Behind the Music
George Hickenlooper on 'Mayor of the Sunset Strip'
[Editor's note: Parts of this interview have been taken from "Daydream Believer: George Hickenlooper and Mayor of the Sunset Strip," Austin Chronicle daily, March 18.] One of the most anticipated films at SXSW Film 04 and the second-highest-selling documentary ever after the distributor First Look bought it for $1.3 million almost didn't get made. By George Hickenlooper (Hearts of Darkness, The Man From Elysian Fields), at least. After meeting Rodney Bingenheimer, the legendary gnomic royal of KROQ in Los Angeles and star-maker/star-fucker extraordinaire, at the Rock & Roll Denny's, Hickenlooper was taken aback by the fading deejay's lacking presence. "I thought it would be like pulling teeth to try and do it," the filmmaker said during the festival. "Plus, I'm not a huge pop aficionado, and that's what this was going to be all about. I was really on the fence." Former Dramarama member Chris Carter, then Bingenheimer's station producer and friend, had approached Hickenlooper about doing the film after his own efforts "a couple of hours of footage on his home video camera" abated. Hickenlooper, of course, eventually signed on and in doing so made a vibrant, incisive, surprising film with one hell of a soundtrack and a host of iconic drop-ins "about a guy that most viewers might say is mournful, or pathetic, or just kind of sad. But one of the things I like about the film is that it's really just honest and truthful. It's bullshit for you or me to say that we're much different from Rodney."
Austin Chronicle: [What] ultimately convinced you to do it?
George Hickenlooper: Well, in a way, without being ostentatious, I saw Rodney kind of as a metaphor for where our culture's gone in the last 30 years. Our celebrity-obsessed culture. The breakdown of the nuclear family, the rising divorce rate: All of that stuff has contributed to our obsession with the media, with pop culture. But on a visceral level, I saw Rodney as an example. ... I saw a larger theme that celebrity is sort of an extension of the human need to be loved. The phenomenon of creating famous people, people wanting to be a famous person, is sort of an extension. I saw a universal story in that.
AC: In watching the film, there seems to be quite a lot of talk about notions of power, and how Bingenheimer's power, or influence, is a thing of the past or was never fully realized. Does he have any bitter inclinations, or is it more a quiet acceptance?
GH: I think there's more of a quiet acceptance. Rodney's life is full of disappointment, but all of our lives are inherently tragic. ... Rodney's life is not atypical from most of the people living on the planet in terms of the arc of his life. But I think that Rodney does have regrets. I think that Rodney would like to have more money, but he doesn't really complain about it: He never got into the business to make money; he got into the business looking for something else, looking for love, looking for family, looking to be part of the music, looking to be part of the excitement. And he loved the music. Still does.
Mayor of the Sunset Strip, which played as part of the 24 Beats Per Second program at SXSW Film 04, opens in Austin on Friday, April 30. For a review and showtimes, see Film listings.