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Monday, November 1, 2010

Remembering George Hickenlooper's "Mayor of the Sunset Strip"

From HARP Magazine

“Mayor of the Sunset Strip”

By Steven Rosen

Rodney Bingenheimer is a rock ‘n’ roll Zelig. He’s also a rueful Ponce de Leon, searching for his Fountain of Youth in pop culture.

In “Mayor of the Sunset Strip,” the enormously entertaining and surprisingly poignant – revelatory, even – documentary about him by George Hickenlooper, we see the short, pixieish Bingenheimer as a stand-in for Davy Jones of The Monkees on the set of the TV series. They’re side-by-side on the set, the same build with the same circa-1960s modish features. Both are young, of course, Bingenheimer only recently has arrived in L.A. from northern California, where he was a misunderstood adolescent. (The film will be released theatrically in March.)

Thirty-five years later, Bingenheimer is still with the hot rock celebrities he has befriended – only now as a late-night weekend deejay playing whatever he wants on modern-rock station KROQ. Coldplay and No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani are among those seen with Rodney in this film.

And he still looks ageless – a tiny slip of a man dressed in casual black outfits and wearing his brown hair in a still-1960s modish, rooster-style cut with bangs. His face still has its little-boy gentleness, although a crease around the mouth now gives him a frown-like smile like the comedian Joe E. Brown.

Hickenlooper, whose fine documentary “Hearts of Darkness” was about the making of “Apocalypse Now,” has a very different subject from Francis Ford Coppola in Bingenheimer. He seems to cruise through his life passively rather than trying to shape and change it. He is a facilitator rather than an artist, but he’s always where the action is.

This film nicely separates Bingenheimer’s public and private lives, without losing sense of him as a mysterious whole. The public life is a delight – Hickenlooper extensively uses archival film and video footage as well as the subject’s own material. There’s even a taped phone call of a very young Bingenheimer trying to reach President Kennedy in the White House.

To a giddy and exhilarating rock sound track, Hickenlooper shows Bingenheimer with everyone who ever mattered musically to L.A. rock from the 1960s onward. He’s seen with Sonny & Cher, Nancy Sinatra, X, Brian Wilson, the Beatles, Bowie and his beloved groupie friends the GTOs. Many of the celebrities sit for new interviews – Bowie, Jones, Sinatra and Courtney Love are especially insightful, loving even.

And the rowdies of L.A.’s 1970s-era glam/glitter scene, where Bingenheimer ran Rodney’s English Disco and was one of the first to champion arty, theatrical British rock, are present here, too. The towering Kim Fowley is hilariously vulgar – scary, even – as he talks about all the sex he got from the young girls who went to Bingenheimer’s club.

But the film captures the other side of Bingenheimer, too. There’s a loneliness reflected in his quietude – he admits to longing for a family he doesn’t have. In some emotionally raw footage, he tries to tell a younger friend, Camille Chancery, he loves her while she sits uncomfortably by his side.

His mother has recently died, and he keeps her ashes in his crowded apartment awaiting a trip to England to spread them. Hickenlooper follows him to England, where he releases the ashes on a tour boat and silently prays.

Bingenheimer also is resentful, although he’s too polite to get angry about it, that his radio station has slotted him on a graveyard shift – Sundays midnight-3 a.m. He’s never earned much, so it’s unclear what his future will be. “It’s unbelievable somebody could be in music this long, help so many people and just be in it for the music,” a younger KROQ deejay observes of Bingenheimer.

Indeed, it is – it’s also a little painful, too. But the great music that still makes him happy, and is as much a part of this movie as he is, alleviates as much of that pain as is possible.

(George Hickenlooper died Oct. 29, 2010.)

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