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Rock of Ages

This may sound an eensy bit hyperbolic, but dig: Mayor of the Sunset Strip is the greatest rock 'n' roll movie of all time. Of course, as with any advanced class, it's good to bone up on the prerequisites. If you haven't explored rock in film (and rockin' film) from...
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This may sound an eensy bit hyperbolic, but dig: Mayor of the Sunset Strip is the greatest rock 'n' roll movie of all time.

Of course, as with any advanced class, it's good to bone up on the prerequisites. If you haven't explored rock in film (and rockin' film) from The T.A.M.I. Show to Woodstock to The Concert for George, from Help! to Head to Hairspray, from The Wild Angels to Repo Man to Tank Girl, you may not fully grok the significance of this new documentary. Mayor stands very well on its own, but the more gems you have examined, the more you can appreciate this crowning jewel.

Front and center strides Rodney Bingenheimer, fan turned impresario turned DJ, the film's subject and true genius of popular culture, whose imprimatur for the milieu he knows (white people rockin') ranges wide and deep. The opening sequence launches everything beautifully, with pop aficionado Rodney grooving nervously backstage, then emerging amid roars of approval to introduce X ("the band that started it all, who invented you, definitely!"), complete with a quick cuddle from luminous front lady Christine "Exene" Cervenka in her flashy tiara. Anti-anthemic strains of "Los Angeles" carry us through a brief cruise in the man's trademark GTO to Hollywood's "Rock and Roll" Denny's (alas, now closed), one of several L.A. haunts where this Mayor -- so dubbed by Sal Mineo, legend has it -- holds court.

Much, much more than some standard Behind the Music TV special, Mayor succeeds beautifully on multiple levels. As rock revue, it's stunning, featuring a list of amazing celebrity moments that could fill this page, best experienced firsthand. As a study of the nature of fame, it cuts through to the heart of American culture like a precision instrument. As an appraisal of the creative impulse -- cooperative and competitive -- it's captivating. And as a very human story, revealing universal strengths and struggles through the path of one unique individual, it's one of the finest films, documentary or otherwise, in ages. Worldwide appeal, right here. (Can you say, "Big in Japan"?)

Credit George Hickenlooper, co-director of the Coppola-Apocalypse documentary Hearts of Darkness as well as the brilliant romantic drama The Man From Elysian Fields, for bringing this complex portrait into such awesome and entertaining focus. More a film man than a music man (he is jovially berated onscreen by Rodney for never having heard of No Doubt), Hickenlooper comprehensively brings forth the essence of a remarkable life with raucous fun and incredible tenderness.

One must also applaud the fantastic work here from top-of-her-field editor and co-producer Julie Janata, who pared down 400 hours, or 1,500 terabytes, of digitized film, video, stills, copious songs and Anthony Marinelli's superbly moody score to bring you 94 of the smartest, sharpest minutes you'll experience in cinema this year. (And apparently the DVD will have much more to offer.)

Throughout the course of Mayor, we zing seamlessly among various aspects of Rodney's life and career. What could have become an information train wreck instead becomes a paean to life in this modern (or is that Mod?) age. With his elfin energy, earnest smile, ever-wide eyes and bangs, Rodney speaks of being deposited in Hollywood by his mother in the mid-'60s on a quest for Connie Stevens' autograph, then growing up amid the glitz and glamour of the Sunset Strip, with Sonny & Cher acting as his surrogate parents (which Cher cheerfully confirms). Thereafter, if it happened and involved pop music, Rodney was literally almost always present, introducing America to David Bowie (and significantly strengthening the L.A.-U.K. bridge) in 1971, running his scintillating English Disco nightclub from 1972 to 1974, and reigning as king of the airwaves at KROQ-FM from 1976 to the present, being the first avid supporter of bands ranging from the Ramones to Oasis, the latter of whom he played while still unsigned, from their homemade cassettes.

KROQ now reflects the times, sadly and madly (Clem Burke of Blondie wisely dubs the station "a monster"), and Rodney currently works a weekly graveyard shift (Sunday/Monday midnight to 3 a.m.), but he gives it his all and continues, via classics and up-to-the-minute pre-hits, to remind us why we loved rock 'n' roll radio in the first place. Brian Wilson's tribute single to him -- part of the wonderful soundtrack CD -- proves inspiring indeed. Whomever the subject, more projects this enthusiastic would be welcome.

Mayor also allows us to understand Bingenheimer's world through his many other friends and colleagues, with always sprightly women-about-town Nancy Sinatra and Brooke Shields showing up to sing praises. Offering some contrast, music producer Kim Fowley, a self-admitted Lothario whom Runaways' alum Cherie Currie describes as "a dangerous man," comes across as venomously amusing. (Of Bingenheimer's stint appearing as Davy Jones' double for The Monkees, as well as starring in an episode, Fowley muses, "Rodney's sexual stock skyrocketed off the NASDAQ on that one!") There's an L.A.-centric, bittersweet, lost-puppy quality throughout many of the relationships here, especially when stalwart pop singer Ronald Vaughn croons his love song to Jennifer Love Hewitt (who, he carefully notes, comes from his home state of Texas). Rodney gently explains that he does his best to help the guy out, which speaks volumes.

Those attending strictly for the real Almost Famous experience won't be disappointed, as stars from Vincent "Alice Cooper" Furnier to Myra Ellen "Tori" Amos scamper through; hilarious tales of Beatles, Doors and Zep are divulged; and pop culture scholars (including Michael and Pamela Des Barres) spill their theses. It's a generous movie, too, offering definitions of "autograph hound" and "groupie" for those audience members recently arrived from other planets (which could well include Vaughn, who doubles as "Isadore Ivy: Spaceman at Large").

For all that, though, what really makes Mayor most special is its view into Rodney's life outside the limelight, as a very sensitive fellow struggling through a very caustic world. The emotional discoveries and transitions here are quite amazing, and literally bring the rock experience home. In particular, a visit to his hometown of Mountain View, California -- featuring classic interviews with his somewhat oblivious father, stepmother and stepsister, as well as his lovely, thoughtful friend Camille Chancery and others -- reveals the nobility of a man who ventured from stifling suburban claustrophobia to the saucy Strip, all for the love and satisfaction of music, and connecting people therewith. Being mayor is a great start, but let me be the first to say: Rodney Bingenheimer for president! Rarely is it so enjoyable to visit and revisit one man's dream. To quote Mr. Rodney himself, this movie is godhead.

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