If it hadn't already been used, a perfect alternative title for a movie about Los Angeles DJ, Rodney Bingenheimer might have been Almost Famous.
Listen to how Alice Copper describes Bingenheimer: `He was accepted by the Rolling Stones, he was accepted by The Beatles, he was accepted by The Beach Boys ' This slightly unflattering choice of words is significant. Not `was friends with,' not `hung out with,' not `partied with,' but `was accepted by.' One critic called the documentary Mayor of the Sunset Strip the greatest rock & roll movie ever made. I'd have to watch Stop Making Sense and The Velvet Goldmine again before I could make that commitment, but in my opinion, Mayor isn't even about rock & roll. It's about fame, or the proximity to fame. It's about acceptance.
Rodney Bingenheimer's greatest achievement is that, for a generation, he introduced the most influential artists in modern rock to America radio. His second greatest accomplishment was his ability to be accepted. So many larger than life personalities try to force themselves into the spotlight. Meanwhile, quiet, shy, unassuming Rodney Bingenheimer has lived at the edge of the spotlight for his entire adult life.
Pamela Des Barres (who appears in the film) is arguably the world's greatest groupie. Bingenheimer is probably a close second, despite the handicap of being male (being a groupie, like being a fashion model or porn star, is one of the few pursuits in patriarchal society where being male is a handicap). But, while Des Barres is a pop icon, published author and happily married to former rocker Michael Des Barres, Bingenheimer is single, lives in a modest home with tattered furniture and has a once-a-week, 3 hour late-night radio show.
George Hickenlooper's Mayor of the Sunset Strip is a thought provoking look at Los Angeles and the thin but often uncrossable line between `the famous and the not so famous.' From its opening it seems to ask the question, why is one of the most influential men in American radio not a household name, when so many less deserving souls (cough-Carson Daly-cough) are. From the first frame of the film, I found myself sizing Bingenheimer up to come up with an answer. He's a short, skinny, funny looking guy. He's got what you'd call `a great face for radio.' However, he doesn't have a radio voice and after twenty years on the air he has not developed a radio persona. Perhaps this is why he will never reach the heights of Wolfman Jack, Kasey Casem or Rick Dees (yes, I just used `heights' and Rick Dees in the same sentence. No small feat). He lacks the authority of a Kurt Loader and perhaps was just born too early to take advantage of MTV, the network that can make less-than-handsome music aficionados like Matt Pinfield into TV personalities.
Over the span of the film, we see Rodney with the likes of Oasis, No Doubt, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Coldplay and Cher (who Rodney says was like a mother to him, although she looks remarkably younger than he does. Hmmm ). Many of these artists and many more credit Rodney with being the first to play their music on American radio. In photo montages we see old stills of Rodney with Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Dylan, to name a few. We see film clips of Rodney with Jerry Lee Lewis, The Mamas and the Papas and John Lennon. The list is so impressive; if you saw it out of context you'd swear the pictures were fakes. The diminutive Bingenheimer often looks matted into the footage like Woody Allen in Zelig or Tom Hanks in Forest Gump.
Before the credits roll we will see Rodney betrayed by his best friend. We will see his unrequited love for a young girl who insists they are `just friends.' In one humorous and painful scene, we see his estranged family searching the house for pictures of Rodney in desperate attempt to look less estranged. Throughout the film two seemingly opposing questions dominate: With all these famous friends, why isn't Rodney more successful? And, why did all the famous people gravitate toward him to begin with?
In the end, perhaps the fact that Rodney Bingenheimer couldn't parlay his access to the rich and famous into wealth and fame is not the tragedy of Rodney Bingenheimer. Perhaps the fact that we find anyone who doesn't cash in on their proximity to fame tragic is the tragedy of America. Rodney Bingenheimer is our inner geek, the star-stuck autograph hound in all of us. Hickenlooper's film holds up a mirror to a celebrity obsessed culture, a culture fixated on something 99.9999% its members will never experience. Perhaps this is the tragedy of all our lives. After all, as bad as we may feel for Bingenheimer, the fact remains: WE are watching a movie about HIM, a movie in which he is hanging out with David Bowie, and we are not.