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Cockettes, The
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by Thom

"Exhilarating and inspiring documentary about anarchy and creativity"
5 stars

I’m convinced there is a giant whirlpool emanating from somewhere in San Francisco, possibly from the top of Buena Vista Park which overlooks both the Castro and the Haight-Ashbury district whose spiritual mission it is to suck all the rationality out and pull all the creativity in.

Maybe that’s what happens when thousands of kids tune in and drop out in what was undeniably the epicenter of the counter-culture “movement”. The lasting legacy of the flower children has had waves of influence since the mid 60s. At the tail end of the glory days, before the Haight emptied out and got boarded up (See Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test), The Cockettes were befuddling the squares and have a ripping good time.

Sure it was about hedonism but it was also about liberation and a deliberate deconstructing of social mores to discover a wholly different way of living and being. The sexually adventurous and gender-bending cast and clan flowed through the waters of lust and love like pirates.

And it was also a show. But can you base a whole society on show business? If not, you can have a lot of fun experimenting. Most of The Cockettes, while spinning in a dizzying, colorful haze, were living off a type of disability benefit.

Society was so much more conservative then my generation realizes. If you showed up at the welfare office and acted obviously gay or dressed outlandishly, then you were obviously mad and unfit for employment and the good folks in San Francisco would give you a stipend, a misfit allowance, to spare you the pain of having to try to make it in the straight world.

It took quite some time for “them” to catch on. The Cockettes as people and as performers were remarkably lucid in their approach to expressing their transgressive desires and continuing the magical, carnival-esque spirit of the counter-culture.

They are strongly situated in a long line of bohemians, dada-ists, beats, and other rabble rousers and provocateurs. They were a happening, a be-in, guerrilla street theatre at its finest and purest. With the help of hallucinogens, they followed a fairy path and gleefully, gladly and at times, tediously, shared (or imposed depending on your point of view) that with the world.

They were also communists, supporters of most radical social movements and organized themselves with a mission to distribute free food, art and theatre.

The Cockettes reputation as the hippest underground thing ever attracted Divine and John Waters before Female Trouble was filmed and disco sensation, Sylvester. They loved the “in your face” of it all. If you think MTv’s Real World is juicy, you should see what happens when these people self-select themselves to live, perform and yes, sleep, together. Instead of weeks, you get years and instead of an artificial environment you get an environment forged and tested by tradition.

And the part I love is that most of those people are still alive and venting that hyper-creative spirit in new ways. I’ve always been a “fan” of that part of San Francisco’s history. I don’t know if I would be the person I am today if it wasn’t for people like The Cockettes showing me how to make my life a performance. Although you wouldn’t know it so much now, when I was a teenager, street theatre and gutter glamour was what I was known for in the club scene. But I carefully tiptoed back from the edge and decided to “get serious” and go to college and attempt to become solidly middle class. And then I threw it all out the window again.

While this film was being made, I was working on a campaign called “Unleash Your Inner Weirdo” because it seemed that San Francisco in particular and the US in general suffered from a debilitating lack of spirit and creativity. San Francisco had so much soul but when HIV literally wiped out the gay community, that put a big damper on the party and then the economy got strong and people had jobs and then all the artists left and people couldn’t take risks if they wanted to survive and the whole world felt numb.

So now I think that there is an upwelling, the wave is pulling back and starting to crash on the shore of society. The whole electro-punk scene needs this documentary to help them rediscover how anyone snapped off the grid of conservatism and banality. I needed it to once again feel connected to a community of like mind and spirit.

I laughed, I cheered, I cried. I give it two thumbs way up.

Interviews with “cast” members like Sweet Pam, are interspersed with original footage and photographs. Director Bill Weber embarked on an ambitious project to document an important cultural force. He culled more then 11,000 photographs and discovered reels and reels of lost and forgotten footage. If you are in San Francisco, there is a Cockettes exhibit at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts until mid-May which features posters, flyers, masks, props and photos. There is also a website,

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originally posted: 05/10/02 15:46:42
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For more in the Tatum's Video Grab'nRun series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2002 Vancouver Film Festival. For more in the 2002 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2002 Sundance Film Festival. For more in the 2002 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2002 Seattle Film Festival. For more in the 2002 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

6/15/04 tatum Solid docu, with almost tragic "what happened to..?" ending 5 stars
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  25-May-2002 (R)
  DVD: 04-Feb-2003



Directed by
  Bill Weber
  David Weissman

Written by

  Sweet Pam
  John Rothermel
  Pristine Condition
  John Waters
  Dusty Dawn

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