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The International Writers Magazine

Mayor Of The Sunset Strip- DVD Review
Directed by George Hickenlooper
Dan Schneider

Alchemy tries to get something from another thing, magic tries to get something from nothing. These ideas stuck in my mind watching The Mayor Of Sunset Strip - a documentary about a cipher of a man named Rodney Bingenheimer, and his coterie of even less significant hangers-on.

Rodney’s a famed DJ at Los Angeles radio station KROQ, credited with discovering acts such as Blondie, No Doubt, and Coldplay. However, he seems a dinosaur in his field, reduced to just one two-three hour gig on early Sunday mornings.

The film tries to convince us of Rodney’s significance to rock music the last four decades. This significance rests upon his DJing, and Zeligian ability to brown-nose celebrities. He started off as a stand in for The Monkees’ Davy Jones, wrote music articles, owned a hip LA disco, and then got his radio gig. After that, it seems life started eroding. Rodney’s become rock’s Andy Warhol, with the same fey, blank demeanor. The difference is those who knew Warhol knew it was all an act for the media. With Rodney Bingenheimer, what you see is what you don’t get. Pushing 60, Rodney’s life is a mess - he lives in a dingy apartment, laced with memorabilia from celebrities such as Brooke Shields, Cher, and many others, yet his life is pitiable. He’s lonely, stuck on a woman at least twenty years his junior, who feels nothing but disdain for Rodney - a point hammered home in an especially cruel scene where Rodney and she, on a bed, talk of their feelings foreach other. He would marry her in an instant, yet he’s only a ‘friend’. That a fiftysomething wilts into this junior high sort of puppy love speaks volumes for Rodney.

His family includes his father - a former B film actor, and a stepmother and stepsister who view Rodney as the freak he is. There is no memorabilia about Rodney around their house - only things from the minor celebrities he knows, such as OJ Simpson houseguest Kato Kaelin, or the personalized autograph from Elvis Presley that Rodney gives his stepsister - thirty years after getting it, and then forgetting to give it to her. Rodney’s fascination, or sick devotion, to celebrity has hollowed out his life. Along with photographs of celebrities it’s claimed that he was ‘accepted’ by many rockers - not friends with nor confidante to, but accepted. This is what defines Rodney’s life - lapdog to the stars.

That the friends of Rodney include notorious groupie Pamela Des Barres highlights how much a cipher Rodney is. Even more telling are his friends - which include an obnoxious ex-rocker who claims he’s the real Mayor Of The Sunset Strip, and a mentally ill homeless man whose idea of fun is dressing in a space costume and writing bad love songs about formerchild starlet Jennifer Love Hewitt. Yet, Rodney’s years of ingratiation have paid off - sort of. His radio station refuses to fire him because he’s ‘the soul of KROQ’. Yet, he’s so bland that he’s never developed a persona ala Casey Kasem, Howard Stern, or myriad other radio icons. He seems sincere in his love of music, but, obviously, there’s not much that separates Rodney from his homeless friend, at least inside. He’s a manifestly unhappy man, even as he strikes the pose of a hipster three decades have parodied.

The only moment we don’t pity Rodney is when his pal and film producer, Chris Carter, an ex-rocker from 1980s schlock band Glamorama, gets a similar radio show to Rodney’s on a rival station. Rodney drops the F-bomb and sticks his middle finger at the camera. One senses this moment, which Rodney didn’t want filmed, is perhaps the last gasp of humanity in a man reduced to a dull human patina, lacking the wit of an Andy Warhol to post-modernize his vapidity. George Hickenlooper, a noted documentarian, misses the target in this film. Not because Rodney’s such a cipher, but because even a vacuum has potential energy. What do we know about ourselves or the man when the film ends that we didn’t know within the first few minutes? Celebrity is an obsession that saps the soul. Rodney is Exhibit A - assuming there was anything to sap to begin with, a debatable point.

Rodney’s lone uniquity seems to be that his cipher makes him a fawning funhouse mirror to insecure celebrities- whose gravitation towards him is perfectly understandable. Yet, with all these pals, why is Rodney so poor? Because his lone ambition is to be an acolyte, to hang out with celebrities. Yet, we know all this in five minutes. Was it really necessary to devote a whole film to this man? The film isn’t bad, but its best reason for existence is as a true life Spinal Tap.

The film’s commentary track by Carter and Rodney adds nothing. Rodney rambles mealy-mouthed about who such and such celebrity is, while Carter seems awestruck by it all. The track by Hickenlooper at least gives some insight into the film - but not Rodney. Outtakes and extra interviews are standard. Towards the end of the film Rodney travels to England to dump his dead mother’s ashes into the ocean and there’s an almost pornographic revelry in Rodney’s and the film’s delight in showing how hurt, bereft, and clueless Rodney is. It’s as if the ashes were his last connection to a flesh and blood reality disconnected to celebrity. By showing it, Rodney shows how desperate he is to be known just to be known. The problem is the scene is overkill. We know Rodney’s pathetic. While the film is finely made there’s nothing within. It can be claimed that the film was a perfect cinematic recapitulation of its subject, and the argument has merit. Yet, this is the rare work of art I view against the prism of what it could have been, not what it is. It’s unfair, and hypocritical, but to not acknowledge that would be worse. If I didn’t I’d be Rodney - poor, lonely, pathetic Rodney. My quease is its triumph- ah, magic!
© Dan Schnieder Jan 2005

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