The first thing that strikes you when setting eyes upon Rodney Bingenheimer is how much he looks like a guy with a name like Rodney Bingenheimer. A short man with spindly legs and a slightly hunched gait with a do that could only be described as punk-mod Prince Valiant, Rodney has the tics and slow, soft voice of someone who may not have had the greatest time growing up. As this documentary from George Hickenlooper (director of the ’91 documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse) clearly shows, Rodney’s appearance and geeky demeanor would have made him the perfect target for schoolyard bullies. Rodney more than made up for it by devoting the majority of his life to meeting, hanging out, supporting, nursing and promoting what seems to be every major rock star and band from the 1960s up to today’s current lineup of über-hip minstrels.
The film is an engaging and voyeuristically satisfying blend of interviews, backstage ruminations and a Bingenheimer-guided tour of the places and people that made him into an adored impresario. Since 1976, Rodney has been at the helm of the wildly influential radio program “Rodney-On-The Roq” at Los Angeles radio station KROQ. From that hallowed beacon, Rodney was the first to give bands such as the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, the Jam, Oasis, the Strokes and many, many others their first shot over the airwaves, contributing to their eventual success.
It didn’t start in 1976 for Rodney though. His total immersion in the music scene started much earlier, when he got to know and hang out with such icons as Elvis, the Beach Boys and David Bowie. He even got a gig doubling for the Monkees’ Davy Jones on their television show. It’s hard to explain exactly what Rodney did for these people; it seems that he was just always around them — backstage, on the tour buses, in their living rooms and his. He bought a club in Los Angeles and called it Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco, where Suzi Quatro, Iggy Pop and members of Led Zeppelin could cavort all night. Kind of an early West Coast rock ’n’ roll Studio 54.
Some of the best material in the documentary comes from fellow Los Angeles scenester and record producer Kim Fowley, who could be described as a sort of Caligula to Rodney’s Caesar. Fowley is one depraved and scheming dude, and anyone familiar with the music biz has surely run into someone like him. But he’s also funny, knowing and a great yin for Rodney’s yang.
It would take the entire space of this review to list the performers who make appearances in the film, whether on stage or in interview. Just think of someone who has made any significant contribution to modern music in the past 40 years and he or she is probably in this documentary. Making a much stronger impact, however, are the moments in the film where Hickenlooper captures the loneliness and sadness of Bingenheimer, a man whose bottomless compassion for these “stars” did not guarantee him anything in return, save the odd autographed picture or memento. The last act of the film, where Rodney is fighting to keep his show on the air, demonstrates this painfully and poignantly.
Mayor of the Sunset Strip pulls Rodney Bingenheimer out of the shadows of that most cannibalistic and unforgiving place, rock ’n’ roll, and puts the spotlight on him instead of on those he helped along the way. As this film shows, with humor and pathos and bitter honesty, he deserves it.
Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-263-2111.
Dan DeMaggio writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].