Rock of Ages

The Mayor of the Sunset Strip presides over pop.

Mayor of the Sunset Strip The Cleveland Cinematheque Friday, May 21, and Saturday, May 22
Rodney Bingenheimer boosted countless careers in the L.A. pop-music scene.
Rodney Bingenheimer boosted countless careers in the L.A. pop-music scene.
This may sound an eensy bit hyperbolic, but dig: Mayor of the Sunset Strip is the greatest rock-and-roll movie of all time.

If you haven't explored rock in film, from The T.A.M.I. Show to Woodstock to Concert for George, from Help! to Head to Hairspray, from The Wild Angels to Repo Man to Tank Girl, you may not fully grok the significance of this new documentary. The more gems you have examined, the more you can appreciate this crowning jewel.

Front and center strides Rodney Bingenheimer, fan-turned-impresario-turned-DJ, the film's subject and true genius of popular culture, whose imprimatur for the milieu he knows (white people rockin') ranges wide and deep. Much, much more than some standard Behind the Music TV-special, Mayor succeeds beautifully on multiple levels. As rock revue, it's stunning, featuring amazing celebrity moments. As a study of the nature of fame, it cuts through to the heart of American culture. As an appraisal of the creative impulse, it's captivating. And as a very human story, it's one of the finest films, documentary or otherwise, in ages.

Throughout the course of Mayor, we zing seamlessly among various aspects of Rodney's life and career. With his elfin energy, earnest smile, ever-wide eyes, and bangs, Rodney speaks of being deposited in Hollywood by his mother in the mid-'60s on a quest for Connie Stevens's autograph, then growing up amid the glitz and glamour of the Sunset Strip, with Sonny and Cher acting as his surrogate parents (which Cher cheerfully confirms). Thereafter, if it happened and involved pop music, Rodney was almost always present, introducing America to David Bowie (and significantly strengthening the L.A.-U.K. bridge) in 1971, running his scintillating English Disco nightclub from 1972-'74, and reigning as king of the airwaves at KROQ-FM from 1976 to the present, being the first avid supporter of bands ranging from the Ramones to Oasis -- the latter of whom he played while still unsigned, from their homemade cassettes.

Rodney presently works a weekly graveyard shift (midnight to three a.m. Sunday/Monday), but he gives it his all and continues, via classics and up-to-the-minute pre-hits, to remind us why we loved rock-and-roll radio in the first place. Those attending strictly for the real Almost Famous experience won't be disappointed, as stars from Vincent "Alice Cooper" Furnier to Myra Ellen "Tori" Amos scamper through; hilarious tales of Beatles, Doors, and Zep are divulged; and pop-culture scholars (including Michael and Pamela Des Barres) spill their theses.

But what really makes Mayor special is its view into Rodney's life outside the limelight, as a sensitive fellow struggling through a caustic world. In particular, a visit to his hometown of Mountain View, California -- featuring classic interviews with his somewhat oblivious father, stepmother, and stepsister, as well as his lovely, thoughtful friend Camille Chancery and others -- reveals the nobility of a man who ventured from stifling suburban claustrophobia to the saucy Strip, all for the love and satisfaction of music and connecting people therewith. Rarely is it so enjoyable to visit and revisit one man's dream. To quote Mr. Rodney himself, this movie is godhead.

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