Not many people outside of SoCal probably know or even care who Rodney Bingenheimer is, but without him, a huge piece of musical and cultural history may never have happened. He was the first American commercial-radio DJ to spin records from a dizzying number of bands on his now-28-year-old KROQ show—Sex Pistols, the Ramones, the Cure, the Clash, X, Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Oasis, Coldplay, the Strokes, the Hives . . . We're taking hundreds, to say nothing of the valuable early exposure he's given to plenty an OC group (unless you've never heard of No Doubt and the Offspring . . .).
He's undeniably one of the world's most influential DJs—as this film's posters proclaim, he's "the legend you never heard of." The main trouble with George Hickenlooper's Bingenheimer documentary, Mayor of the Sunset Strip, though, is you don't get nearly enough sense of that influence as you feel you should—at least those of us who are remotely familiar with Rodney's long, colorful radio history.
For someone who's never heard of Bingenheimer before, the film introduces you to a character, a waifish man-child who was abandoned by his autograph-hound mother at Connie Stevens' front door and cut loose in mid-'60s Hollywood, with inventive new music and art and drugs and pussy swirling all about. Perhaps rock & roll's first boy groupie, he made friends with some of the seminal LA acts of the time such as the Doors, Love, and Sonny & Cher (who took care of Rodney, becoming defacto surrogate parents) and got a gig working as Davy Jones' double on The Monkees TV show—as close as you can get to being famous without actually being famous, even though plenty of screaming girls would chase him down alleys thinking he was Davy Jones (in the film, and now in his 50s, Bingenheimer runs into a group of Filipino tourists who snap his picture, still thinking he's a Monkee).
For the film's first half-hour, Bingenheimer comes off like a cuddly, celeb-obsessed hanger-on—a rock & roll Zelig, as photos of Rodney with Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Paul McCartney and Elvis Presley flash by (Mick Jagger is seen derisively branding Rodney a "famous groupie"). We wander down Rodney's career path, with writing jobs and record-label gigs and his stint as the proprietor of Rodney's English Disco on the Sunset Strip—the LA rock club during the early-'70s glam era—culminating with Rodney landing his DJ gig at KROQ in 1976, which he had a huge hand in molding into the "world famous" frequency it would become in the '80s. You'll get no argument if you say Rodney invented what's become "alternative" rock at a time when everything on the FM dial was a constant stream of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
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Yet for everything Rodney's become semi-famous for, the film offers up some squirmy, intrusive moments when Hickenlooper's camera moves in closer. We learn early on that when he was growing up in sedate Mountain View, California, he was always the smaller, weaker kid everybody liked to beat up. He's got our sympathy, that's for sure. So it's almost offensive when we're allowed to butt in on a visit with Rodney's father (who divorced Rodney's mother when he was just three), who, with his current wife and daughter, hunt all over his house for a photo of Rodney among a blur of artfully framed family snapshots. Rodney stands there the entire time, looking more humiliated with each second of passing celluloid—dad doesn't have any photos of his son, save for a single, pathetic print of Rodney with the Easter Bunny, practically buried behind some clothing. When his stepmom reappears, she's excited—only because she's found an autographed glossy of Kato Kaelin Rodney gave her.
There are other too-intimate-for-comfort vignettes: Rodney and Mayor producer/onetime Dramarama guitarist Chris Carter getting into a screaming, finger-flipping argument; Rodney lovingly emptying his mother's ashes into the English Channel over the side of a tourist boat, whispering a prayer for the same parent who abandoned him; Rodney's 20-ish companion, Camille, one of only two people he says he's ever loved but who, when pressed about their relationship, says Rodney is "just a good friend" and that she has a boyfriend—this, as she and Rodney are sitting in bed together. To watch Rodney's face in this scene is to hear the sound of his sad heart breaking.
You come away from Sunset Strip with the gnawing knowledge that Rodney is a guy who's been constantly taken advantage of. Yakkity, skeletal Hollywood scenester Kim Fowley, who's interviewed in this film far too much, used him to get women; bands and musicians have used him to get famous, sometimes forgetting all about him once they became successful; even KROQ, the once-great station he put on the rock-radio map, uses Rodney, keeping him employed (if that's the word to use, since his Rodney On the ROQ show has been shoved into the broadcast netherworld of Monday morning, midnight to 3 a.m.) to maintain a semblance of credibility. "I think they're afraid to fire him," DJ Jed the Fish says of KROQ's upper management, "because they're afraid the station would lose its soul."
Mayor of the Sunset Strip was directed by George Hickenlooper; produced by Chris Carter, Greg Little and Tommy Perna; and stars Rodney Bingenheimer, David Bowie and Gwen Stefani. Now playing at Edwards University, Irvine.