Mayor of the Sunset Strip – Director George Hickenlooper, 2003
This documentary and its subject matter are an anomaly. Rodney Bingenheimer is, 12 years after this documentary was made (and the decade it took to make it) still, only famous in an odd and obscure way. First, let it be said that the film is original, informative, and chock full of rarely or never-before seen archival footage and photos spanning 40 years. It tells a fairly complete story about something utterly fascinating and unlike any other, and it is a stellar documentary on that basis. It is funny, with unexpected moments of insights that are resonant. There is a running Kato Kaelin joke that explains the entire mid 90’s culture of Los Angeles like no other story could.
Known as a finder of new alternative bands, particularly in the Punk, British Alternative and Indie scene, self-made radio man and KROQ DJ Bingenheimer enjoys a celebration of his career in the opening scene of the film. It’s a curious scene, and isolating for the casual viewer who may think they know popular culture. This quiet, small, shy man is being feted by L.A. musicians, peers and friends. He is finally being publicly acknowledged as “The Mayor of the Sunset Strip” and for his contributions to music, radio, and the scene (and, in the film, as evident in the cameras being turned on here). In quick succession, the film gives us Gwen Stefani and Chris Martin fresh off of Coldplay’s very first record, David Bowie, Johhny Marr, and Noel Gallagher, to name just a few, all shown with Rodney or speaking about his positive attributes. Chris Stein and Debbie Harry are close friends. Courtney Love tells us her plan to break into music was to “stalk Rodney Bingenheimer” (and we believe her). So who is Rodney Bingenheimer?
Our subject’s rise to semi-fame is charmed and curious, as well as very funny, as the little autograph hound that could finds his way to late 60’s and early 70’s mega stars Sonny & Cher, the Monkees, and more. He becomes a Zelig of sorts, with endless photographs revealing him in the background of Rock Icon after Rock Icon. Anyone who’s been photographed a lot and was keeping up with the changing trends in the 60’s, early and late 70’s and into the 80’s is bound to have a trove of hilarious photographs and ever-more hilarious pant widths, in a carousel reminiscent of the perfectly-played flashback of the early incarnations of Spinal Tap (from the Thamesmen and through the Rock roller coaster until they are stuffing cucumbers down their lycra pants as aging hair metalers Tap) and Rodney, the cooperative subject, is good-natured throughout the tour of his no-doubt priceless archives of all and sundry in fun fur vests, beads, long hair, Mop Tops, and “the perfect Brian Jones ‘do”. Flashing forward to Bingenheimer of today, there’s something amazing about someone who wears a self-imposed uniform every day, something almost clerical, but dignified and cool that is usually the provenance of fashion designers, not former male groupies. Somewhere along the way, Bingenheimer reinvented himself and became timeless after all those years of mod trends that were once De rigeuer. The follower became an unusual, individualistic leader, with his unlikely, quiet, confidence intact.
The big question that comes as the film takes a look at the public Bingenheimer, is one of the private lens: Who made him? What is his family background? Who is he, beyond this public face (or radio voice)? The parts of the film that swing away from the scrapbooks and claims to fame and into those questions are another side of equally riveting, heart-rending story telling. There are long shadows left by Rodney’s mother’s recent death, which he is dealing with in the film (with one final, remarkable scene as one of the most heartbreaking ever put to documentary film). There are also pangs of sadness and neglect that seem to exist in the generation and culture gap between the 50ish Rodney and his estranged father and step-mother. In one scene it’s shown by the director that Rodney’s Dad & wife don’t have a single photograph of Rodney on display in their large home, a fact which prompts Rodney to cover for them by finding an ancient picture of him as a kid with the Easter Bunny, in a stashed away spot that only he seems to be aware of. Their continued indifference to his need to matter to them in this way carries the ring of tragedy of an ignored child. Bingenheimer’s blank and unruffled demeanor makes one want to cry out for him.
What does it mean to be the Unofficial Mayor of the Sunset Strip? What is the honour in this Honorific? At this late stage? With a best friend in Kim Fowley, apparently the scariest and creepiest character to surface on that pavement, the Super-Ego to Rodney’s Id? Isn’t the Sunset Strip a seedy place, a once great Mecca for rock music that surged and died with drugs and drink and excess? Is it a commercial tourist attraction that really only exists time-stamped in films? Is it the place where predators waited, wait still, for young and innocent corn fed girls and boys to step off buses with no idea that they only camera they’re likely to face is in pornography, as twisted and perverted as could be from their youthful dreams? Is it just an award for surviving and for archiving, albeit beautifully, your collection of keepsakes, and for being the only one who seemed not to sell out even when, at some point down the line, you should have? If only for the sake of retirement?
Is it, even, another form of “Sunset Boulevard” where Norma Desmond went mad waiting for her chance to be called for her close up, chasing inappropriate younger men who she, pitifully, could not see were not only decades too young, but were there only for a specific exchange of goods and services- commerce-and never romance at all? We, who’ve never been to the Strip, to that scene, cannot understand, or appreciate. We are never “Godhead” and always just the audience. We are left confused.
The film is an amazing artifact that, yet, leaves a sense of an agenda. The director’s deliberate narrative cuts try to pin the subject down to be one thing, showing a little too much at the seams, although it’s entirely possible that this documentary subject IS the odd, lonely, perhaps unfulfilled, scarred, gentle genius the film wants him to be. Maybe the success of the film lies in this uncomfortable impression, with emotional effects the are hard to take. Any good and decent person, and one who made some (apparently) thankless contributions to music and culture, creating real wealth for many and seemingly refusing a cut or a pound of flesh, ought to get a happy ending. Some kind of happy ending. The film takes great pains to make that seem unlikely, not through the doom of the typical dark Hollywood ending, but through the idea of life’s inescapable, inherent aloneness. The very blankness of affect or ego that made Bingenheimer the trusted side man to so many 5-star names, has, perhaps, the opposite effect on the viewer; maybe it unsettles us to see someone behaving so different than what we’ve come to expect from those touched by fame in this era of the talentless fame-whores. We are now, used to seeing people who scream to be seen, loved, hated, made rich, anything but ignored, as they pilfer away any dignity they were born with. Maybe we are uncomfortable because in Rodney’s place, we would have been greedier, burned out or faded away. Maybe we’re jealous and looking for the flaw.
After two viewings, the film is satisfying and interesting on many levels, but also leaves lingering and uncomfortable questions about the nature of fame versus cred, the question of talent and the idea of legacy. With the seediness we expect from this Strip of turf, assuredly, there must be unsung heroes, too, and just maybe we’ve finally seen one in real life who is a real wonder. Yet, Rodney Bingenheimer remains, somehow, a question mark. Some of the questions are unbearably sad, a few frustrate, and there’s a nagging sense of a missing piece of this story that wouldn’t play, that wouldn’t sell. It’s uncomfortable. It’s maddening, and it’s also great Documentary.
By Jacqueline Howell