Taking Office

Bingenheimer and Hickenlooper discuss their rockin' doc, Mayor of the Sunset Strip

"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.

A rush of blood to the head: Brit-pop booster 
Bingenheimer and the lads of Coldplay.
A rush of blood to the head: Brit-pop booster Bingenheimer and the lads of Coldplay.

Details

Mayor of the Sunset Strip
Tivoli

"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."

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