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Thursday, March 09, 2006

Review: The Mayor Of The Sunset Strip

If I wrote this review twenty times it would come out twenty different ways. Let's see what happens.

KROQ disc jockey and scene maker Rodney Bingenheimer gets no respect. He's done so much for modern music, has asked for so little and has little to show for it except memories and an apartment full of memorabilia. Framed on his wall is Elvis' driving permit, given to him by the man himself. Director George Hickenlooper shows nothing but contempt for Rodney. The Mayor Of The Sunset Strip is a hit job from start to finish. So Rodney doesn't have a great radio voice. He's not forthcoming with information. He's had the same haircut since the 60s when he doubled for Davy Jones on The Monkees. He's a celebrity junkie. He has odd friends. His mother and father were shmucks. He wants to be loved but the object of his affection isn't interested. Big deal. Big effin deal.

Rodney was the John Peel of the United States. He played the original UK and NY punk records before anyone. His Rodney On The ROQ records were fantastic samplers of the original L.A. punk scene. He boosts bands he loves with the fanaticism of a pure fan with no agenda except to share his favorites with others. Still Hickenlooper chooses to make mock Rodney for his Zelig, Andy Warhol and Forrest Gump qualities. Worse, his attempt to reveal uncomfortable truths like in Crumb comes across as cruel and unusual punishment for a man whose only crime seems to be that he's the ultimate outsider type who somehow made himself the center of attention in the insider's world. Good for Rodney.

Special cruelty is saved for Ronald Vaughan, a.k.a. Isadore Ivy, an obviously mentally challenged man who yearns for fame with a passion you have to find touching (and also delusional). The camera stays on his cheap, worn out shoes for a few seconds and the only point I see is that the director finds this relevant. I was going to write he seemed harmless, but his infatuation with Jennifer Love Hewitt led to stalking and a restraining order. This was two years after the film though.

Kim Fowley litters the film too and I was constantly fantasizing him getting hit in the head with a brick. What a prick. Nancy Sinatra and Cher sing his praises endlessly, while David Bowie seems too aware of the camera to do anything more than act polite.

The Mayor Of Sunset Strip, for all its malice, is still well put together and an interesting history. Rodney deserves better though.


Anonymous MikalM said...

That's odd. I saw the film, and got a completely different impression.

Here's a review I wrote of it:

"A funny, sad, and revealing documentary about Rodney Bingenheimer, KROQ deejay and LA rock scenester for nearly forty years. Directed by the same guy who did Hearts of Darkness, Mayor follows Rodney's life as a sort of superannuated male groupie who's been able to not only insinuate himself with rock royalty from the mid-Sixties, but break new acts as a club owner and DJ...and yet has virtually nothing to show for his being the first American champion of everyone from David Bowie, to the Ramones, to Oasis.

Period clips show Rodney popping up, Zelig-like, in virtually every rock n' roll turning point since 1965. One especially interesting piece is a tape recording of him attempting to direct-dial President Kennedy in 1963, and speaking with the same halting, wheezy voice as a Mountain View-raised teen that he still sports forty years later.

Rodney comes off on screen much as he does on the radio. Physically, he's a diminutive, elfin, middle-aged teenager who still sports the same hairdo and clothes ensemble he's had since the late-70s punk/new-wave era. Personally, he's a not-too-bright, unpretentious, likable, good-hearted naif who loves rock n' roll, and is only intermittently aware of how much potential success, personal growth and maturity he's sacrificed to the music...not as a performer or promoter, but as a mere fan, albeit one who gets to party with his heroes, and occasionally have them shoot him some credit or paid work. He's too kindhearted and courteous to openly badmouth the many people who've exploited him, although the camera does catch one scene where he angrily confronts a prodigy who's returned his kindness by setting up a competing, nearly-identical radio program.

There are plenty of interviews with famous folks who owe their careers to the man, and/or who've tried to help him in return. The standouts are a backstage meeting between Rodney and David Bowie (who Rodney broke in the USA), and a guest visit on Bingenheimer's KROQ show by the brain-damaged, brilliant Beach Boy Brian Wilson. Fellow scenester, would-be-impresario and uber-asshole Kim Fowley contributes some hilarious observations as well -- my favorite is when he answers ex-Runaway Cherie Currie's accusations of past sexual misdeeds with a stinging, self-deprecating riposte.

Watching Mayor of the Sunset Strip brought back memories of listening to Rodney on KROQ on Sunday nights in the late 70s and early 80s. I remember that his show immediately followed Dr. Demento's revue of self-consciously clever novelty records, of which I was a regular listener. Eventually Rodney's world of punk rock and Sunset-Strip scenesterism proved to be far more fun and refreshing than Demento's retread geekfest, and I joined the burgeoning punk/New-Wave world.

In other worlds, and more generally, Rodney Bingenheimer saved me from becoming a nerd. Had I -- a rather shy music-lover much like Mr. B -- not immersed myself in the late-70s L.A. underground, I could very easily have retreated into the dork-world epitomized by Demento and his fans, and spent my college years onward as a Dungeons-and-Dragons-playing, compulsively-punning, socially-illiterate geek. Much of what's been good, interesting, stimulating and just plain fun in my life from 1977 onwards can be directly traced to the influence of this funny little guy and his ability to transmit a kind of L.A. rock-n-roll gestalt to both the famous and the fans.

Put me down as yet another individual the Mayor of the Sunset Strip helped, and who's only now getting around to giving him his propers.

10:18 PM

Blogger Emerson said...


I liked your review a lot. I see myself as the Protector Of Good Peoples (I'm also the guy who wants not good people to suffer) so my review was my reaction and it is only one angle.

Also, most reviews follow a similar structure that's informative, expansive and dry, Yours was all that and personal, which is to me 10 times better.

In the space I have on a blog, which I factor in the attention span of most blog readers, I want to say something different if possible, back it up, and then finish. Otherwise, my natural tendency is to write a 12 page analysis and nobody probably read past the third paragraph.

5:53 AM

Blogger Fraticornicos Fan Club said...

What a weird blog, man. Luv it. Best wishes from Argentina.

9:45 AM


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