A playwright, a DJ, and a groupie—three new documentaries.
Rodney Bingenheimer—the L.A. DJ, sometime nightclub owner, and celebrity hanger-on who is the subject of George Hickenlooper's creepily entertaining Mayor of the Sunset Strip—is even less comfortable with the camera, and he doesn't have Shepard's bone structure to fall back on. Bingenheimer got his Hollywood break as a stand-in for the Monkees' Davy Jones, but he had (and has) nothing like Davy's elfin prettiness. Homuncular, with spindly little legs and a Prince Valiant mop atop sagging features, he now looks like a strenuously mod Don Knotts. I've been surprised to see words like "reverent" applied to this movie, which is an affectionate but on balance depressing look at the loneliness of the long-distance groupie.
No, "groupie" is not quite right. Bingenheimer is unclassifiable. Someone in the film takes a stab, dubbing him a "designated driver between the famous and the non-famous"—a Warhol without the paintings. But even that doesn't quite capture this career, which began with young Rodney's arrival as a teenager, freshly ejected from his movie-mad mother's house in Northern California, in Hollywood at its artistic/hedonistic '60s peak. In addition to his Monkees duties, Bingenheimer attached himself to sundry music legends (Sonny and Cher were surrogate parents) and groupies; he was the sweet little boy whom the girls wanted to mother and, in those free-love days, screw. Meanwhile, he delivered young women to rock stars while keeping some—many, apparently—for himself. But he wasn't just a parasite and a panderer. As a DJ in the early days of KROQ, playing glam, L.A. punk, and New Wave, he labored to build celebrities—perhaps as much to keep himself supplied, and at the center of the scene, as to help their careers.
Mayor of the Sunset Strip is a portrait of a man who has always needed celebrities to validate him, and the filmmaker signals his point of view by regularly invoking Leo Braudy, author of the seminal fame-whoredom-through-the-ages study, The Frenzy of Renown. Interviews with Bingenheimer's surviving family members—who share his interest in celebrities but have no portraits of Rodney on their walls—are in the spooky-banal mode of a Christopher Guest parody. Bingenheimer's hissy fit when a disciple (one of the film's producers, Chris Carter) starts his own radio show is the squirmy climax—that and Rodney solemnly scattering his mother's ashes from an English ferry while a nearby kid says, "Wass 'e doin'?" and his mum goes, "Shush."
The movie uses stars—Brian Wilson, David Bowie, Courtney Love, Deborah Harry, Joan Jett, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Geller, and on and on through "Miss" Pamela Des Barres—as promiscuously as Bingenheimer does, but Hickenlooper is pretty out-front about needing their reflected luster: The subject generates little light on his own. But even if the movie circles around his vacuity as if being sucked down a cosmic drain, it leaves you wishing for Bingenheimer a stardom of his own—and the girl-mothers to take care of him. Maybe the success of this documentary has helped that process along.
The hero of Jonathan Demme's The Agronomist is a DJ, too, but he doesn't just reflect light—he's the source, the beacon. Jean Dominique was the guiding force of Radio Haiti Inter until he was cut down by bullets in April 2000 outside his station, and Demme's movie exuberantly crosses the border from documentary into hagiography and from hagiography into celebration. One gets little idea of what Dominique was like when the camera wasn't on him: He seemed always to be a public figure, a lusty grandstander. Lean and gaunt, like John Carradine with a tan, he spoke English with a hambone joy, reveling in the "reesky beezness" of his life as he called for the "par-tee-cee-pay-tion of the citizen," and declared, "You cannot keeeeeeel the truth." You could, unfortunately, keeeel him, but his widow, Michele Montas, returned from scattering his ashes to report to the Radio Haiti audience that "Jean-Dominique lives!" And Demme's movie—teeming with the profound chaos and more profound harmony of modern Haiti—makes it so.