Rodney Bingenheimer is a fixture on the Los Angeles music scene, adored by the dirtiest, the most famous, the most talented people in rock: David Bowie, Gwen Stefani, one of the Gallagher brothers from Oasis. Courtney Love claims she stalked him once. Bingenheimer has had more-than-platonic relations with scores of women, and, in "Mayor of the Sunset Strip" George Hickenlooper's excellent (if sad) documentary profile, more than one person calls Bingenheimer the "Prince of Pop."
Bingenheimer has a small, womanish face, and he's had the same haircut (shaggy with bangs) for most of his 50-something years. His voice can be so soft you have to lean in to hear it. The sitcom actress MacKenzie Phillips calls him a gnome. And she says so with love.
At nearly every major interval in the evolution of rock 'n' roll, Bingenheimer was there, backstage, with the icons. So why, Hickenlooper's movie wonders, do so few folks outside of LA and the music industry know his name?
Well, for one thing, Bingenheimer has no ostensible, sexy talent. He opened a popular nightclub where rock's demimonde converged, and, as a venerable radio DJ, he's credited with breaking acts like Blondie and Nirvana.
Yet Bingenheimer never transformed -- or exploited -- his connections to become a mogul. You get the impression he'd find that vulgar. He has a faint resemblance to Andy Warhol -- they share a nagging shyness -- and his knack for making famous pals is Warholian: intangible pop performance art. Chilling with Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and Iggy Pop is reward in itself.
The movie reveals a man content, perhaps pathologically, to be a hanger-on. When Bowie, after a fairly recent show, asks him how he is, Bingenheimer almost falls over dead.
Even at his age, this never gets old. He is perpetually, exclusively, and proudly "with the band." But at what cost? His associations with the famous have not made him rich. His friendships with the rich have not made him famous. And arriving at the end of "middle age," with his mother -- and, from what I can gather, his best friend -- recently deceased, he's a figure of incredible loneliness.
The film suggests that Bingenheimer inherited an obsession with stars. He grew up in northern California, and his father wanted to be a celebrity of some kind, but was content to golf with them instead. Bingenheimer's mother was a little more, well, hard core. She was a difficult woman, apparently, and a relentless autograph hound. The Bingenheimers divorced when Rodney was 3, and when he was 16, in a move that must have heavily shaped (or severely warped) Bingenheimer's psyche, his mother took Rodney to Hollywood, dropped him at Connie Stevens's house for an autograph, and drove off.
He didn't see his mother for six years. Some time around 1965, the Sunset Strip became his home.
Eventually, Bingenheimer auditioned for a spot in the original Monkees. The part went to Davy Jones, who was cuter, and Bingenheimer was hired as Jones's double. Becoming Jones's stand-in was an inauguration into a peculiar cult of celebrity. Hickenlooper's movie quietly proposes Bingenheimer as a sort of Zelig figure, turning up all over rock history. There's a sequence, using archival footage, that finds him buried somewhere in the on-set crowd of TV performances by the Mamas and the Papas, Frankie Valli, and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Neither his fame nor his fandom ever really left the hothouse. Today, Bingenheimer seems painfully stunted, like a teenager. (In an amazing aside, the movie reveals the lascivious impresario Kim Fowley, who's still Bingenheimer's buddy, as a kind of evil Rodney.)
Hickenlooper, who helped make the "Apocalypse Now" documentary "Hearts of Darkness," is a crafty profiler. He treats Bingenheimer delicately, but not so much that we can't see what's become of his life. Every scene, every piece of footage reveals another fold of his psychology. There's a tremendous moment between Bingenheimer, the younger woman he's dating, and Hickenlooper, who's off camera, in which the director asks about their relationship. By the time the scene is over, you feel devastated for him: his face says, "I was jilted at the prom."
Ultimately, Bingenheimer seems underwhelmed with himself. The people who know him say, in the movie, that he's a relic.
"Mayor of the Sunset Strip" makes heartbreakingly clear what a glorious relic Bingenheimer is. After years in important slots at KROQ, the hip LA radio station, Bingenheimer today has a thankless midnight show, where, a colleague says, he's "the gateway to things people care about less." Before the movie is over, Hickenlooper asks Bingenheimer which kind of ending he'd like. Happy or sad? As he thinks of an answer and after he's given it, the camera stays up close on his face, which is glum yet glowing. It's an image for posterity. He looks like an album cover.
Wesley Morris can be reached at email@example.com.
Mayor of the Sunset Strip