Almost Famous

If you're as tired as I am of celebrity documentaries (Metallica excepted), you'll be relieved to hear that Mayor of the Sunset Strip isn't about Robert Evans or Arnold Schwarzenegger, but Rodney Bingenheimer.

Who? A sort of Dick Clark sans Dick Clark Enterprises, the eternally boyish Bingenheimer has made music-loving a profession in L.A. for nearly 40 years--and still dines at Denny's. He started in 1965 as a Monkees stand-in and worked his way up (or down?) to unpaid artist's confidant, groupie-wrangler, club-owner, cutting-edge DJ at KROQ-FM, and recipient of corporate rock's insultingly meager charity. Today, this diminutive star-booster--5'3" without the bouffant--can be spotted at the edge of more vintage paparazzi frames than anyone but Leonard Zelig. Even Bingenheimer's status as documentary subject is contingent on his close proximity to the truly fab (Cher, David Bowie, Gwen Stefani), whose cameo appearances and music clips have made the movie a viable commodity. (Indeed, it sold to a distributor for more money than any doc save Bowling for Columbine.) Because the star of the show is only almost famous, Mayor can get away with being a good deal more haunting--a good deal more honest about the emptiness around celebrity--than any film whose existence depends on a celebrity's involvement at the center of it.

Perhaps only a vérité portrait of a veteran critic would appear spookier than Mayor of the Sunset Strip, whose leading man is the very image of narcissistic injury. Bingenheimer--eyes wide, mouth curled into a constant frown, bangs trimmed neat as if by Mom in '64--is the screaming Beatlemaniac as sad clown. Born in Mountain View, California, to an autograph-hound mother who flew the coop early (Dad hung around longer, for what it was worth), young Rodney survived his frequent time alone by surrounding himself with all manner of pop-star memorabilia. Out of the cutouts he created a surrogate family while striving to replace them with something at least a little more real. The utter purity of his love for the music, according to documentarian George Hickenlooper, is precisely what allows this full-on geek to be taken in and trusted by the hit-makers. But as the carnivalesque '60s turn to the conglomerate '90s and worse, that purity hardly proves enough to sustain him over the long haul. Having served the industry for decades without adequate reward, Bingenheimer now has the midnight-to-3:00 a.m. shift at KROQ once a week--on Sundays. And the movie.

I got you, babe (if nothing else): Cher and Rodney Bingenheimer in 'Mayor of the Sunset Strip'
First Look Pictures
I got you, babe (if nothing else): Cher and Rodney Bingenheimer in 'Mayor of the Sunset Strip'

Feeling Bingenheimer's pain and then some, Hickenlooper overplays his hand even before the climactic scene of the nostalgist tossing Mom's ashes into the Thames (while a piano gently weeps). And like so many others, the director offers insufficient gratitude to the mayor for facilitating his all-important visits with the stars. True, Hickenlooper does directly invite the subject to express his fears of being documented. But it's no wonder that Bingenheimer declines. The eternal fan is living the life of his dreams: He has Elvis's driver's license hanging on the wall. But he isn't happy--not even enough to say so. And neither the movie's making nor its release seems likely to change that.

 
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