An enormous crowd-pleaser, Hendrik Handloegten’s strongly assured feature debut, “Paul Is Dead,” may not add anything new to the canon of cinematic coming-of-age dramas but it’s an enormously warm, clever tribute to youthful imagination, adolescent awkwardness and the seductive power of rock music. Loaded with wall-to-wall Beatles tunes — exceedingly well chosen and placed — and spiraling out from a famous bit of Fab Four mythology, pic (which was produced by Tom Tykwer’s X Filme Creative Pool) will prove particularly irresistible to Beatles fans and could mint significant worldwide theatrical coin.
Zooming by at an exceptionally brisk 75 minutes, pic has the fable-like quality of childhood memory, vividly remembered. Set in the early 1980s, it tells the story of Tobias (auspicious newcomer Sebastian Schmidtke), a German teenager obsessed with rock ‘n’ roll who fancies himself a much-celebrated rock star on his invented radio-interview programs. Tobias’ radio may be his most valued possession in the world after his cherished record collection, and week after week he tunes in religiously to Allan Bangs’ four-part documentary series on the Beatles.
When Bangs ends a program by posing a trivia question about an unintelligible phrase uttered by John Lennon at the end of “Strawberry Fields,” Tobias sets to uncovering the mystery. The manager of a local record store (Rainer Egger) tells him that Lennon is saying, “I buried Paul,” a reference to the fact that Paul McCartney actually died in 1966 and was replaced by a dead ringer chosen by Beatles manager Brian Epstein.
Armed with this revelatory bit of knowledge, Tobias begins to scrutinize Beatles lyrics and album covers, searching for clues with the aid of his friend Helmut (Martin Reinhold) and older brother Till (Vasko Scholz). Handloegten develops this premise with equal measures of nostalgia and comic absurdity, always keeping the viewer in suspense and offering a number of storytelling surprises that will prove particularly pleasurable to those unfamiliar with this particular bit of music biz urban legend.
But what is most striking is Handloegten’s unforced, teen’s-eye-view of the world (a view from which Handloegten himself, for whom “Paul Is Dead” was a film school thesis project, is not too far removed), rich with anxiety and the longing to escape from it. For his three protagonists, the music of the Beatles and the search for McCartney’s murderer are not mere recreational diversions but rather an intimate way of subverting the boredom, disappointment and occasional harshness of their lives (a sentiment expressed much more powerfully here than in the similarly themed “Billy Elliot”).
For Tobias, it’s a chance to be the center of attention, to bring his imagined radio fame to vibrant life; for Till, a way of avoiding the depression over his breakup with girlfriend Tessa (the stunning Myriam Abeillon); and for Helmut, most poignantly of all, a relief from the anguish of slowly losing his father to Alzheimer’s disease. Handloegten handles all of these interludes with a profound delicacy, keeping sentimentality in check, never allowing the gimmickry of his plot to compromise the essential humanism of his characters.
Tech qualities are uniformly smooth, with Florian Hoffmeister’s lensing embossing pic with an appropriately golden glow.