Los Angeles scenester Rodney Bingenheimer, an amalgam of hanger-on, fanboy, hit-maker and California oddball, certainly achieved a measurable degree of renown. But as the profile Mayor of the Sunset Strip reveals, his pursuit of the most slippery of all celebrity -- fame by association -- proves a hollow victory.
Only child Rodney is introduced to fame by his autograph-hound mother. When Rodney is a teen, his mother abandons him outside Connie Stevens' Los Angeles home. At least Rodney gets Stevens' autograph and somehow, like the other lost kids of the '60s, makes his way to the Sunset Strip. Big-eyed and elfin, he apparently survives as the Strip's lovable mascot, always in the background, Zelig-like, when rock stars and other celebrities congregate.
In the early '70s, he writes for music rags, works for record labels, and opens a glam-rock club where he hosts A-listers, other cling-ons like Lance Loud, and scores of teeny-bopper chicks eager to rub up against fame. By the mid-'70s, he parlays his obsessive love of music into a deejay gig at KROQ, a rock station where he finds his new niche breaking punk and new-wave acts on his highly influential show, Rodney on the Roq.
Director George Hickenlooper constructs his documentary portrait in typical fashion -- lots of still photographs; micro clips of bands performing and glad-handing; talking-head interviews with associates, family members and assorted celebrities; and the guileless cooperation of Rodney himself. Few interviewees do much to illuminate Rodney's curious rung on fame's ladder or the pernicious nature of fame -- though Mayor will confirm any suspicions that Los Angeles is a dreadful, shallow, meaningless place where fame and the desire to bask in fame intersect as surely as Hollywood meets Vine.
Actor Michael Des Barres astutely observes that Rodney's status was akin to a drug dealer's -- that people flocked to him because he had access, not to drugs, but to fame. In some respects, Rodney resembles another scene-maker, Andy Warhol: Each was odd-looking and socially awkward, yet through some curious social alchemy, each managed to be the barely-there focal points of vibrant, outrageous scenes. Warhol could fall back on his art; Rodney's chief talent seems to be simply his all-consuming fandom.
Hickenlooper's attempts to dissect the larger issue of what it means to be famous, why proximity to fame is valued or why we even care are scattershot and fall flat; simply watching Rodney live his life of reflected glory is unsettling enough. I suspect the film wants to showcase Rodney positively -- it's titled with his honorific -- but it never feels celebratory.
When the camera's on Rodney, Mayor is reminiscent of other documentaries where their curious subjects inadvertently reveal what pathetic figures they are (Little Edie in the Maysles' Grey Gardens, or the hapless horror-flick director in Chris Smith's American Movie). What emerges is a sad portrait of a man-child: It's not just his tiny stature, melting Kewpie-doll face, squeaky wisp of a voice or hesitant, slightly startled manner; Rodney is so immersed in the alternate reality of celebrity that, like Peter Pan, he never really grows up.
By the film's end, you realize that Rodney, surrounded by his souvenir snapshots, has pursued the wrong mistress. Now in his twilight, he is alone, buoyed by other casualties of the circus. Fame and celebrity have dropped him as unceremoniously on the sidewalk as his mother did. Despite all the white heat surrounding him, Rodney turns out to be small, lonely -- and, in a nasty business, curiously harmless.
Perhaps the saddest of the scenes that Rodney rises and falls through is radio, because it promised the most longevity, didn't necessarily rely on youth or looks and, once, rewarded obsessive fanboys with a creative outlet for their enthusiasms. Today, Rodney can't even define the mega-selling music that now makes up KROQ's playlist (he ends up calling it "skateboarder music"), and hangs on by his fingertips at the station he made famous with a show booked for Loser Time, midnight to 2 a.m. on Sundays.
During the pre-MTV punk/new-wave heyday of 1977-1981, any fan had to give Rodney his due for spinning "unplayable" records, though we mocked him for the scene-specific crimes of being old and working for a commercial radio station. With his mutant-elf look and his stammering patter, he just wasn't "cool" somehow. But if I'd known what a sad-sack he was, another bottomless emotional pit stuffed with notes from Brooke Shields and unsigned band tapes, I'd have been more forgiving.