Mayor of the Sunset Strip
2004Director: George Hickenlooper
Cast: Rodney Bingenheimer, everybody who is anybody.
or anyone who has ever seen 24 Hour Party People, Mayor of the Sunset Strip is pretty much its antithesis. In 24 Hour Party People, we watch Tony Wilson (played by Steve Coogan) build a veritable empire for himself out of his passion for music and his ability to sense musical waves before they break. In Mayor of the Sunset Strip we watch Rodney Bingenheimer (as himself), UK Wilson’s American counterpart, gifted with the same boundless enthusiasm and musical “sixth sense”, build…nothing.
It’s kind of ironic when you consider that Wilson and Bingenheimer seemed to run a parallel course along the same musical timeline. As Wilson introduced The Sex Pistols to the UK, Bingenheimer was bringing them to US ears almost as immediately. The difference is that as Tony Wilson’s kingdom grew, Bingenheimer always remained just one step short of homelessness.
In George Hickenlooper’s amazingly and sometimes uncomfortably intimate documentary, we meet the slight, sweet, kindhearted little man that nobody has ever heard of, even though David Bowie, The Ramones and even you, the music fan, owe him an incredible debt of gratitude.
Rodney Bingenheimer, raised almost exclusively by his mother after his parents divorced when he was only three, spent many nights alone while his mom worked at cocktail lounges, keeping himself busy by reading movie star magazines and listening to top 40 radio on a tiny transistor. But as enamored as he was by the platinum sparkle of Hollywood, Bingenheimer didn’t dream of becoming a silver screen leading man or a rock star himself, he simply dreamed of being close to his idols. And one day, after being dropped on the doorstep of a Hollywood leading lady (who was away on location) at the age of 16 by his equally star-struck and obviously unstable mother, Rodney’s dreams of basking in the megawatt glow of celebrity began to come true.
As a self-proclaimed “designated driver between the famous and the not-so-famous”, Bingenheimer seemed to always be in the right place at the right time. From his shaky beginnings as a cast off waif, the sweet and genuine Rodney never had any trouble finding a meal or a place to crash as he whiled away his days attending rock shows and casting calls. His “big break” came when he was cast as Davy Jones stand-in on the Monkees, and from then on Bingenheimer was the quintessential “man on the scene”.
Bingenheimer soon found himself safely nestled under the wings of everyone from Sonny and Cher, whom he fondly recalls as being like parents to him, to Nancy Sinatra, who still counts Rodney as a dear friend. Hired by KROQ as a DJ in the 70s, Bingenheimer used the once-a-week, late night, three hour show as a platform to pique the American public’s interest in David Bowie, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, Blondie, Dramarama, the Runaways and countless others. When Rodney Bingenheimer talked, people listened. It wasn’t long before the future of music began to actively seek him out, hoping to attract the beam of his infallible Midas touch. Even today, he seems a magnet for fame, admittedly “stalked” by Courtney Love, and responsible for securing the endless rotation of No Doubt and Coldplay across our airwaves.
So how has Rodney Bingenheimer remained a footnote in the annals of rock history when his influence is so clearly a force to be reckoned with? Nobody seems to know, though everybody seems quick to cite Rodney’s innocence and lack of ulterior motive as both a virtue and a handicap. Where anyone else would have used Rodney’s apparent talent for being so plugged-in to found a record label, talent agency or a career in journalism, Rodney seems content to merely collect autographs, memorabilia and countless amazing snapshots.
In fact, the pictures alone could net him a fortune if he were so inclined to assemble them into some kind of coffee table book. They have a sort of Forrest Gump charm to them; the shy, skinny fan-boy with the perpetual bangs peering up from under the chummy arm of at least three decades of celebrities A, B and C-list. If they came from anyone else, you’d swear they were Photoshopped. Shots of him hob-knobbing with everyone from Elvis, to Jimi Hendrix, to Debbie Harry, to Kato Kaelin, to anyone else you could possibly imagine populate this imperfect fairytale. And as many as we see, we get the feeling there are a million more just as remarkable pasted to the walls of his modest apartment, or falling out of the scrapbooks that seem to litter every square inch of that tiny space.
But Rodney Bingenheimer isn’t famous. Not really. And he hasn’t parlayed his connections into a fortune, either. And in this day and age of celebrity obsession and rampant opportunism, that’s sad and wonderful, but, as Mayor of the Sunset Strip shows us, mostly sad.
Like nearly all documentaries, Mayor of the Sunset Strip is really difficult to watch at times. Even though Hickenlooper repeatedly points out how often Rodney was used to further the fame of others, any viewer with an ounce of empathy can’t escape the uncomfortable feeling that he is being used again right before our eyes. Granted, the scenes exploring the remaining members of Rodney’s estranged family were, I think, necessary in establishing what an amazing character he really is. You find it hard to believe such a sweet and selfless man came from such a pack of inconsiderate jackasses. And even though watching Rodney travel to London to scatter his dead mother’s ashes struck me as an intensely private moment, it was an extraordinary glimpse into the life of a very shy man whose life has been mostly a mystery (That and it made me bawl like an infant).
However, the scene where Hickenlooper goads Rodney into confessing undying love for his “lady friend”, even encouraging him to pop the question (which thankfully he doesn’t, at least not completely) is simply agonizing when she, clearly another parasite feeding off of Rodney, declares him “just a friend”. This is so obviously news to Rodney that I kept thinking about that episode of The Simpsons where Lisa goes out with Ralph Wiggum just because he has tickets to the Krusty the Klown show. When she finally blows up at him and loudly confesses her true feelings, on air no less, it cuts to Bart showing her all the damage she has done via video. “Look,” instructs Bart as he runs it back again in slow motion, “You can actually pinpoint the exact second where his heart rips in two!” The similar moment in Mayor of the Sunset Strip, on the other hand, is not nearly as funny. In fact, it’s simply awful to watch. While Rodney shows no signs of outward Wiggum-like cringing, the exact second where Rodney’s heart rips in two is no less apparent. Hickenlooper rudely pans in on Rodney’s sad Peter Pan face which reveals absolutely nothing, just those big, sweet, dolorous eyes staring back, and we die a little inside. Effective? Yes. Necessary? No. We already feel an incredible bounty of sympathy and tenderness for Rodney, so why Hickenlooper saw fit to exploit him like this was beyond me.
The final indignity comes when former bassist of Dramarama’s Chris Carter sticks it to Rodney in the worst of ways. Carter, who is also a DJ on KROQ, and need I remind anyone, owes all of his limited notoriety to Rodney, basically steals Rodney’s entire format for his own radio show. One minute Rodney is calmly admitting the sorrow he feels when his so-called friend “cops his hustle”, and the next minute he is trying to keep Hickenlooper’s nosy camera at bay as he finally loses all composure and blows up at Carter in a KROQ stairwell. I don’t know how I feel about that scene actually. On the one hand, it’s an incredibly awkward moment that really should be kept private. On the other, it’s such a relief to see Rodney tear the bastard a new one that you wish he’d go on a bender making everyone atone for their sins against him. But then, Mayor of Sunset Strip would probably end up with a longer running time than the enhanced director’s cut of Lord of the Rings. Also, Rodney seems genuinely blind to these transgressions, and perhaps it’s better that way.
Mayor of the Sunset Strip is a fascinating backstage pass into a world none of us could ever possibly know, and seeing it through the glitter-dazzled eyes of the amazing Rodney Bingenheimer only makes it that much more fantastic. But once all the flash is burned out, what we are left with is anything but a feel-good movie. At one point, Hickenlooper asks; “Does the story of Rodney Bingenheimer have a happy ending?” to which Rodney gives a strangely resigned, nervous little laugh and queries back; “I’m not sure…does it?” The message, above all, seems to be that nice guys really do finish last, and that sucks. You don’t exactly leave the theater happy, but you certainly leave it better off for having known Rodney Bingenheimer. And believe me, it’s worth all the suffering.
This one is a 2004 Oscar contender if ever there was one, and the acceptance speech, if there is any justice, should begin “I’d like to thank all the little people…” said without a trace of irony.
By: Jen Cameron
Published on: 2004-05-10