||A genuine Zelig, an essentially vacuous guy who apparently becomes all things to all people (and thereby a secondary celebrity), is the subject of George Hickenlooper’s intriguing, and ultimately rather sad, documentary. The subject is Rodney Bingenheimer, a fairly homely, extremely quiet fellow from an upstate California town who was befriended by a slew of musicians and eventually became an influential D.J. in Los Angeles, introducing much cutting-edge pop music (like the Sex Pistols, for instance) to his audience (and America). He also opened a club which was, for a time, a very “in” place. But his natural timidity persisted, and it appears that he never allowed his reputation as a star-maker to go to his head, living a simple life even in his halcyon period. In more recent days Bingenheimer has fallen on less prosperous days: his club is long since closed, his radio station has exiled him to a few hours per week in the early morning, and his mother, with whom he was extremely close, died. But he remains quietly resilient, and some of his musical friends (Cher, David Bowie) continue to stay in close touch. That’s why his one outburst of anger comes as such a shock: it’s directed against musician Chris Carter (who’s also one of the producers of this film), whom he accuses of stealing his thunder when he takes a job at a rival station.
The portrait that Hickenlooper draws of this curious man, whose family life was precarious and whose persona seems a reflection of those with whom he connected, is sympathetic and perceptive. It features extensive footage of Bingenheimer himself, showing off his souvenirs, visiting the locales of his past glories, talking extensively about his triumphs and travails, puttering about his mother’s empty house and, toward the close, sprinkling her ashes into the Thames . It also includes interviews with others, including Cher; but certainly the most poignant testimony comes from his father and stepmother, elderly retirees who have only fairly recently resumed contact with him. (There’s a sadly revealing moment when Hickenlooper asks them whether, among the many photos in their house, they could produce one of Rodney. It takes them a good long while.)
There’s a good deal of music in “The Mayor of the Sunset Strip,” but it’s the intimate moments that matter. It’s worth seeing because its odd, self-effacing subject is fascinating by reason of his very emptiness, and more than a little pathetic--and not merely because his star has fallen. This Zelig survives, but he’s still Zelig.