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Mayor of the Sunset Strip (A Movie Review)

Updated: Sep 27, 2023

Mayor of the Sunset Strip


Featuring Rodney Bingenheimer, David Bowie, Gwen Stefani, Chris Martin, Coldplay, Courtney Love, Oasis, Brian Wilson, The Doors, Ray Manzarek, Danny Sugarman, Cher, Nancy Sinatra, Mick Jagger, Brooke Shields, Kim Fowley, Cherie Currie, Chris Carter, Tori Amos, Beck, Sonny Bono, Alice Cooper, Michael Des Barres, Pamela Des Barres, Debbie Harry, Joan Jett, Davy Jones, Lance Loud, Ronald Vaughn, Bing Bingenheimer and Neil Young.

Written by George Hickenlooper.

Directed by George Hickenlooper.

Distributed by First Look Pictures. 94 minutes. Rated R.

Rodney Bingenheimer is a legend in Los Angeles rock circles. He has invented himself and reinvented himself over and over in a lifetime on the fringes and the front lines of music.

Rodney was a small boy, an outcast who retreated into a world of movie magazines. His mother was an autograph hound and she taught Rodney his deep love of celebrity and memorabilia. When he moved to Hollywood, Rodney became a focal point of the hippie counter-culture movement. Because of his size and his obvious good-hearted desire to make people happy, he was adapted by the guys and mothered by the girls in the Sunset Strip scene.

Soon he had become gopher to pop stars Sonny & Cher and Davy Jones’ stand-in on The Monkees. However, Rodney’s true calling was as an arbiter of tastes. Bingenheimer championed obscure glam rock acts like David Bowie, Alice Cooper and The Sweet. He became so entranced with the scene that he opened one of the seminal clubs of the era, Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco. In the disco, normal folks hung out with huge stars.

When the English Disco closed down, Bingenheimer just picked up shop and took his passion to a tiny station called KROQ. In a way that would be impossible in today’s radio world that is focus grouped to the max, Rodney just played what he liked and became a star for doing it. He was the first (in some cases only) DJ in the States to play acts like the Sex Pistols, the Ramones and Blondie. Sometimes the movie gives him more credit than may be deserved (no matter what the movie says, Rodney’s discovery Dramarama was never more than a cult band with very sluggish sales.) However, if influence was currency, Rodney on the ‘ROQ would be a rich man.

He isn’t, of course. He lives in a cluttered LA apartment, but he still keeps his late mother’s home in the Valley as an immaculate shrine. He drives around Hollywood driving vintage (read: old and decrepit) cars. He still wears his hair in a circa-’74 shag complete with bangs. Even now, he wears British Invasion jackets and goofy t-shirts and Beatles boots.

He is obviously in love with his best female friend, but she is just as obviously determined it is platonic. There is a surprisingly poignant scene where Rodney sits on his mother’s bed with her and pussyfoots around the fact that he cares for her and that she is the type of woman that he has always felt he could spend his life with. She looks uncomfortable through the whole thing and then announces she “sort of” has a boyfriend and she considers Rodney to be just a friend. Though he is probably deeply stung by the comment, Rodney just sits there silent. It leaves the audience wondering if he is just completely unable to express his deeper feelings, or if he just somehow considered this outcome to be inevitable.

His father and mother-in-law seem to understand Bingenheimer no more than anyone else. Rodney obviously still worships his late mother, despite the fact that she abandoned him at fourteen. His best friend seems to be Kim Fowley, an aging singer, producer and renowned music biz sleaze ball. Fowley is every bit as bitter and angry and antagonistic as Bingenheimer is shy and quiet.

His other close friend is Ronald Vaughn, a fiftyish rock-star wannabe who still clings to dreams of making it in the music biz long after any chance he may have ever had has evaporated. Rodney sees him as a kindred spirit, though, and helps him whenever possible, either monetarily or setting up the opportunity for Vaughn to record his musical tribute to actress “Jennifer Love Hewitt.” The song is in equal parts kind of cool musically and cringingly disturbing lyrically, in sort of a stalker way. However, Rodney humors his friend’s fantasies, probably because he realizes that had life been different, this could easily be have been his fate.

Undoubtedly the reason that the celebs enjoy Rodney so much is that his personality is something of a blank slate. They can project whatever they want or need upon him. The problem is that chameleonic ability makes him a tricky subject for a documentary.

Bingenheimer several times tells director George Hickenlooper that he would not feel comfortable answering his questions, and when he does answer queries, he often seems guarded. Only twice in the film does Rodney allow himself to lose control on camera; the first time is when he spreads his mother’s ashes over the English channel and later he reacts angrily when he finds that friend Chris Carter of the band Dramarama (which Rodney championed in the 80s) has been hired by a rival radio station to do a show similar to his.

Because of Bingenheimer’s shyness, Hickenlooper tends to make the film about the cult of celebrity. Rodney has met and seen nearly everyone. People want to be near Rodney because at any given moment he is likely to be with Elvis or the Beatles or the Stones. In a moment of clear self-reflection, he refers to himself as the designated driver between the famous and the not famous.

While this is certainly interesting stuff, I tend to find the dichotomy between the public and private face of Rodney on the ‘ROQ more intriguing. Particularly in the present day, where the music business seems to be leaving him behind. More recent acts like Gwen Stefani of No Doubt and Chris Martin of Coldplay do pledge allegiance to Rodney for giving them their first airplay.

At the same time, Rodney is down to one shift on-air a week, exiled to Sunday mornings from midnight to three A.M. A fellow KROQ DJ acknowledges that Rodney has very little in common with their 18-to-25-year-old demographic and he would have most likely been let go if he were not such a legend in local radio.

In the end, you can’t quite decide if Rodney is really a part of the world he so prizes, or if he’s just the king of the music nerds. I guess it is a bit of both. Rodney is the wet dream of every geek who ever waited at a stage door hoping to channel some of the magic of being a rock star. He was able to get the status, he got the stories, he even sometimes got the groupies. Everyone loves him but no one really knows him. At the same time, beyond just being a scenester, he has been able to create something tangible. He has influenced alt culture and music for almost forty years.

The true visionaries often get left behind, and in the corporate music world a genuine individual will almost always be trampled by the bottom line. The film ends with Rodney leaving a glam rock boot in the window of a karate studio that is now on the site of his old English Disco. Then he walks out and trudges up a Sunset Strip which has moved on. More than anything else, this understanding of the unpredictable ephemerality of fame makes The Mayor of the Sunset Strip a beguiling movie. (4/04)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2004 All rights reserved. Posted: April 8, 2004.


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