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Mayor Of Sunset Strip
cast: Rodney Bingenheimer, Kim Fowley, Cher, David Bowie, and Pamela Des Barre

director: George Hickenlooper

90 minutes (15) 2003
widescreen ratio 16:9
Tartan DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Patrick Hudson
This fascinating documentary examines the life and times of Rodney Bingenheimer, DJ and L.A. rock scene maker since the mid-1960. According to his own story, Bingenheimer was deposited in Los Angeles by his mother at Connie Stevens' house and told that she'd help him get his start in Hollywood, although why they thought the star would help him isn't made clear. As it turned out Stevens wasn't even in and Bingenheimer was left to fend for himself.

He gravitated to the fringes of the rock and roll world, and the film is rich with clips of vintage rock performances with Bingenheimer appearing Zelig-like in the corner of the Beach Boys' stage show, or just behind Frank Zappa's shoulder, or at the side of the stage of a late Beatles gig. He was a great friend of Sonny and Cher, who took him under their wing and helped him establish himself as a member of the hippy elite. In the early 1970s, he opened an influential nightclub, Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco, where he was the first person in America to play records by David Bowie, T-Rex, Mott The Hoople and other bands of the glam rock era. He was a major feature of the LA rock scene and good friends with other mainstays of the scene such as Kim Fowley, Danny Sugarman and the infamous groupies who styled themselves as the GTOs.

From here, he was offered a show on the local LA station KROQ, and was instrumental in promoting the new music of the late 1970s, including Blondie, The Ramones, The Runaways and The Go-Gos, as well as British punk bands such as The Sex Pistols, The Clash and (less presciently) Bow Wow Wow. Later, he debuted both Nirvana and Hole and many of the other first-wave grunge bands, and the film shows him enthusing over Coldplay and Oasis. His rock show became an institution in the 1970s and 1980s, and allowed KROQ to syndicate its programming across the USA and become a huge corporate radio institution in the USA.

As this film shows, however, while Bingenheimer has had an eventful life, he not really benefited materially from his eye for musical talent. Mayor Of Sunset Strip, made in 2003, shows him living modestly alone, his radio appearances limited to once-a-week in the graveyard slot of Sunday midnight to 3 am. In the land of John Peel and Andy Kershaw, it seems extraordinary that a man with such an ear for great new music should be sidelined in this way, rather than lionised, but I guess that's what you get in the world of commercial radio. As one KROQ executive puts it, the station has "an 18 to 24 year old demographic, and those kids don't want to hear about The Beach Boys and The Doors." Consider those words next time you gripe about paying your license fee!

Bingenheimer's isn't an "earned it/ spent it" story of excess. A sense of possibly misplaced credibility has prevented him from really cashing in by, for instance, working for the record industry or become a vacuous media personality. He comes across as a basically nice guy but a little unworldly. His 'gee whiz' style and unassuming manner is compared a couple of times to Andy Warhol, but Warhol had a very keen mercenary streak that Bingenheimer seems to lack.

Given the material it would be hard for this to be anything but interesting to someone with even a passing interest in the popular music of the last 40 years. Director Hickenlooper lets Bingenheimer and his old friends tell the story (the cliché "who's who of rock" is totally apt here), but there's a slight uncertainty of purpose. He appears to have started creating an examination of the phenomenon of rock celebrity before finding a more interesting story in the contrast between his rock 'n' roll life in the 1960s and 1970s, and the lonely, aging man at the wrong end of his career that Bingenheimer appears to be today.

Some of the material seems a little contrived. Hickenlooper can be heard prompting Bingenheimer to reveal more about his hopes for love with his 'friend' Camille than may be prudent, as it turns out, and the scenes with the family of his estranged father are a little hard to watch. One wonders if the scattering of his mother's ashes at the end hasn't been set up for the benefit of the documentary, and on one occasion Hickenlooper is clearly filming against his subject's wishes, which is a little rude to say the least. I'm sure Bingenheimer has all sorts of interesting skeletons in his closet, but I'm not certain that this essentially celebratory documentary is the place to air them.

That said; this is a largely affectionate portrait of one of the unsung heroes of rock 'n' roll. Perhaps the strongest impression one gets from this film is the genuine affection felt for Bingenheimer by the musicians he has helped along the way. Although he may not be rich, Biggenheimer is loved and respected by his peers in the music industry. Can any of us really hope for anything more?

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