Judge Erich Asperschlager buried Paul.
"This is real. This is real for me."
Like the experience of a drug-ravaged ex-hippie at a Beatles tribute concert, it's tough to figure out how much of Desperately Seeking Paul McCartney is real.
Facts of the Case
In 1965, a young reporter named Ruth Anson scored a televised interview with Paul McCartney. She asked him whether he had any marriage plans. He responded by proposing to her. Forty years later, Ruth goes to an open pitch panel, hoping to find a documentarian willing to help her track down her almost-beau in return for the chance to tell her story on the big screen. She gets her wish in the form of producer Mark Cushman, who sours on the project when it becomes clear the chances of getting through to the world's most famous rock star and making a marketable movie out of Ruth's quest are pretty much the same. So he changes the story without telling her—doing whatever he can to make the film entertaining, at Ruth's expense.
Desperately Seeking Paul McCartney won the Best Picture audience award at "Mockfest" 2008. The front of the case clearly states that it is "a comedy-documentary." That means it's all a set-up, right? Right?
The documentary begins with Ruth's pitch to Mark Cushman and several of his associates. She shares the story of Paul's fake proposal. We see footage of the incident, as well as clips of Ruth interviewing other famous people, including Bob Hope, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan. It's all pretty darn convincing, and, as far as I can tell, completely true.
But then Cushman tells his production crew that things have changed and the new goal is to embarrass Ruth. He films her talking to a shrink. He sets up interviews with McCartney impersonator Jeff Toczynski, and adult film star Ron Jeremy. By the time he stages an intervention with Ruth's friends, and his P.A.s start dropping like Spinal Tap drummers, it becomes clear this whole thing is a set-up.
I know, I know. "Mockfest." It says so right on the case. Still, realizing that none of this is real is disappointing. Desperately Seeking Paul McCartney has a lot in common with the 2004 documentary My Date with Drew—Brian Herzlinger's crowd-pleaser about trying to score a date with Drew Barrymore. That film worked because it built genuine suspense around what should have resulted in a restraining order. Herzlinger came across as an everyman. Someone we could root for. Oh, and it really happened.
I love mockumentaries as much as the next guy, but Desperately Seeking Paul McCartney tries too hard to split the difference—keeping enough uncomfortable footage to make you glad it's not real, but so sincere in it's fakery that it never goes for big laughs.
Desperately's biggest problem is that, without the suspense of wondering what's going to happen, nothing matters. Even if they had managed to sneak into the Grammys and talked to Paul (the way Herzlinger snuck into a movie premiere in Drew), it wouldn't have had much impact.
The other problem is that Ruth is too convincing. She's a sweet older lady who's searching for closure. She wonders if Paul's proposal was real (it wasn't), and if he ever thinks about her (he doesn't). She carries around a scrapbook filled with photos of the former Beatle, each with a carefully pasted cut-out of her head making it look like she's sharing any number of tender moments with him. It's creepy, and exploitative, and I hope to heck it's a fake.
And that's the ultimate question about this film. Is any of it real? If so, how much? If not, why is so much of it believable? Maybe I'm missing the point and this is the most brilliantly constructed meta-documentary of all time—lampooning the worst of reality TV with such accuracy that the audience is left not knowing which way is up. If so, hats off to Cushman and Anson. If not, either Cushman should be ashamed of himself for taking advantage of a senior citizen, or they really should have written more jokes. I'm guessing the truth lies somewhere in the middle, so I'll stick with the latter advice.
As Cushman realizes early in the film, there's no way they were ever going to get Paul McCartney to appear in this film. Likewise, there was no way they were ever going to get the rights to Beatles music. So they did what any good documentarians would do. They improvised—commissioning a dozen "Beatles-type original songs," written by Cushman and composer/John Lennon impersonator Alan Bernhoft. The 12-song soundtrack is the DVD's lone extra, with full versions of Faux Four hits like "Dear Paul" (performed by Paul impersonator Toczynski), "Penny Rhode," "Be Mr. Nice," and "Everything is Fine." It's a thoughtful bonus feature, even though the songs are mostly pale imitations of Beatles classics. What can I say? They're a hard act to follow. Just ask any musician in the past forty years.
On the visual front, the movie gets a decent-looking widescreen presentation that perfectly matches the kind of D.I.Y. camerawork you'd expect from an independent production. The 5.1 surround mix, on the other hand, is much better than you'd expect. Bernhoft's tunes pump out full and rich, the dialogue is clear and well-balanced with the occasional effect.
Desperately Seeking Paul McCartney is a confusing film. Not because it's hard to follow, but because it's impossible to figure out. Completist documentary buffs might want to add it to the pile, and Beatles fans might find Anson's original Paul story and the sound-alike songs interesting, but most everyone else should probably just dust off their copy of Abbey Road and give side two a spin. Now that's good stuff.
Paul is dead man, miss him, miss him.
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