A fascinatingly detailed snapshot of the flamboyant outer reaches of countercultural San Francisco in the hippie years and an emotional celebration of diversity, liberation, sexual anarchy and fabulousness, “The Cockettes” joyously re-creates the brief but resplendent reign of the legendary freakadelic drag troupe. One of the pivotal moments covered in documakers Bill Weber and David Weissman’s affectionate chronicle is the group’s disastrous 1971 Off Broadway stint in New York, which showed that the West Coast screamers were a phenomenon that didn’t travel. But this life-affirming time-warp experience should connect with audiences far and wide, suggesting significant theatrical potential in the U.S. and other sophisticated markets, especially, but not exclusively, with audiences old enough to remember the era.
An amorphous ensemble of hippies made up mainly of gay men but also including at least one straight man, a number of women and even a child, the Cockettes migrated from the streets to the stage of San Francisco’s Palace Theater as a singing, dancing, stripping revue that began as a support act for the midnight movie lineup but soon became the main attraction.
Performing together from 1969 through 1972, they created 20 shows with titles like “Gone With the Showboat to Oklahoma” and sci-fi extravaganza “Journey to the Center of Uranus,” which featured drag icon Divine as a human crustacean singing “A Crab on Uranus Means You’re Loved.” The group also starred in four films that make the work of Jack Hill look slick, including “Elevator Girls in Bondage” and “Tricia’s Wedding,” a hilariously slapdash romp that premiered on the night of Tricia Nixon’s White House nuptials, featuring drag incarnations of Jackie and Rose Kennedy, Mamie Eisenhower and Lady Bird Johnson.
Assembling an astonishing range of footage culled mainly from the archives of former Cockette Martin Worman, filmmakers Weissman and Weber, who also edited, have lovingly retraced the group’s rise and fall. The docu starts with the celebrity-studded New York opening, then backtracks to give a vivid picture of San Francisco in the late ’60s, when the Grateful Dead were playing free street concerts, the first gay rights demonstrations were taking place, hippies were dropping acid on Haight Street and a revolution seemed just around the corner.
The Cockettes were formed by newly arrived New York actor George Harris, who blossomed into a messianic figure known as Hibiscus. Dressed in 1940s finery, sequins, furs and glitter, and flagrantly baring their crotches, the hippie sideshow began staging largely improvised fairy tales on acid, with early shows including a “Madame Butterfly” sung in fake Cantonese. The Cockettes evolved into a cultural phenomenon of liberated theater, refining their freewheeling act only to a degree with the addition of a director and, in the latter shows, a script.
As professionalism and structure began creeping into the picture, and as differences sprang up over the idea of charging for what was conceived as free theater, Hibiscus and other core members broke away. The remaining Cockettes staged a Busby Berkeley-inspired ’30s show called “Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma,” which prompted a widely read column by Rex Reed.
The invitation to New York followed, with a planeload of Cockettes crossing the country smashed and in full drag. But jaded New Yorkers expecting polished entertainment were unprepared for what was more like an exuberant but undisciplined manifestation of a lifestyle, and audiences fled.
While popular shows were staged again after the return to San Francisco, the Cockettes’ idyll clearly was over. The last, rather hastily recapped period jumps from the early ’70s, as the group suffered a series of drug deaths, to the 1980s, when key members Hibiscus and drag uber-diva Sylvester were among the early wave of AIDS losses.
Weissman and Weber successfully broaden the scope of their film beyond the Cockettes. Pic notes the era’s complex network of mutually dependent communes, with one house supplying food while others covered child care. Unemployment was the desired norm, with everyone living on food stamps, welfare or disability, much of which was wiped out when Ronald Reagan became governor. The loose attitudes toward property and necessity of theft also are amusingly touched on with the mysterious disappearance of a trunk of Peking Opera costumes that later turned up in the Cockettes revue “Pearls Over Shanghai.”
But what emerges perhaps most strongly is the sense of a time when gender bending was not an issue. The climate of all-embracing acceptance, blurred sexual lines, joyful transgression, rebellion and freedom comes through with warmth, humor and nostalgia.The subjects interviewed are a delightful mix of forthcoming personalities, each with a different view — and often a conflicting recollection — of the experience. The cultural influences of the Cockettes’ peculiar brand of outrageousness can be assessed in part by the extraordinary lineup of famous fans, such as Alice Cooper, Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Rauschenberg, Janis Joplin and Truman Capote.
Most notable among these is director John Waters, whose articulate observations are witty, illuminating and extraordinarily incisive in pinpointing the Cockettes’ place in pop culture. Densely packed with information and insights and never repetitive, the impressively edited docu is stylishly assembled using vintage-look silent movie inter-titles and a playful collection of tinkly piano tunes and show numbers. Summing up the Cockettes’ era with poignant wistfulness, the docu closes with group member Anton “Reggie” Dunnigan’s saddened assessment of the world today as a place of wars, banks, lies and corruption. “Give me a torn dress, a beach and a hit of acid and that’s enough,” he says. “That’s a lot.”