We all love hobnobbing with celebrities, whether it's a one-time sighting or a more meaningful exchange. But then there are people whose lives constantly revolve around stars, whose walls are covered with autographs and snapshots. You know the type. And then there's Rodney Bingenheimer.
As George Hickenlooper's fascinating documentary Mayor of the Sunset Strip reveals, Los Angeles resident Bingenheimer's life has been defined by the roster of famous people he has befriended. The scrawny son of an autograph hound, he was first a groupie in the 1960s, briefly becoming a stand-in for Davy Jones on The Monkees (no doubt Marcia Brady would be jealous). Amid that scene, Bingenheimer began befriending stars like Nancy Sinatra, Phil Spector and Sonny & Cher, the last of whom he became so close to that the couple came to think of Bingenheimer like a son. Legendary groupie Pamela Des Barres recalls Bingenheimer was the first boy in Hollywood she kissed.
During the '70s glam-rock era, Bingenheimer owned a club in London that was frequented by the likes of David Bowie, Elton John and Alice Cooper. "This guy gets more girls than I do," Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant even proclaimed. Later, Bingenheimer became a DJ for legendary Los Angeles radio station KROQ (he remains there today, although relegated to the wee hours), where he was the first to play a stunning array of bands from '70s punk acts to, more recently, Oasis and No Doubt.
Speaking with WW at this year's Portland International Film Festival, documentarian Hickenlooper--who also directed Hearts of Darkness, about the filming of Apocalypse Now--says what interested him was not Bingenheimer's place in pop music but the root of his obsessions.
"Rodney comes from a broken family, and I do as well," the director says. "In order to endure the slings and arrows of Hollywood, you have to have been used to that kind of harsh existence in order to really tolerate it, let alone survive it." The director also thinks many celebrities have similarly dysfunctional backgrounds. "It really comes down to filling something inside themselves that they didn't have as kids," Hickenlooper continues. "I think celebrity really is a function and an extension of the human need to be loved. That was a story I wanted to tell."
In Mayor of the Sunset Strip, the parade of glitterati praising Bingenheimer's gentle, sweet disposition is remarkable, if not downright peculiar. From Beck to Corey Feldman, Courtney Love to Kato Kaelin, Brooke Shields to David Lee Roth, the testimonials show that while Bingenheimer may not be a household name to most Americans, he seems to be a celebrity among celebrities. "He's like a living piece of Andy Warhol art," the director muses, "because he's like a mirror off of those people he's around. But I also think there's a selflessness about him. He didn't really want anything from anyone. And that's what has allowed him to endure."
Indeed, that selflessness has a price, as we see Bingenheimer return home from his glamorous life by proxy to a lonely, sad existence defined largely by the mementos on his wall--although admittedly having Elvis' driver's license is pretty cool. What makes Mayor of the Sunset Strip so captivating is this duality, the notion that however strange-looking or vacant he may be, there's a little Rodney Bingenheimer in all of us.
"Even though it's Rodney's life on film, and our backgrounds are so different, we're emotionally very connected," Hickenlooper agrees. "In that way, making Mayor of the Sunset Strip was a very cathartic experience for me. It was oddly autobiographical."