. 2013. Conspiracy Theory Poll Results. Public Policy Polling (April 2). Online at http://www.publicpolicypolling.com/main/2013/04/conspiracy-theory-poll-results-.html.