Mayor of the Sunset Strip Review

George Hickenlooper’s first documentary since his acclaimed Apocalypse Now “making of”, Hearts of Darkness : A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (co-directed by Fax Bahr), Mayor of the Sunset Strip once again focuses on an aspect of the seventies zeitgeist. In this case it’s the diminutive and unassuming Rodney Bingenheimer, a man who, as one interviewee puts it, has gone from “famous groupie” to respectable DJ. During this transition, if you will, he’s rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous, specifically musicians, seemingly encompassing every major figurehead from the past five decades: Elvis and the Beatles, Bowie and the Stones, Blondie and Oasis. Yet despite owning the famed L.A. nightspot Rodney’s English Disco and nowadays being a kind of American John Peel, he’s never been a truly major player in the scenes in which he participated, a situation which gives him a strange Zelig-like quality and makes him a potentially fascinating subject for a documentary.

Too fascinating perhaps as Bingenheimer’s life could easily suit any number of documentary forms. A straightforward chronology, for example, could serve as an alternative history of rock and roll or even a treatise on celebrity. A focus on the English Disco years would provide a welcome glimpse into a relatively little known aspect of glam rock (though Barney Hoskyns did pay it, and Bingenheimer, some lip service in his 1998 written history, Glam!). Rodney’s life and obsessiveness – not to mention his A-list friends – could provide ample material for a piece akin to the works of Nick Broomfield and Louis Theroux, or even something in the style of Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb. And there’s this strange character of Kim Fowley, one of Bingenheimer’s cohorts, who could easily source his own docs, though again these could go in numerous directions: at one point in the film he comes across as a likeable, camp figure in the manner of John Waters, at another he’s accused of sexually abusing young girls.

So which does Hickenlooper go for? Almost all, in fact, and then some. Yet whilst this may initially suggest a piece of great depth, it is worth pointing out that at 90 minutes Mayor of the Sunset Strip isn’t utilising the length normally afforded to documentarians such as Hans-Jurgen Syberberg or Marcel Ophüls. Instead we get an at times maddening crush of information as Hickenlooper tries to encompass Bingenheimer’s family life, childhood, current profession and all the bits in between as well as a huge wealth of musical history, whether the artists be big (The Monkees) or small (Dramarama). There’s even this distinctly odd subplot involving aspiring musician Ronald Vaughan, aka Isadore Ivy Spaceman at Large, who’s trying to break into the business.

Yet whilst we may question Hickenlooper’s aims inasmuch as his intended results are unclear, the material is such that Mayor of the Sunset Strip continually throws up captivating moments. There’s a huge amount of archive footage to pore over and it really does testify to Bingenheimer’s status as a pop culture Zelig. Plus there are reams of interviews (some more off the cuff than others) with everyone from Cher to Gwen Stefani. The problem is that many of those participating appear to have different ideas as to what kind of film they are contributing to. Of course, many may have their own motives for taking part (consider the Fowley accusations), yet it results in a work torn between hagiography and exposé. Hickenlooper has in the past – with Hearts of Darkness as well as his 1999 take of Orson Welles’ hitherto unfilmed screenplay The Big Brass Ring - taken existing material and turned it into a cohesive whole, but here he has clearly struggled in the editing stages. Throughout his film the question “Who is Rodney Bingenheimer?” keeps rearing its head – often from Hickenlooper’s own lips – yet by the end of Mayor of the Sunset Strip’s entertaining hour and a half we’re no closer to a proper answer.

The Disc

Given that Mayor of the Sunset Strip comprises of footage shot on numerous formats (everything from Hi 8 to 35mm), mostly courtesy of its wealth of archive material, it perhaps looks as good as could be expected on disc. A number of shots look absolutely awful – especially some of the old video footage – but then such flaws are wholly the result of the material itself and not the disc’s manufacture. Certainly, this is not an NTSC to PAL transfer as has been the case with a number of other Tartan releases, whilst the 1.78:1 aspect ratio is presented anamorphically.

As for the soundtrack Mayor of the Sunset Strip comes with the usual Tartan offering of the DD2.0, DD5.1 and DTS options. In this case it is the DD5.1 which is the original soundtrack and as such is the one to go for (though no doubt such decisions are down to personal preference). That said, all three choices are technically fine, though the DTS does enhance the soundtrack to a slightly greater degree.

Two commentaries also find a place on the disc and both prove interesting for differing reasons. The first is by Hickenlooper and his editor and co-producer Julie Janta. In some ways it’s a more cohesive piece than the film itself as it traces the production’s history and discusses various influences (Louis Malle’s documentaries being the major source, as well as, unsurprisingly, Crumb). That said, it concentrates for the most part on the technical side of things – mostly the editing stages and the utilisation of the archive material – and as such we get no closer to learning about exactly what kind of film Hickenlooper hoped to make. Rather it would appear that he did simply throw everything in – at one point it is noted that a miniseries was mooted instead of a feature, a prospect that surely would have been the better option.

The second commentary comes from Bingenheimer himself, here chatting alongside his long-time friend and Mayor of the Sunset Strip’s producer and sometime cinematographer, Chris Carter. Sadly he has a tendency (as Hickenlooper notes in his talk track) to speak in half-sentences and never elaborate which can prove frustrating, but then he also has a great charm and a childlike quality that makes his continually endearing even when he’s only naming those who appear on screen. Moreover, he comes up with such odd anecdotes (on Tori Amos: “she used to wear spandex, now she’s married and lives in London”) that it’s impossible not to stay with his until the very end.

Rounding of the extras package (alongside the Tartan Trailer Reel – see sidebar for details) are a collection of unedited interviews, some of which had fragments appear in the final cut. Varying in length these pieces are also variable in quality as they range from the unenlightening (the Oasis piece simply has Liam Gallagher chatting inaudibly to Bingenheimer about the banal of things) to the frustratingly short (the Courtney Love piece ends just as its getting interesting). Moreover, there’s not a great deal of structure to the pieces which makes them frustrating as they also contain all of the longeurs and awkward silences. That said they do occasionally throw up the odd bit of interesting business (most notably during Bowie’s piece and the one with Elvis Costello and Brian Wilson) to justify their inclusion. Note, however, that Tartan’s disc contains fewer interviews than are found on the Region 1 DVD and as such fans of the film, or the musical eras it encapsulates, may wish to check out that disc instead, although it does lack the DTS option.

Unlike the main feature, none of the extras come with optional subtitles, English or otherwise.

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