Rock of Ages 

The Mayor of the Sunset Strip presides over pop.

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 from The T.A.M.I. Show to Woodstock to 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 'n' Roll" Denny's (alas, now closed), one of several Los Angeles 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.

Credit George Hickenlooper, codirector 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. Hickenlooper comprehensively brings forth the essence of a remarkable life with raucous fun and incredible tenderness.

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. If it happened and involved pop music, Rodney was literally almost always present, introducing America to David Bowie 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, and Rodney presently works a weekly graveyard shift, 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.

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.

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 -- 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. Rarely is it so enjoyable to visit and revisit one man's dream.


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