So far the most thoroughly entertaining new movie I've seen this year.
This is a surprisingly intimate documentary about Rodney Bingenheimer, a gnomish, middle-aged fellow who, after spending his childhood as the neighborhood geek in Mountain View, California, took off for Hollywood in the '60s and became a central fixture of the LA music scene.
Over the next four decades, Bingenheimer grew from groupie to PR man to club promoter, finally becoming a DJ at influential radio station KROQ. Here he was responsible for establishing many of the bands associated with '80s "modern rock".
Bingenheimer is basically a one-man star-making machine, possibly the only rock DJ left who can make or break a band (even as KROQ insultingly shifts his show to more and more remote time slots: it currently runs on Sunday nights from midnight to 3am), as the legions of rock stars interviewed in this film can attest to. He was the first American DJ to play and promote David Bowie, the Sex Pistols, Blondie, the Smiths, Oasis, No Doubt, and Coldplay. Yet despite it all, he lives in near-poverty, his only wealth being his priceless collection of rock artifacts. Though he has many admirers, Bingenheimer can count his true friends on one hand and is painfully lovelorn.
Mayor of the Sunset Strip works on many levels: as a document of the changing music scene over the last 40 years; as an objective look at the intangible nature of celebrity; as an indictment of the contemporary radio industry; and most poignantly as a portrait of Bingenheimer as the Eternal Fan, a homely little man ignored by his own family and never fully accepted by the rising stars he attached himself to (except perhaps Nancy Sinatra and Cher).
This film affected me far more than I thought it would. Getting to see this at a movie theatre literally on the Sunset Strip, then walking home past West Hollywood's latest influx of beautiful transplants, I became somewhat depressed by this town: the lust for fame, the tyranny of the young and the attractive, how old age inevitably conquers all. Maybe because of my own situation as a slightly-known filmmaker, acquainted with both those doing quite well in show business and with those on the fringes, I could identify with poor Rodney. And to see the faces of the interviewees – some on top of the world, others fallen from glory, a few still struggling, after decades – speaks volumes about the fleetingness of the culture that obsesses Bingenheimer. (Hickenlooper amusingly underscores this point with repeated references to Kato Kaelin.)
Although the film's subject himself at first comes across as an opaque, Forrest Gump-Andy Warhol type, this shy, fragile man reveals so much of his inner life to the camera that it's heartbreaking. But there's still plenty of humor and an incredible wall-to-wall soundtrack of the music Bingenheimer loved and made famous. (It must have taken a few years for the film's lawyers to work out all the rights.)
Though Mayor of the Sunset Strip may not attract those non-Angelenos who have never heard of Rodney Bingenheimer, it's still great entertainment. I highly recommend it to all.