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Friday, April 16, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

'Mayor of the Sunset Strip': Here's to life at the edge of celebrity

Seattle Times movie critic

A nondescript, shuffling little man, his hair hanging to his eyes in bangs that act like a barrier to the world, gives a tour of his shabby apartment, crammed with fading memorabilia. A guest is surprised to see Elvis Presley's driver's license on the wall. He asks his host: How'd you get this? In his piping, thin voice, Rodney Bingenheimer replies, "Oh, he gave it to me one time."

George Hickenlooper's entertaining though ultimately sad documentary "Mayor of the Sunset Strip" introduces us to the odd life of this most unlikely of celebrities. Actually, it's not quite accurate to call Bingenheimer a celebrity; he's more of a celebrity aide-de-camp. A longtime Los Angeles disc jockey with a knack for discovery, he claims to have been the first to play the music of Blondie, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, Van Halen, the Clash, Joan Jett, Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Coldplay and many others. He's also owned nightclubs, written music columns and appeared in a smattering of movies and TV shows as himself (including voice work in an episode of "SpongeBob Squarepants").

As such, he's spent his life rubbing shoulders with a musical A-list. The film presents a seemingly endless montage of images of Bingenheimer standing with the likes of Paul McCartney or Pete Townshend.

Movie review


Showtimes and trailer

***
"Mayor of the Sunset Strip," a documentary written and directed by George Hickenlooper. 94 minutes. Rated R for sexual content/nudity, language and some drug references. Varsity, through Thursday.

Luminaries such as Debbie Harry (wearing a Rodney T-shirt), Brooke Shields, Courtney Love, Alice Cooper and others face Hickenlooper's camera and talk about Rodney in affectionate tones, like he's a favorite pet or a cute little brother.

It's quickly clear that Hickenlooper is less interested in delivering a straight biography of Bingenheimer (he's just not charismatic enough to carry a movie) than in reflecting on celebrity and fame. While he doesn't really have anything new to say on the subject, it's intriguing to view Bingenheimer as a modern-day Andy Warhol; he's a "blank screen," as someone says in the movie, "on which people can project themselves."

Bingenheimer's obsession with celebrity is one that came early, during a troubled childhood in which he was "the kid everybody beat up on the way to school." His parents divorced when he was 3; his mother dropped him off when he was a teenager (to get Connie Francis' autograph) and never came back for him. In his youth, he was Davy Jones' stand-in for "The Monkees" — hence the haircut, which he still sports (though the effect, to put it kindly, is no longer cutting-edge).

While he's described by some of the film's talking heads as a groupie, genuine relationships seem rare in his life. There's a devastating moment when a miniskirted woman named Camille, whom throughout the film we've thought to be Bingenheimer's girlfriend, suddenly announces near the end that she has a boyfriend and that Rodney's just a friend. (He's sitting next to her when she says this, and he looks impassive.)

And the more we're allowed to gaze into Bingenheimer's eyes, rimmed with deeply etched lines, the more vacant they appear to be. Limping away from the camera, skinny-legged and awkward in his '80s cigarette jeans and floppy hair, he seems to be a figure from another era, literally fading under our gaze. The more his celebrity friends praise him, the more he seems to disappear; he's both an ever-present Zelig and a man who isn't there.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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