Mayor of the Sunset Strip

Few have parlayed the visceral appeal of rock 'n' roll and its attendant celebrity into a steady vocation in the manner of Rodney Bingenheimer. The completeness of filmmaker George Hickenlooper's pict should open some fest and specialty venue screenings for "Mayor of the Sunset Strip."

This article was corrected on June 26, 2003.

Few have parlayed the visceral appeal of rock ‘n’ roll and its attendant celebrity into a steady vocation in the manner of Rodney Bingenheimer. L.A. club owner and disc jockey with an ear for the next big thing over three decades, Bingenheimer has made a life that memorabilia collectors and hangers-on envy — his celebrity is small when compared to the people he knows (David Bowie, Oasis, Gwen Stefani, etc.), and he’s closer to wallflower than star, but he has his followers and groupies no matter how far he fades from the spotlight. The completeness of filmmaker George Hickenlooper’s picture should open some fest and specialty venue screenings for “Mayor of the Sunset Strip,” even though Bingenheimer’s fame is pretty much limited to Southern California.

Eventually, Hickenlooper’s portrait becomes a sad story of Northern California-bred youth who found solace, and the seeds of a lifestyle, in the movie star magazines his mother had lying around the house. From those glossy images of the early 1960s he crafted an image of success that was based on getting close to those people and as much as he succeeds in fulfilling that ambition, “Mayor of the Sunset Strip” eventually exposes an unhappy man, living without love and a diminished sense of respect.

To Bingenheimer’s credit, he has remained unjaded with nary a sign of jealousy as his former associates lead the lives of stars. He dines at IHOP, Denny’s and Canter’s deli, drives a classic GTO, and lives in a memorabilia-filled apartment off Sunset Boulevard.

Docu opens with Bingenheimer introducing X, a band he championed in its early years more than two decades ago, and backstage at concerts, generally the place to find Bingenheimer these days — his radio show at KROQ, where he has worked since 1976, has been reduced to a midnight-3 a.m. shift on Sundays. That he lacks fulfillment silences Bingenheimer more than it angers him. The weight of disappointment hangs heavy on the corners of his mouth, giving him an exaggerated clown frown even when he appears emotionless; his page-boy hairdo, re-shaped only during the early Bowie years, adds to his elfin qualities.

Bingenheimer, in his nasally staccato voice, shares his collections and memories, the glee in his voice tempered by years of visitors a bit less isntrigued by the goodies than he is. But Bingenheimer is a welcoming fellow — much of the footage is recent, positioning him more as a personality who has been around so long that he knows everyone rather than as a man still on the cutting edge. (It’s even mentioned that Bingenheimer has gone from the king of what’s happening to the king of obscure.)

Fellow KROQ DJ Jed the Fish proffers the thought that it’s “unbelievable” that somebody could be in the music business as long as Bingenheimer just because they love the music. He’s right: “Mayor” offers no woulda-coulda-shoulda for Bingenheimer and he never offers up any sort of alternative scenario about how he missed his big break.

In the long run, Bingenheimer’s greatest achievement is as a conduit, bringing, for the most part, British bands to the attention of L.A. auds. Only when he argues with producer Chris Carter after Carter takes a DJ gig with a competitor does Bingenheimer show any anger or protectiveness of his image as a band-breaker; he never once comments on the self-serving radio stations and DJs that pat themselves on the backs for doing what he has done unheralded for decades.

Telling visits with Bingenheimer’s father, Bing, and his stepmother detail the absence of value he presented his father. Neither of the elders shares even the slightest interest in Rodney’s fascination with celebrity. Vexed as they are about his life, so, too, are Rodney’s childhood friends. Seemingly, the only person who understood Rodney was his late mother.

Short and thin, Bingenheimer descended on Hollywood in the mid-1960s and got his foot in the entertainment door as the body double for the Monkees’ Davy Jones. Through that gig he wound up hanging, “Zelig”-like, with an assortment of musicians — rather humorous footage finds Rodney in video shoots with the Mamas and Papas and other L.A acts — and before long he was chronicling L.A.’s rock world for a host of magazines.

In the early 1970s, he opened his English Disco and exposed the early works of Bowie, the Sweet, T-Rex and the like to an audience craving the latest sounds. To some, that was his pinnacle. He shared a bond of age, energy and discovery with the musicians; as the years passed, Bingenheimer became more an older brother figure welcoming musicians as they were about to explode.

The quartet of cinematographers capture the energy of rock ‘n’ roll and the Strip itself, but when it comes to Bingenheimer, no matter what the setting is, they shoot him close and cramped as if he never leaves the DJ booth. Bingenheimer appears to only operate in friendly confines and when a close female friend, seated on Bingenheimer’s bed with him, admits she has no romantic feelings for him, there’s a sense that he’s more alone in this world than he ever thought possible. Dark as that is, it’s the ultimate triumph in Hickenlooper’s version of the Rodney Bingenheimer story.

Spectacular song selection gives the docu an appropriate rock ‘n’ roll swagger and accompanying soundtrack would be a valuable overview of the bands championed by Rodney on the ROQ.

Mayor of the Sunset Strip

Production: A Caldera Prods. presentation with Perna Prods. and Questionmark (?) Prods. in association with Kino-Eye American. Produced by Chris Carter, Greg Little, Tommy Perna. Executive producer, Donald Zuckerman. Coproducer, Julie Janata. Directed, written by George Hickenlooper.

Crew: Camera (FotoKem color) Kramer Morgenthau, Igor Meglic, Hickenlooper, Chris Carter; music, Anthony Marinelli; music supervisors, Charles Raggio, Chris Carter; sound, Mike Chock. Reviewed at IFP Los Angeles Film Festival, June 19, 2003. Running time: 94 MIN.

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