Mayor of the Sunset StripReviewed By Collin Souter
Posted 04/23/04 13:04:22
(Worth A Look)
Three questions get asked directly in “The Mayor of Sunset Strip” that cannot be answered easily: 1.What’s so special about hanging out with celebrities? 2.Who is Rodney Bingenheimer? 3.Why do celebrities glom onto him? The easiest question to answer, of course, would be # 2. Rodney Bingenheimer, the subject of George Hickenlooper’s new documentary, came to fame via other people’s fame. He was the first radio DJ to play David Bowie, The Sex Pistols, Blondie, Nirvana, Oasis, among countless others. A staple of KROQ in Los Angeles, Rodney is a self-made celebrity who is famous for being famous, but not in the Paris Hilton/Kato sort of way. His fame is more endearing and more complex.But who is he? To tell you the truth, I’m still not sure. I do know that he grew up a product of divorced parents. His mother, an autograph hound herself, may have laid the framework for Rodney’s life as a celebrity glom-on. The ‘60s had been particularly kind to Rodney. Old films of The Byrds and The Mommas and the Poppas reveal young Rodney clinging to the bands in the background, Zelig-style, a forlorn little figure who loves the music so much, he needs to be around it in order to feel complete. But that comes later.
To look at Rodney today, you would swear you’d swear he just popped out of an Austin Powers movie. A short, gangly man with what appears to be a cropped bowl haircut meant to maintain Rodney’s youth as if the gig at the radio station didn’t fill that gap already. Or has it? Today, Rodney’s show can still be heard on KROQ on Sunday nights from midnight to 3am, the kind of radio time slot equivalent to TV’s 8pm on Friday nights. Because of the corporate structure in which the music industry has immersed itself, Rodney’s show remains a shadow of its former glory days.
Rodney’s show is the kind that music lovers crave nowadays, but can seldom find. He plays hit songs before they become hits from bands who have yet to break into the mainstream. Some break, some don’t, but if they get heard on Rodney’s show, they at least have something to put on their resumes. Of course, Rodney has to like the record first if you want it played, thus earning him the title The Mayor of Sunset Strip. This could very well answer the question, Why do celebrities glom onto him? Because they owe him one. If he didn’t play their music, they wouldn’t be famous.
Still, Rodney does not come off as being particularly charismatic. He comes off rather quiet, aloof and not very self-centered. If one were to walk into his museum of a house, he would be only too happy to show you an autographed photo of whichever celebrity might be your favorite. But what does it all mean? What purpose does it serve? Why keep all of it? Maybe because somewhere in there it all tells a story. Maybe not to us, but to him. The healthy part about Rodney’s collection and his adoration (both given and received) is that he would be content to put it all away if he could just meet the perfect girl in England someday and never return to the U.S. ever again.
But what is so special about hanging out with celebrities anyway? As stated before, Rodney’s mother herself had collected autographs. His parents had divorced when he was only four years old. He grew up listening to pop songs on his record player and, to this day, prefers music that has an upbeat tempo or, at least, a sense of optimism. He left home for Hollywood and immediately became seduced by the alternative lifestyles and hippie culture of the ‘60s. Only recently has Rodney been in touch with his father and stepmother. His real mother has died and he now must do with her ashes as she wished.
Sorry, I got off track. What is so special about hanging out with celebrities? For Rodney, I suppose, they fill a void left by his parents. It is suggested by one of Rodney’s friends that just about every teenage girl Rodney hung out with became a surrogate mother to him. Rodney was a groupie, but he distinguished himself by having groupies of his own. He could be on the same level as the famous people he adored while also enjoying some fame of his own. Like all drugs, fame is addictive and Rodney had no trouble enjoying the perks. If a girl wanted to sleep with Mick Jagger, her best option would be to sleep with Rodney Bingenheimer. It all depended on how close she really wanted to get.
Hickenlooper’s documentary doesn’t feel very close to its subject at first. The film’s early stages feel like a self-serving collage of celebrity walk-ons and name dropping (self serving for Hickenlooper, not Bingenheimer). Eventually, though, as Rodney takes us through his home, we get the sense that he has grown saddened over the years. A sense of melancholy starts to seep in. Rodney’s life, despite the impression I may have given in this review, does not consist of power lunches or mansions with swimming pools. He dines at Denny’s and IHOPs, just like we do. He drives a beater and barely gets paid a dime at KROQ. He still does it because of his love for the music.Even if the film’s interview subjects (parents, fellow groupies, DJs and celebrities) find it hard to answer the three questions, Hickenlooper does his best to answer them for us. He also succeeds in uncovering the sadness that exists at the outskirts of Rodney’s existence in those who try to be like him, those who try to get noticed by him and those who already know him too well. By the end, I felt neither happy nor sad for Rodney. I enjoyed being in his presence for 90 minutes, but I can’t exactly agree that he has a magnetic personality. Maybe I’m not supposed to and maybe that’s the point.
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