Rodney Bingenheimer is sitting down to dinner at an IHOP in Santa Barbara, California. Mayor of the Sunset Strip, St. Louisan George Hickenlooper's multifaceted film about Rodney's scintillating life as an alterna-rock impresario, has just won the prize for best documentary at the town's film festival, whose attendees included Peter Jackson, Frances Walsh, John Cleese and Charlize Theron. Rodney -- Shepherd of Singles, Hermes of Hipness -- is among the stars as usual. And he's really nice.
Be careful, though, regarding grunge. His single, "I Hate the '90s," (available on Mayor's superb soundtrack album) focuses on the nadir of the stinky flannel movement. "It's kind of a novelty tune," Rodney laughs. "It's a parody of the '90s. I hate tattoos on girls. I'm just yelling out all these weird things. Marcia Brady never had a tattoo!"
Rodney is complex. He chuckles knowingly over Kurt Cobain introducing a decade of braying pop misery, then rapidly admits to being the first major DJ to promote Nirvana's Bleach. This man, for whom the Monkees and the Sex Pistols, Starsailor and Coldplay, are all basically pals, started a trend -- and then countered it, boosting Brit-pop with the homemade cassettes of the then-unsigned Oasis. That's influence.
Harbored by Sonny & Cher in his tender teens, Rodney's the eternal pop prince. Legions of acts thank him for their big American breaks. And yet: no drugs (ever), no drink (doesn't like alcohol), no record (but countless records). This fellow simply loves sharing his uncanny gift.
In 1971, while working for Mercury Records, Rodney introduced America to David Bowie, who stayed in the home of Rodney's friend, the late Tom Ayres (Gene Vincent's producer). Bowie suggested that Rodney open a rock club in Hollywood, and in the boom of glam, with Ayres as partner, Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco exploded. On his current Reality tour, Bowie called Rodney onstage to lionize him.
And "Rodney on the ROQ" remains a vital force at LA's KROQ-FM, where he continues to break up-to-the-minute acts such as Franz Ferdinand and the Raveonettes.
Rodney's funny too. Mention the latest Dead Kennedys tour (sans Jello Biafra) and he declares, "That doesn't count!" Regarding contemporary cinema, he offers, "Too many things blowing up," and of his favorite film, Breakfast at Tiffany's, he swoons for Audrey Hepburn: "Oh, worship!" He's also happy to tweak Mayor's interviewees, including Ray Manzarek: "The Doors never played a show with the Beatles -- I don't know what Ray's talking about," he chuckles. "But they did play with John and Yoko. John didn't really want to see anybody, but he'd hang out with me."
Most impressive for a suburban kid who collected Ronettes and Beach Boys singles in and around his humble hometown of Mountain View, California (where the Beach Boys actually visited his house in 1965). "I'd take the train," he reminisces, "and go up to San Francisco, to Woolworth's -- that big, famous Woolworth's you always see in the postcards -- and that's where I got my Phil Spector's Greatest Hits album." That platter helped spin innumerable others, but how did Rodney become the subject of the second-highest selling documentary (after Bowling for Columbine) of all time? Budgeted at 1.5 million, sold at 1.5 million -- that's rare.
"It started with Chris Carter," Rodney reveals, name-checking his friend whose credits range from being Dramarama's lead singer to co-producing the fabulous The Naked Dutch Painter album by Stew of the Negro Problem. Years later, editor Julie Janata honed the twelve-hour cut to about two, and Rodney viewed his life filmed large. "It was pretty fair. I went to the screening with Nancy Sinatra, and she went along to make sure [director George Hickenlooper] did a good job, and she was kind of protecting me." He grins mischievously. "Having a Sinatra protect you -- that's pretty cool."
George Hickenlooper -- director of hapless-hero features including The Man From Elysian Fields and The Low Life, as well as documentaries -- dashes through a Santa Barbara cinema lobby and shouts, "Is the Q&A over yet?" In fact, he's early, and the packed house is still engrossed in Mayor.
George, a graduate of Saint Louis University High School, has worked in film since age twelve, when his playwright-cineaste father bought him a Super 8 camera. His mother worked energetically in theater. George's short movies played on TV in St. Louis as well as in Kansas City. He took a film class in Palo Alto, California, with best friend Kirk Wise, who later helmed Disney's lavish Atlantis: The Lost Empire. With hipster screenwriter and SLU High classmate James Gunn (of the Scooby Doo franchise), George formed a collective of St. Louis filmmakers called the Splicers. Then came a University of Southern California summer film program, film studies at Yale and the inevitable internship with Roger Corman in Los Angeles.
George knows the biz. His documentaries about Dennis Hopper, Peter Bogdanovich and especially Francis Ford Coppola have won him big kudos; likewise his book of interviews, Reel Conversations. Forthcoming are a thriller called Diary; a 9/11-themed drama called The Handyman; and a new doc, possibly co-directed with Barbara Trent (of the Oscar-winning The Panama Deception), about the political spectrum on U.S. campuses. Meanwhile, he's made the greatest -- and arguably most sensitive -- rock & roll movie of all time. While Rodney is a pop lover, George is a social scientist. The two complement each other wonderfully.
"With Mayor of the Sunset Strip I saw a little of myself in Rodney, which was really the trigger for me to make this picture," George says, adding that producer Chris Carter's enthusiasm enhanced the fascination.
The first encounter sealed the deal. "I went over to Rodney's apartment, [which was] floor-to-ceiling with photographs of himself with all these celebrities, and weird combinations of celebrities, like Johnny Rotten with Bill Clinton. But it wasn't so much the photographs, which were intriguing enough, but it was how Rodney would became luminous, really, when he would talk about these photos."
George found a literary parallel in Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man (about an African-American outcast who shines lights on his skin), and this further encouraged him.
"Coming to Hollywood -- or even if you don't come to Hollywood but are fascinated by celebrity -- I think we're all sort of looking for something. Our culture has become so fragmented, and we often fill those cracks with celebrity, as pointed out by Leo Braudy in his book Frenzy of Renown," he explains. "I saw this kind of universal theme that made it really compelling, and it oddly felt autobiographical."
Isn't transforming someone's life into a cinematic narrative a heavy task?
"The challenge was balancing Rodney's contribution to music -- which I think is very interesting to pop-music lovers -- versus a very visceral story about this guy who was abandoned, virtually -- literally -- by his parents. He's been trying, in essence, to make up for that, as we all do in life.
"As I was interviewing a lot of these pop stars I saw a common thread," George continues, relishing his thesis. "We have this hierarchy where Rodney's this unknown guy, and he has these big stars that he pedestalizes [sic] or that tower above him, but in reality they're all on the same level because they all share this common need to be near celebrity. Dealing with Courtney Love's childhood, or Cher's youth, or David Bowie, or Miss Pamela [Des Barres] or Brian Wilson -- they all thematically share these same lives, early on."
Apparently George surprised the celebs. "I think some of them were taken aback because they agreed to do it because they thought they were going to say a few words about Rodney -- this nice guy, yadda-yadda -- I don't think they were expecting me to ask them about fame and celebrity and their own ideas of it. I think a couple of them felt it was a little threatening, because this transcendental illusion of fame -- this sort of redemption -- is their commodity, and so trying to deconstruct that is a kind of threat to their livelihood."
Seeing as how Rodney was concerned enough to bring a Sinatra to his first screening, did George ever feel cowed? "I made it very clear to Rodney, as I made it very clear to Francis Coppola when I made Hearts of Darkness, that I really need you to be open. Ironically, the things Rodney objected to were a lot more superficial, like he didn't like the way his hair looked in this shot or whatever. He objected to Mick Jagger calling him a groupie, because it's become a pejorative term. But I felt that we wanted a little of what Mick Jagger's opinion of him is, so I kept that in."
In sum, George is kind and reflective about the whole process. "It can be very tempting to be condescending to your subject or to try to get a laugh at the expense of the people you're interviewing," he notes, "but I try to keep it balanced." Then he shows a trace of the Omnipotent Director: "If anything, it should secure Rodney's position at KROQ for a while."
Speaking of which, let's not forget Rodney's gift.
He smiles across the Formica, wrapping up dinner. "I like to pretend like I'm a kid at home listening to the radio."
It's impossible to avoid quoting a classic Bowie song. I ask him, indeed: "Are you the DJ?"
"Yeah, exactly!" Rodney enthuses. "I am what I play."