His is a name you can’t make up, a voice you can’t forget even if you want to, a look beyond duplication or even description. He’s been called the prince of pop, the king of L.A. radio, even, as an intriguing new documentary has it, the “Mayor of the Sunset Strip.” But who is Rodney Bingenheimer really, and why should anyone care?
Although currently relegated to a Sunday midnight to 3 a.m. slot, Bingenheimer has been a fixture at Los Angeles’ KROQ-FM (106.7) since 1976. He’s been instrumental in breaking any number of bands, from the Sex Pistols and Blondie to Nirvana, Oasis and Coldplay, someone considered so influential in the world of rock that Courtney Love admits “I stalked him” to get his imprimatur.
But director George Hickenlooper, whose best-known documentary was on Francis Ford Coppola and the making of “Apocalypse Now,” sees Bingenheimer as something more. For him, this quiet little man, this stranger in a strange land forever blinking in the bright light of day, is the ultimate product of society’s obsession with fame. He’s someone who became known for being an intimate of the well-known -- in Mick Jagger’s acid phrase, “a famous groupie, now respectable” -- someone who believed that celebrity would set him free. How much that happened and at what cost is a more open, more interesting question.
Certainly, the walls of what the man himself mockingly calls Bingenheimer Manor attest to a range of acquaintance that is staggering. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley (who gave him his driver’s license), the Doors, Rod Stewart, Elton John, David Bowie, the list goes on and on and finally includes John F. Kennedy and Brigitte Bardot. Not bad for someone who was, a childhood friend says, “the kid everyone beat up on the way to high school.”
That childhood, spent in Northern California’s suburban Mountain View, is in some ways the key to it all. His mother, star-struck with a vengeance, separated from Bingenheimer’s father when the boy was 3, often leaving him alone with his dreams while she worked as a waitress at night. Finally, unbelievably, she dropped him off at Connie Stevens’ Los Angeles house when he was 17, instructed him to get the star’s autograph, and never came back.
Gravitating to the music scene, he became the ultimate guy with the band, the small face near the stage, the man hanging out with someone everyone wanted to meet. “Rodney knew them all,” a disbelieving childhood friend says, looking over the photographic evidence. “I can’t quite figure this out.”
That’s the question, isn’t it? What does it say about the nature of fame that anyone who was anyone let this quiet, nervous person in so close? What secret did Rodney Bingenheimer know, how did he unlock the mystery of celebrity that has frustrated so many?
As revealed in “Mayor,” Bingenheimer’s guilelessness certainly played a part. It’s not everyone who can say with complete sincerity of Andy Warhol and his own late mother, “Andy is an angel with my mom right now up in heaven.” Bingenheimer buys into the system unquestionably, wanting nothing of the stars but their heavenly presence. As Cher says, he is “very genuine. You don’t have to worry about an ulterior motive.”
But more than that, it’s as if Bingenheimer and celebrities sensed an instinctive kinship. Stars also turn out to be damaged people with childhood wounds that have never healed, “aliens in high school,” as Joan Jett puts it. The purity of his unwavering passion is a nice fit with celebrity insecurity, and, as Miss Mercy of the GTOs says, “everybody needs a worshiper.”
If this were a less aware film, Bingenheimer would be portrayed as someone who squandered his life in thrall to celebrity. But in fact, “Mayor” is careful to point out his quite real accomplishments, his gift for finding and promoting new music, his place as an acknowledged if unlikely champion of cutting-edge sounds.
Still, in one of “Mayor’s” most revealing moments, Bingenheimer says quietly that he wishes his life had been different. Despite his closeness to fame and its blandishments, there is no one, now that his beloved mother is gone, to whom he can claim a close emotional attachment (“it’s a lot easier that way,” he says), and the one woman he pines for views him quite definitely as just a friend. A life in the limelight, but also a disconnected one.
Made by Hickenlooper over a six-year period, “Mayor” is rich in interviews, with comments from rock stars; USC’s Leo Braudy, author of “The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History”; and members of Bingenheimer’s family, including his father, Bing, and his stepmother, Zelda. The director asks them the question that is at the heart of the matter: “What’s so special about mingling with celebrities?” They think long and hard but do not come up with an answer.
‘Mayor of the Sunset Strip’
MPAA rating: R, for sexual content/nudity, language and some drug references
Times guidelines: Adult subject matter.
A Caldera Productions, Perna Productions and Question Mark Productions in association with Kino-Eye America presentation, released by First Look Pictures. Director George Hickenlooper. Producers Chris Carter, Greg Little, Tommy Perna. Executive producer Donald Zukerman. Screenplay Hickenlooper. Cinematographers Kramer Morgenthau, Igor Meglic, Carter, Hickenlooper. Editor Julie Janata. Music Anthony Marinelli. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
In limited release.