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L.A.'s own Mayor Zelig

A new film follows Rodney Bingenheimer's journey from a torn childhood to hanging with the hip bands of the music scene.

March 21, 2004|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

"What's happening?" says Rodney Bingenheimer, looking up from his breakfast of fruit and scrambled egg whites. He's sitting in the far corner booth at the Denny's coffee shop in Hollywood's Gower Gulch, where he arrives every day at 1 p.m.

"What's happening?" has been his immutable greeting since the phrase was new, back in the euphoric bloom of the Sunset Strip in the '60s, and it served him well through subsequent eras -- glam and punk, new wave and Brit-pop, power-pop and alt-rock.

These days Bingenheimer is probably best known for his midnight Sunday KROQ-FM (106.7) radio show "Rodney on the ROQ," on which he continues his quest to play the coolest new music before anyone else. Before starting at KROQ 27 years ago, he played a similar role through the glitter-spewing speakers of his English Disco. His list of "discoveries" includes the Ramones, Blondie, the Go-Go's, Oasis, Coldplay, Black Flag, Van Halen and David Bowie.

But radio DJs with a nose for the now come and go. Bingenheimer's true claim to fame and inescapable uniqueness stems from something more elusive and fascinating: his presence for four decades at the throbbing center of the Los Angeles music scene.

There he's become something of a presiding spirit -- a ubiquitous, deadpan leprechaun who pops up at every notable event. Actor Sal Mineo long ago pronounced him the mayor of the Sunset Strip, and no one's come along to challenge him yet.

Those who have seen the framed photos on the walls of his Hollywood apartment -- Rodney with Dylan, Rodney with Elvis, Rodney with Lennon -- inevitably think of Zelig, the Woody Allen character who drifted from one momentous historical scene to another.

There's also something Warhol-like in the way Bingenheimer maintains his reserved, understated manner amid the social swirl. He's a shy man who likes to keep his private life private and his feelings close to his vest.

Which makes the latest twist in his saga all the more remarkable: "Mayor of the Sunset Strip," a documentary film opening this week, captures him with his guard painfully down.

"Mayor" probes the sensitive tissue of family dysfunction, including his parents' divorce and the story of how he came to stay in Hollywood -- his mother drove him from their home in Northern California, dropped him in front of actress Connie Stevens' house so he could get an autograph, then drove away and didn't see him again for years.

"Yeah," Bingenheimer says of the movie's sometimes uncomfortable intimacy and emotional candor. "I kind of think, 'That's not me, I'm the guy watching this guy.' You have to put it in that way.... It's a documentary, that's what a documentary's about, it's about life."

'The human need'

Although most people might look at Rodney Bingenheimer and see a cuddly music mascot or a rock 'n' roll kewpie doll, George Hickenlooper saw both a kindred spirit and the stuff of symbol. That's why he signed on to direct "Mayor of the Sunset Strip." It wouldn't be just a glorified VH1 biography. It would be something much bigger.

"Celebrity ultimately is an extension of the human need to be loved," says Hickenlooper, whose previous films include 1991's "Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse," a documentary on the making of "Apocalypse Now," and the 2001 drama "The Man from Elysian Fields," with Andy Garcia and Mick Jagger.

"I saw Rodney as a perfect Zelig-like metaphor for what's happened to American culture and our obsession with celebrity," adds Hickenlooper, who says that the pain of his parents' breakup gave him a powerful bond with his subject.

"Our culture's trying to sort of heal those fragments that have come along with the rising divorce rate and the breakdown of religion and all that, so I was interested in Rodney in an anthropological sense."

Maybe so, but even though Hickenlooper cites Gershwin and Stravinsky as his favorite music and puts a USC professor expounding on celebrity in the film, "The Mayor of the Sunset Strip" still rocks, with its buoyant, thumping music and a cast of colorful interview subjects. Among them: Cher, Bowie, Joan Jett, Courtney Love and the cynical, flamboyant record producer Kim Fowley, Bingenheimer's longtime friend, whom Hickenlooper describes as "Darth Vader to Rodney's Luke Skywalker."

The nuts and bolts of Bingenheimer's journey are here: He grew up an only child in Mountain View, near San Jose, and his parents, celebrity hounds themselves, it turns out, divorced when he was 3. He began visiting Hollywood in his teens before that fateful trip with his mom.

At some points in the movie, Bingenheimer appears to be fighting tears, and one scene captures an uncharacteristic outburst of anger. A plot involving his late mother's ashes yields a moment of bittersweet triumph, while visits with his father and stepmother have a surreal edge reminiscent of "Crumb," Terry Zwigoff's 1994 documentary on artist R. Crumb that was something of a blueprint for "Mayor."

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