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    Mayor of the Sunset Strip

    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.


    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.

    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
    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.

    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.)

    Mayor of the Sunset Strip  
    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.

      Mayor of the Sunset Strip
    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 parents.

    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 zoned-out Pagliacci.

    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

    Reader comments on Mayor of the Sunset Strip:

  • Re: MAYOR OF THE SUNSET STRIP   from Ronald Vaughan, Nov 8, 2005
  • Re: MAYOR OF THE SUNSET STRIP   from Elise, Aug 15, 2006
  • Mayor of the Sunset Strip   from Ronald Vaughan, Aug 23, 2005
  • sexy not   from Shai, Jan 29, 2006
  • Rodney Bingenheimer on Internet!   from Ronald Vaughan, Feb 22, 2006
  • billie joe armstrong   from laura, Feb 25, 2006
  • Re: billie joe armstrong   from april, Aug 11, 2006
  • billie joe armstrong   from 11westk, Nov 6, 2006
  • Rodney Bingenheimer!   from Elise, May 11, 2009
  • Re: Rodney Bingenheimer!   from Ronald Vaughan, Aug 26, 2006
  • Re: Rodney Bingenheimer!   from Tim, Dec 24, 2006
  • Re: Rodney Bingenheimer!   from Elise, Jul 3, 2007

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