Mayor of the Sunset Strip
Directed by George Hickenlooper. (2003, R, 94 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., April 30, 2004
Everything I know about rock & roll, I learned from Rodney Bingenheimer. OK, maybe not everything (my brother hit me with the Devo stick early on, and I understood that Elvis was cool from the womb onward), but Bingenheimer’s long-running Rodney on the Roq Top 10 column in the seminal SoCal punk zine Flipside dictated my musical tastes from the moment I first laid eyes on it, circa 1982. I was 15, Flipside was 5, and Rodney was already somewhere in his 30s, and to this day it still amazes me that Bingenheimer – the Los Angeles scenester and latter-day taste-making über-DJ at L.A.’s flagship KROQ radio station – isn’t the most beloved man in the world. After all, as George Hickenlooper’s immensely engrossing documentary reveals over and over, the diminutive, shy, pageboy-banged gnome of late-night L.A. introduced the city – and by extension, the country – to future icons David Bowie, the Beatles, the entire glam movement, the entire punk movement, the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, Blondie, Oasis, Coldplay, and almost any other band you can think of that matters. Back in the day, this tiny cipher, an American John Peel if ever there were one, ruled the L.A. rock & roll scene simply by mastering the fine art of hanging out. "Sonny and Cher were like my mom and dad," Bingenheimer says at one point, but he’s also seen palling around with the likes of Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Elton John, Pamela des Barres, Phil Spector, Alice Cooper, and Courtney Love, who, when Hickenlooper asks how the two met, replies, "I stalked him." Hickenlooper’s exhaustive documentary isn’t just about Rodney Bingenheimer, however; the director uses his odd little (5-foot-3-inch) subject to explore the changing nature of fame in America, touching all the while on the groupie phenomenon and the unslakable, all-American "aspiration to fame" that drove the gnomish introvert to become one of the most beloved figures in the history of L.A.’s rock & roll counterculture, a position that, while his radio show has been relegated to the graveyard hours by KROQ’s unsympathetic corporate management system, he still holds in the hearts and minds of those on their way up the golden ladder of showbiz as well as those already at the top. "I remember Rodney as the kid everybody beat up on their way to school," recalls his aging stepmother, and the permanent misfit status is understandable: With his tight black trousers and so-laughable-it’s-cool moddish ’do, Rodney Bingenheimer still looks like prime playground cannon fodder. But as "the designated driver between the famous and the not-so-famous," he inexplicably has remained an L.A. constant longer than any of the bands he championed. Hickenlooper manages to pull remarkably little coherent explanation from Bingenheimer himself, who mumbles his way through the interviews with a childlike winsomeness that recalls the airy vagaries of Andy Warhol. Surrounded by friends and admirers – including infamous L.A. Svengali Kim Fowley, whose predatory thirst for attention is instantly recognizable and repellant – Bingenheimer is a walking, talking lexicon devil, unable or unwilling to parse the meaning behind his own remarkable life. "Always be good to rock & roll and it will always be good to you," the film quotes Phil Spector as saying, and a more fitting explanation of the Bingenheimer mystique you’ll likely never find.