Mayor of the Sunset Strip
review by Elias Savada, 11 June 2004

My last encounter with George Hickenlooper was his excursion into an ill-fated fictional arena. ("The Man From Elysian Fields is a cold, bliss-less work that groans along thinking itself some important comment on how life throws us some beguiling curves.") George, who takes his criticism like a saint, sent me a single sentence email "I'm sorry you didn't like my picture." As George is the one of less than a handful of filmmakers (let alone my readers) who ever responded personally to me, I emailed him back a promising "Maybe next time."

Well, next time is here, and the director-writer is back in exemplary documentary mode (Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse) with an entertaining look at one of La-La-Land's most unusual figures, an increasingly sad personality heretofore unknown to the likes of cultural (and especially east coast) music nomads such as myself, but probably just as unfamiliar to many other, more enlightened folk, particularly those not residing in what I like to call the Other Planet, but which is more commonly called Los Angeles.

Despite it's title implications, The Mayor of Sunset Strip is not about a local politico, although the life of pop star impresario Rodney Bingenheimer, as explored in this 96-minute retrospective covers a waifish man-child up the alternative music ladder to where he is today—a fifty-something on the verge of being cast-off in a society that, like too many television executives, is concerned about demographics, of appealing to that 18-24 (i.e, the kids with the money) market.

Rodney is the man who would promote a thousand (well, maybe a few less) unknown punk rock bands into superstar status. He's unselfishly furthered other now-mainstream attractions that, yes, I do recognize. Damn it, I have their music on my iPod, too. As the Prince of Pop atop a 20-year reign as a KROQ radio personality, Rodney's slim frame and small stature belie a bulging rolodex that reads like a who's who of rockdom. He knows "them" all, the folks who have adorned countless covers of Rolling Stone, and then, he knows some more. He introduced America, or made it really, really want to listen to such luminaries as David Bowie, Blondie, The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, Van Halen, The Go-Go's, Joan Jett, Dramarama, No Doubt, Coldplay, and Oasis. My affinity for listening to all-news radio had me miss out, until now, an American classic, a top-tier DJ who has launched many a musical battleship.

Hickenlooper says he caught first notice of his film's subject when he turned on a radio late one night and heard a unique, high-pitched, child-like voice unlike other standard-issue baritone announcers. Personally, I think he realized that he and Rodney both had the same number of letters in their names. Karma.

The movie follows the radio wonder about town and fills in choice historical tidbits. Child of a failed marriage, tossed out in the streets as a teenager, but still a child devoted to his sailor dad and shapely, waitress mom. We see rock concert footage of Rodney introducing a main attraction, of him schmoozing with Nancy Sinatra (who considers him a "sweet boy"), of home movies of him growing up in Mountain View, and driving around in an aging Nova. We share a pack rat's personal mementos, walls of memorabilia and gold records, a kitchen cluttered with empty Coca-Cola bottles, his mother's ashes nearby. We turn the pages of his family photo albums, meet his famous friends and his childhood acquaintances. We cringe at his frugal lifestyle (his favorite restaurant isn't Spago, which opened just about the same time Rodney took to the airwaves, but Denny's and IHOP), and revel in his interesting connection to The Monkees. Seems he auditioned when that rock quartet was being manufactured in the fall of 1965; he missed the final cut (duh), but made some bucks as David Jones' double. This gig also made him an unlikely groupie/babe magnet; allowing him to get laid by association with some of the generation's hottest acts. We watch Rodney popping up in old television shows (arrows humorously point his mop top out), frolicking in the love and peace 1970s, becoming a cuddly guy in the 1980s, and championing underground music for two decades. We get filmed testimonials from Cher (Hickenlooper superimposes her name on the bottom of the screen, just in case you don't know who she is), David Bowie, Ray Manzarek (of The Doors), Mick Jagger, Alice Cooper, among others.

Hickenlopper follows Rodney around town as a friend (they've known each other since 1997), not as someone examining something under an E! microscope. There's a growing warmth as each frame unreels. He gets his "star" to reflect on his life, past and present, with some terrific anecdotes about the L.A. club scene. The director has an occasional off-screen voice-over, as interviewer, trying to get deeper into his subject, even to asking him point blank if he's worried about how he'll come off in this film. Rodney, without a lawyer's assistance, smartly provides no comment. What will be, will be. Sure, we finally see Rodney raise an eyebrow and get hopping mad at former Dramarama (which Rodney helped to find fame and fortune) band member Chris Carter, one of the film's producers, when Carter takes a DJ job with KROQ's competitor. Rodney's anger rises as deep as the virtual knife is jabbed in his back.

Although not entirely bittersweet, there is a pale sadness that rises up in the film's throat in its final third. Mayor of the Sunset Strip is a nostalgic merry-go-round. It's quaint, charming, and often entrancing. You're riding the best horse on the ride. And the music couldn't be better.

Written and
Directed by:

George Hickenlooper

Rodney Bingenheimer

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult






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