September 17, 2004

MAYOR OF THE SUNSET STRIP (2003; now out on DVD/VHS)

A movie review by guest-blogger Mikal.

A funny, sad, and revealing documentary about Rodney Bingenheimer, a KROQ deejay and LA rock scenester for nearly forty years. Directed by the same guy who worked on Hearts of Darkness, Mayor follows Rodney's life as a sort of superannuated male groupie who's been able not only to insinuate himself with rock royalty from the mid-60s, but to break new acts as a club owner and DJ . . . and yet has virtually nothing to show for his being the first American champion of everyone from David Bowie, to the Ramones, to Oasis. Period clips show Rodney popping up, Zelig-like, in virtually every rock 'n' roll turning point since 1965; one especially interesting piece is a tape recording of him attempting to direct-dial President Kennedy in 1963—speaking with the same halting, wheezy voice as a Mountain View-raised teen that he still sports forty years later.

Rodney comes off onscreen much as he does on the radio. Physically, he's a diminutive, elfin, middle-aged teenager who still sports the same hairdo and clothes ensemble he's had since the late-70s punk/new-wave era. Personally, he's a not-too-bright, unpretentious, likable, good-hearted naif who loves rock 'n' roll, and is only intermittently aware of how much potential success, personal growth and maturity he's sacrificed to the music . . . not as a performer or promoter, but as a mere fan, albeit one who gets to party with his heroes, and occasionally have them shoot him some credit or paid work. He's too kindhearted and courteous to openly badmouth the many people who've exploited him, although the camera does catch one scene where he angrily confronts a prodigy who's returned his kindness by setting up a competing, nearly-identical radio program.

There are plenty of interviews with famous folks who owe their careers to the man, and/or who've tried to help him in return. The standouts are a backstage meeting between Rodney and David Bowie (whom Rodney broke in the USA), and a guest visit on Bingenheimer's KROQ show by the brain-damaged, brilliant Beach Boy Brian Wilson. Fellow scenester, would-be-impresario and uber-asshole Kim Fowley contributes some hilarious observations as well; my favorite is when he answers ex-Runaway Cherie Currie's accusations of past sexual misdeeds with a stinging, self-deprecating riposte.

Watching Mayor of the Sunset Strip brought back memories of listening to Rodney on KROQ on Sunday nights in the late 70s and early 80s. I remember that his show immediately followed Dr. Demento's revue of self-consciously clever novelty records; I was a regular listener. Eventually Rodney's world of punk rock and Sunset-Strip scenesterism proved to be far more fun and refreshing than Demento's retread geekfest, and I joined the burgeoning punk/New-Wave scene.

In other worlds, and more generally, Rodney Bingenheimer saved me from becoming a nerd. Had I—a rather shy music-lover much like Mr. B—not immersed myself in the late-70s L.A. underground, I could very easily have retreated into the dork-world epitomized by Demento and his fans, and spent my college years onward as a Dungeons-and-Dragons-playing, compulsively-punning, socially-illiterate geek. Much of what's been good, interesting, stimulating and just plain fun in my life from 1977 onward can be directly traced to the influence of this funny little guy and his ability to transmit a kind of L.A. rock-n-roll gestalt to both the famous and the fans.

Put me down as yet another individual the Mayor of the Sunset Strip helped, who's only now getting around to giving him his propers.

Mikal is a Bay Area writer and book merchant. As an author, he specializes in the paranormal and the odd; he is most famous for the book Mysterious California: Strange Places and Eerie Phenomena in the Golden State, which is out of print but available here and there. He assures us he's at work on something even wilder.

Posted by Attila at September 17, 2004 03:23 AM
Comments

Fascinting tidbits about L.A. culture and music history. Thank you!

Will there be more like this in the LMA blog?

Posted by: Lauren Park at September 18, 2004 11:40 PM


Probably. You'll have to keep checking back to see!

Posted by: Attila Girl at September 21, 2004 01:26 AM




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