The Cockettes Review
If the names Holly, Candy or Edie mean anything to you, chances are that The Cockettes will be of some interest. Not that this documentary from 2002 is overly concerned with Warhol's Factory studio, more that a knowledge of those names indicates something of a passing interest in the characters that surround greater artists.
For while Andy Warhol was printing images of Elvis and Campbell's soup tins and filming Chelsea Girls and Empire and Lou Reed, John Cale and the rest of The Velvet Underground were writing and recording their debut album, Holly, Candy and Edie were Warhol's superstars. Edie Sedgwick left Bob Dylan for the Factory and, in doing so, was reputed to be the subject of Like A Rolling Stone. Holly Woodlawn came from Miami, FLA, plucked her eyebrows and was the subject of the opening verse in Walk On The Wild Side while, later in the same song, Candy Darling showed up, just as she had done on The Velvet Underground's third album.
Similarly, the Cockettes, although never part of a particular scene, were there in Haight-Ashbury in the late-sixties at the same time as bands like The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother & the Holding Co. The Cockettes were as free with their use of LSD as Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and, later, they offered an open invitation to John Waters and Divine to come over from Baltimore to get involved. And, as has been suggested before now, their influence, like that of The Velvet Underground on the other side of the US, was only being felt many years after the group had split, which wasn't bad for twelve gay men, drag queens, like minded women and one baby who got up onstage between showings at a midnight film show and danced to showtunes and rock songs.
The Cockettes were formed by Hibiscus, one of a number of drag queens who had made it to San Francisco as part of the hippie movement in the late-sixties. As part of the Kaliflower commune, one of a number of communes in the Bay area, Hibiscus took care of performing, free art and theatre, out of which came an informal appearance onstage at the Palace Theatre, which brought down the house. As the costumes got wilder before coming off completely and the shows became more lavish, word spread about the Cockettes and they were soon appearing in Rolling Stone, having their shows reviewed in the press and being courted by Broadway. They even made their own films and with titles like Tricia's Wedding - the Cockettes version of Tricia Nixon's wedding, complete with a drag Eartha Kitt spiking the punch bowl with acid, a drag Jackie Onassis and a drag Mamie Eisenhower - and Elevator Girls In Bondage, their films were as flamboyant as their stage shows. But as the Cockettes became more successful and money began to be offered, a fatal split occurred between those who wanted to continue offering free theatre and those who wanted to be paid, with any problems becoming compounded by a disastrous trip to New York.
Whilst the film is entertaining enough, it's difficult not to feel that it's a slight story stretched very thin to fill 100 minutes of screen time. Were there a documentary on the Haight-Ashbury scene similar to Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock, then a fifteen- or twenty-minute chapter on the Cockettes would have been interesting and probably enough. Filling an entire film with the Cockettes leaves a documentary that sidesteps the more interesting aspects of the era in favour of one of very little importance. Like Rodney Bingenheimer, the subject of Mayor of the Sunset Strip, which is reviewed here by Anthony Nield, the Cockettes were on the edge of a scene but were not a central part of any real movement or change either in society or in the arts. As an example, were The Cockettes or Mayor of the Sunset Strip to be made in the UK, we would be seeing documentaries on Hot Gossip, Pan's People, John Peel or Peter Stringfellow and whilst there may be some interest in that, it is surely the artists that are worthy of screen time and not the scenemakers and hangers-on. As such, The Cockettes offers glimpses of The Grateful Dead, Andy Warhol and Truman Capote but their appearances are over in seconds and there is never the feeling that the Cockettes were related to the rest of the counter-culture in any way. The impression, therefore, is that the Cockettes had a very isolated existence, which detracts from the impact of the film even further.
Worse, though, is that the directors let the film simply fade out without really impressing upon the viewer that the Cockettes had any kind of lasting impact. Whilst their influence is undoubtedly less than, say, The Velvet Underground or The Grateful Dead, to name two contemporaries, the Cockettes did produce a legacy of sorts - John Waters and Divine went on to produce a number of films including Polyester and Female Trouble whilst Sylvester, following the breakup of the Cockettes, had a solo career and a successful hit with the disco anthem You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real). What becomes of the others is only briefly alluded to and of their legacy, little is said, leaving the Cockettes looking no more than a bunch of gay hippie drag queens who got lucky before an appreciative but like minded audience.
There are, however, moments in the film to be cherished such as hearing a full and professional rendition of one of the Cockettes' showtunes, thus confirming their musical credentials and what we can see of Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma and Pearls over Shanghai are charming in a ramshackle, clumsy way. Their version of the wedding of Tricia Nixon, which was shown in the Palace Theatre the same day as Nixon got married in the White House, is as wonderful and bizarre as only that many drag queens could make it. Lastly, there's an uncommonly thoughtful recommendation on the use of hallucinogenic drugs, which is honest in portraying the benefits of LSD. Dropped in the late-sixties whilst the Cockettes were still in San Francisco, the fond recollections of LSD usage and the positive aspects of its use provides a contrast to the increasing and more destructive use of heroin within the group, which had isolated a number of the Cockettes within the group by the time they were playing New York. In a time when anything that shows drug use as being constructive is frowned upon, the vivid descriptions of tripping under LSD and the hopefulness that was felt under its influence are welcome and, in comparison with the rest of the documentary, are the most effective in setting the scene in which the Cockettes rose to some level of fame.
Then again, fame, success and riches were never the point of the Cockettes and as this documentary makes clear, the group split with Hibiscus leaving the Cockettes to provide free theatre while what remained of the Cockettes fell apart amidst the use of heroin and a complete failure to win over a New York audience. Back in San Francisco, the Cockettes lasted until 1972 and included such performances as Journey to the Center of Uranus and Hot Greeks but this documentary suggests that the end was really when Hibiscus left. Unfortunately, 1972 was about five years too early for the Cockettes and you suspect that, had they lasted until the rise of disco, they could have been considered pioneers. Without a name like Warhol and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable or The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, The Doors and the hippie movement/psychedelia, the Cockettes were really only a footnote in both scenes and whilst there's an argument that their performances between movie showings at the Palace Theatre would influence The Rocky Horror Show, the audience participation in the latter show grew out of performances rather than being a part of the original show.
Instead, the Cockettes really were just gay hippies who got lucky and where one commune in the Haight-Ashbury scene handled food and another handled plumbing, as examples, the Cockette house put on glitter, danced in the streets and wrote shows based on rock music and showtunes. That this documentary exists says more about the late-sixties than it does the Cockettes and it's hard not to feel that they have been purposefully and correctly overlooked in favour of those acts that really did matter and continue to do so today.
Presented in 1.33:1, The Cockettes looks acceptable but is not particularly impressive. Indeed, for a documentary on a drag act from the sixties, it can look muted and quite dull but I suspect this was done on purpose such that the archive footage from 1967-1972 really does stand out as a riot of colour and noise. When called upon, the transfer handles this footage very well, particularly the 8mm home movies.
The sound is in 2.0 stereo and, again, it's fine for the documentary, able to handle both the interviews to camera and the music of the Cockettes without any noticeable faults.
Unfortunately, given the condition of my preview disc, I was only able to play one of the extras on the disc and even that suffered from major problems with significant amounts of blocking, delays and pausing of the signal. As such, I cannot offer any analysis of the extras, only a listing and they include Deleted Scenes (11m10s, broken into nine short interviews with Sweet Pam, Marshall and Goldie Glitters), a TV Spot from the Sundance festival (54s), an Interview With The Directors and the Original Theatrical Trailer. There is also a 4-page booklet with notes by Damon Wise but, as this was only a check disc, these were not included by Tartan.
There is also a Tartan Trailer Reel, which includes trailers for Wonderland, Party Monster, Suddenly, Secretary, The Eyes of Tammy Faye and Capturing The Friedmans.
Before it turned into a month-by-month Great Big Book of Rock Lists, Q Magazine may well have done an article on the Cockettes, much as they once did with Rodney Bingenheimer and it wouldn't have been entirely out of place. Indeed, were they or MOJO to do a special Haight-Ashbury edition, I would expect an article on the Cockettes to fill a page or so but this documentary feels awfully slight.
Indeed, there simply doesn't appear to be enough in The Cockettes to appeal to anyone outside of their original audience as the directors have isolated them from their contemporaries and from those they influenced, leaving the Cockettes looking lost in time and out of fashion even in the sixties. Given that footage of Hibiscus shows him walking through San Francisco wearing a beard, much glitter and dressed like Jesus, looking very much in fashion in a time in a time that, really, anything went, the directors have achieved what you would not have thought possible. Unfortunately for The Cockettes, that is not a positive outcome.