Asked on camera to identify Rodney Bingenheimer, the author of The Frenzy of Renown (Leo Braudy) draws a blank. And unless you live in L.A. and have backstage passes to rock shows, you may not recognize him either. But 30 years of big names in rock, from David Bowie to No Doubt, know Rodney as the Mayor of the Sunset Strip.
R for Sexual content, nudity, language, drug references
Documentary filmmaker George Hickenlooper (cousin to Denver mayor John Hickenlooper) was invited by producer Chris Carter to make a movie about this unlikely, unknown celebrity. Carter was a member of the ’80s group Dramarama, who were introduced to U.S. audiences by radio DJ Bingenheimer. Rodney also introduced Americans to David Bowie, The Sex Pistols, Devo, Nirvana, and more recently, Coldplay.
Bingenheimer has been around celebrities, particularly musicians, his whole life. He tried out for The Monkees, getting beat out by Davy Jones, but earning a spot as Jones’ stand-in. He has Elvis Presley’s learner’s permit, given to him by The King himself, framed on one of his cluttered walls. He says Sonny and Cher were practically his mom and his dad.
Why did celebrities warm to this devoted fan? On camera, Cher says that Rodney is a sweet boy, and harmless. Perhaps they saw in Rodney the lonesome loser that they outgrew. Perhaps they saw an honest, devoted child-figure whom they could mother. It’s something of a mystery, one of a handful that make Mayor of the Sunset Strip a pleasure to watch.
Perhaps the most intriguing angle is Rodney’s own sadness. Here is a man who has the friendship of celebrities, something most people wish they had. And yet Rodney freely says that he’d trade it all in for a normal, happy life. He’s often smiling, but his eyes never give up that look of sadness, the look of a lost child who only wants to be loved.
Another critic who screened the film with me laughed in all the right places. Afterwards, however, he said that he thought the movie was a Christopher-Guest-style mockumentary, right up until the end. He couldn’t believe that this Zelig-like simple figure was a real man. The realization made him sad and depressed, because in spite of his apparent success, Rodney really is a tragic figure.
There’s a lesson somewhere in Mayor of the Sunset Strip. It has something to do with fame, reflected glory, and happiness. But the lesson is elusive, to us and to Rodney, and that’s part of the tragedy.