Bigger than Rod
Diminutive Rodney Bingenheimer hangs out with a lot of big-time musical icons in "Mayor of the Sunset Strip," a documentary that overrelies on his pixie-ish proximity to fame and his quizzical personality.
By DAWN EDEN
The title character of George Hickenlooper's documentary "Mayor of the
Sunset Strip" is Rodney Bingenheimer, a Los Angeles disc jockey who has
that uniquely Hollywood notoriety: He's famous for being famous. An
intimate of the stars ever since Sonny & Cher "adopted" him as an elfin
teenage runaway in 1965, Bingenheimer in a sense falls into the same
category as Mrs.
Miller, the woman who sat in the front row for every episode of "The
Tonight Show" during the early 1960s. He's a beloved yet laughable stand-in
for the everyday person who wanted to be close to the stars. A more modern
equivalent would be Kato Kaelin, who's among Bingenheimer's famous
associates. His name is evoked many times during "The Mayor of Sunset
Strip," and never without irony.
Ever since the rise of motion pictures, Hollywood has loved satirizing
those who buy into the celebrity myth, be they vapid or burned-out stars,
as portrayed by Marion Davies in "Show People" or Gloria Swanson in "Sunset
Boulevard," or obsessive fans, as portrayed by Robert De Niro in "King of
Comedy." Directors love these sorts of characters because, through them,
filmmakers can stand far above their subject matter making a Grand
Statement and be rewarded with that same adulation which they satirize.
Call it having your Kato and eating it too.
|MAYOR OF THE SUNSET STRIP|
|Written and directed by: George Hickenlooper.|
Featuring: Rodney Bingenheimer, Tori Amos, Billie Joe Armstrong, Beck, Sonny Bono, David Bowie, Cher, Alice Cooper, Cherie Currie, Michael Des Barres, John Doe, Corey Feldman, Kim Fowley, Liam Gallagher, Deborah Harry, George Hickenlooper, Mick Jagger, Joan Jett, Davy Jones, Kato Kaelin, Lance Loud, Courtney Love, Chris Martin, Paul McCartney, Poe, Joey Ramone, Keanu Reeves, Paul Reubens, David Lee Roth, Nancy Sinatra, Phil Spector, Gwen Stefani, Pete Townshend, Ronald Vaughan, Brian Wilson, Lisa Worden, Neil Young.
Choreography by: Igor Meglic, Kramer Morgenthau.
Edited by: Julie Janata.
Related links: Official site
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If there's anything left to be said about the vapidity that defines the
cult of celebrity, I'd expect a director to find it through Rodney
Bingenheimer. I met Bingenheimer in June 1986, when I was 17. He was around
40 and on the tail end of his last period of musical relevance, when his
Los Angeles radio show "Rodney on the ROQ" helped launch the careers of the
Bangles and other underground-crossover acts. A mutual acquaintance had
recruited me to be Rodney's tour guide during one of his rare trips to New
York City. (Coincidentally, that was the same trip when the germ of "Mayor
of the Sunset Strip" emerged, as Bingenheimer met the New Jersey rock band
Dramarama, whose Chris Carter is the film's main producer.)
I still had a few more years of musical relevance in me, so I was able to
play the resident hipster with Bingenheimer for a couple of afternoons,
taking him around Greenwich Village where he seemed to stop before
every store window to comb his painstakingly arranged Brian Jones
coif and interviewing him for The Bob fanzine. He was
unfailingly polite a perfect gentleman and gave me a fine
interview. Yet, I felt myself completely unable to connect with him.|
He seemed to have no interior life. I couldn't imagine him reading a book
if it wasn't related to rock and roll, or caring about anything outside his
own little island of hipness. There was no there there.
Director Hickenlooper draws a host of cinematic gimmicks to bring drama to
Rodney's story. Much of the film amounts to a dizzying, rapid-fire assault
of footage of Bingenheimer with celebrities, intercut with talking heads of
stars singing his praises. At first, he comes off as Zelig with bangs.
As the film progresses, it takes the familiar biographical turn, showing
the pixie's progress from a stand-in for Davy Jones on the "Prince and the
Pauper" episode of the Monkees, to a promo man helping David Bowie find his
footing in L.A., to the proprietor of the influential early-'70s sin palace
Rodney's English Disco. It's clear that, somewhere along the way,
Bingenheimer had an eye for talent and an ability to spot trends. Yet, the
film portrays him as someone whose only motivation was to be near
stars and his lonely life in a hovel-turned-autograph-museum gives
the viewer no reason to doubt that assessment.
Indeed, the film draws its pathos from the contrast between Bingenheimer's
desire to be around noteables and the social isolation that characterizes
his life outside the celebrity world. It broadens its scope to examine the
psychology of fandom bringing in an "expert" to pontificate on the
subject and examining how Bingenheimer and his partner in crime,
notorious ossified misogynist Kim Fowley, were both abandoned by their
But even when the tragedy underlying Bingenheimer's desire for acceptance
by the beautiful people is revealed, it's nearly impossible for the viewer
to connect with him, care about him, or feel anything more than
arm's-length pity. The film's technical beauty it's masterfully
edited, with easily the best non-original
soundtrack of any film in years ultimately serves to exacerbate
Bingenheimer's maddening lack of affectation. His stock expression an
inscrutable smile-frown makes him look like nothing so much as a
Requiring an audience to stare at that same blank expression for the bulk
of an hour and a half is a great demand for a filmmaker to make. It should only
be made when the reward is equally great. "The Mayor of the Sunset Strip"
is in many ways an enlightening and well-done piece of cinema. But its
mission is to portray the utter vacancy at the base of the desire to be
around celebrity, and it succeeds all too well.
|MARCH 27, 2004|
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