Rise and Fall on the Sunset Strip; George Hickenlooper Finds His “Zelig” with L.A. DJ Rodney Bingenheimer
by Wendy Mitchell
He may be buddies with David Bowie, Cher, and Gwen Stefani, but most people outside of Los Angeles don’t know who Rodney Bingenheimer is. That’s about to change with the release of George Hickenlooper‘s “Mayor of the Sunset Strip,” a documentary that examines the life of this famed L.A. DJ and pop impresario.
Bingenheimer has had a storied career as a rock fan, Davy Jones‘ stand-in, KROQ DJ, and founder of the landmark ’70s nightclub English Disco. Over the years, he supported (and often befriended) musicians from Bowie and Mick Jagger to Courtney Love and Coldplay. But Hickenlooper’s documentary isn’t all a rock-and-roll party; it also looks at Bingenheimer’s disturbing obsession with celebrity and his troubled real-life relationships. Hickenlooper, the director of the Coppola doc “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse,” the short “Some Folks Call it a Sling Blade,” and the feature “The Man From Elysian Fields,” spoke to indieWIRE about “Mayor of the Sunset Strip.” IDP/First Look Features opened the film in select markets on Friday.
indieWIRE: You’ve said you used to listen to Rodney’s show in college and when you moved to L.A. in ’80s; when did you decide to make him a documentary subject?
George Hickenlooper: [Our mutual friend and Dramarama bass player] Chris Carter approached me around 1996 and said, “Would you be interested in doing a documentary about Rodney?” At first I was kind of skeptical about it. I didn’t know that much about Rodney except that he played a lot of cool alternative music. At first I was kind of skeptical about it because I didn’t know how much of an audience there would be for a feature length doc about alternative music. I’m certainly not a pop music connoisseur – I knew who David Bowie was just barely. My knowledge was really limited, but Chris Carter was pretty persistent. He had seen “Hearts of Darkness.” I finally met Rodney at the rock n’ roll Denny’s on Sunset. He seemed very kind but he didn’t have a lot to say and I was saying to myself, “This isn’t going to be very interesting.”
Then I went over to Rodney’s house and was amazed by his collection of photos of himself with all these incredible famous pop stars and movie stars and all weird combinations of celebrities like Bill Clinton and Johnny Rotten. Rodney transformed his personality from the time he was at Denny’s to when he walked into his apartment… When he was talking about these photographs, he became sort of luminous and he transformed almost physically. It reminded me of the novel of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” an African-American character in the 1930s, about an outcast African-American in New York, who in order to feel alive had a box with lights that illuminated his skin.
I saw a universal story and Rodney is a metaphor for what has happened to American culture [and our obsession with celebrity]. At the same time not only has he been attracted to celebrity, but he has created celebrity in himself. I thought the theme of this film would be the needs of human beings and the desire to be loved. Celebrity is a function of that desire.
iW: Rodney is drawn to celebrity, but was he uncomfortable being in the spotlight?
Hickenlooper: He’s very demure, very quiet, very reluctant, hestitant. I think he agreed to do the film because of Chris Carter. Generally in my films like “Hearts of Darkness” or “Picture This,” I try not to make myself a presence in the film. Because of Rodney’s reluctance and shyness, I had to inject myself into the film quite a bit in order to extract a response. At first it bothered me but then because I felt so much connection with Rodney to my own life, I thought it was OK.
He is very shy and feels a little underappreaciated. He likes the attention. He doesn’t have that many friends. He has a lot of pop star friends but he only has a handful of real friends. Frankly, I think he liked my company. He liked that I was giving him some attention.
iW: The film comments on celebrity obsession, but it includes interviews with stars. Do you think it also fuels celebrity culture?
Hickenlooper: That ‘s a good question. I was really trying to be truthful about what celebrity obsession ultimately means, because the promise of celebrity is a transcendental human state of existence. It’s not real. We do know the fact that celebrities as mortal beings exist and if you are looking for love by being famous or being around the famous — ultimately that goes away.
The arc of Rodney’s story is very genuine. The arc of the celebrity phenomenon ultimately is: everything turns to dust and everything does go away. I don’t think the film will fuel celebrity obsession because I think it’s very painful and honest. This movie was not meant to be part of the machine, but to look at the machine.
iW: Was it hard to get Rodney to stop talking about David Bowie and talk about more painful memories of his parents?
Hickenlooper: I don’t know how much awareness there is on Rodney’s part about those things, to be candid. Rodney is a very sweet, selfless human being and that’s one of the reasons he’s survived so long in this business. His father took off when he was 3 and he stopped living with his mother when he was 15. He was virtually abandoned by both parents, speaking broadly, so I think his emotional development stopped around that age. He very much has the mentality and the sweetness and innocence of a teenager, so I don’t think he’s aware of the reality of what his family life is.
iW: How many hours of footage do you think you got from him since you started shooting in 1997?
Hickenlooper: Probably about 60 hours that I shot and then there is another 100 or 150 hours of archival materials, which included his radio shows. And also I secured appearances and music videos. I shot a lot of concert footage, with my DP or by myself.
iW: What kind of challenge was there in finding the archival footage or was that readily available for you?
Hickenlooper: It was a challenge for my editor. Rodney has a huge collection of archival footage; He’s the best-documented person I know. He documented virtually everything he has ever done. From the time he had human consciousness to the time he was in the public eye and he has knowledge of all his appearances and then he knew about the archival footage. The trick was to get the masters. Rodney has all the stuff on really old tapes form the 70s or Betamax. Finding the original sources was really challenging. There was a lot of stuff to look through.
iW: What does Rodney think of the film?
Hickenlooper: Obviously there are things he’s uncomfortable with in the film. As a filmmaker, I had the same relationship with Rodney as I did with Francis Coppola in “Hearts of Darkness” or Peter Bogdanovich in “Picture This.” If I was going to make a film I really needed it to be honest and not subject myself to censorship. I tried to be very balanced. Rodney had a list of things he didn’t like in the film and I actually respected some of those things. Some of the things he asked me to take out like in the earlier cuts, I took out because they weren’t so relevant. There are some things I left in that he’s uncomfortable with, but they are not the kind of things you’d expect he’d be uncomfortable with. It’s funny, like he doesn’t like the way he looks in this shot. He doesn’t like Mick Jagger calling him a groupie, as opposed the very painful moment with Camille.
iW: That was hard to sit through.
Hickenlooper: It was hard to sit through when I was filming it! I felt like I was on the line there as the filmmaker.
iW: He seems like such as a fragile character in some ways — were you worried about pressing him too much, or you knew it would be the best thing for the film?
Hickenlooper: Obviously you have a responsibility – one would like to think there is such a thing as ethics in filmmaking. There are certain issues I just didn’t go into, certain things that Rodney is known for… I didn’t want to go into because they might appear sensationalistic and, are not necessarily relevant for the whole celebrity theme I was trying to deal with. I did show restraint. I could have done a hatchet job.
iW: First Look/Overseas Pictures paid $1.3 million dollars for this film; why do you think you attracted such a big deal?
Hickenlooper: I think people responded to the film on a real emotional level, it moved people. I think it can work in the commercial marketplace, which remains to be seen. I’m very optimistic. It’s kind of a “Forrest Gump” story that’s true.
I think docs are popular right now. There’s been a vacuum with movies that people can relate to. There’s been a paucity of dramas that people can relate to. I think audiences are clamoring to connect — particularly after 9/11 — with things that are genuine and real and I think documentaries are filling that need. And I think that’s why it sold for so much.
iW: Why do you think you want to go back and forth between docs and narratives?
Hickenlooper: They’re very different kinds of exercises. I love the grandiosity of Hollywood movies, and even in independents, I love the canvas you can tell your story on. I love fiction filmmaking, you really feel like you’re creating something. I also love the challenge of doc filmmaking. I think that narrative, fiction filmmaking is the culmination of several art forms: theater, art history, architecture. Whereas doc filmmaking is more pure cinema, like cinema verité is film in its purest form. You’re taking random images and creating meaning out of random images, telling a story, getting meaning, capturing something that’s real, that’s really happening, and render this celluloid sculpture of this real thing. That’s what really separates the power of doc filmmaking from fiction.
At times doc filmmaking feels more rewarding creatively. Because you are creating something out of pure cinema — instead of narrative cinema, where you’ve got a script and a cast and you build from your foundation, whereas in documentary, you’re building out of chaos.
iW: For you, which one is more exhausting?
Hickenlooper: They’re both exhausting. Docs are more exhausting because of the physical labor that’s required. Feature filmmaking is more exhausting because of politics and the bullshit. You get to the point of rolling film and until you lock picture it’s one political game after another. They’re both struggles for survival. They are two different worlds, which I like going back and forth between. I’d go crazy being in just one world.