Do Look Back

Producer Chris Carter and writer-director George Hickenlooper’s Mayor of the Sunset Strip, the centerpiece of this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, documents the life of KROQ radio icon Rodney Bingenheimer, who today — with his beloved radio show being relegated to the most undesirable time slots — seems sadder than Gilligan, Chaplin’s Tramp and Jesus Christ all rolled into one cuddly little clump of bummer. The picture, fortunately, also pursues Rodney through happier days, from his arrival during the swinging ’60s in L.A., where — as club owner, groupie procurer and screen double for the Monkees’ Davy Jones — he became famous for, well, knowing a lot of famous people. Finally, in August 1976, Rodney became the “Rodney on the [K]ROQ” he still is today, playing everything that nobody else would play: X, Blondie, Sex Pistols, Ramones — basically the whole punk rock/new wave explosion.

One of Rodney’s 1985 discoveries was a power-pop group from Wayne, New Jersey, called Dramarama, whose song “Anything, Anything (I’ll Give You)” soon became one of the biggest underground hits ever, in Los Angeles and around the country. Thus began Rodney’s long and tumultuous friendship with the band’s bass player, Chris Carter.

Aside from his gig as host of L.A.’s number-one all-Beatles radio show, KLSX’s Breakfast With the Beatles, Carter manages the national recording act the Negro Problem, as well as Brian Wilson’s backup band, Wondermints. He also consults for Capitol Records, and was instrumental in the recent repackaging of Beatles and Beatles-related reissues, including that of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. Now, with Mayor of the Sunset Strip, Carter takes his place among the documenters of rock & roll, although, in the beginning, the film was not intended to be a film at all.

Carter explains: “After Rodney agreed, in about 1996, to let me write a book about his life, I discovered that writing a book was not the best way of telling this story. This revelation came to me while I was interviewing Ron Wood about Rodney and realized how colorful all of Rodney’s friends actually were and that what we needed was to get these people to give their accounts on film. Enter George Hickenlooper. I knew about George from his work on Hearts of Darkness (A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse), for which he won an Emmy. So I found him and pitched him my idea for Mayor of the Sunset Strip. I showed him a few little ‘Rodney’ films I had made at home, along with an intense batch of photos spanning Rodney’s time in L.A., from the ’60s to the present day.

“George flipped over the idea, breaking my coffee table in the process. Our next step was getting some cash to start making the film. George knew an actor-bartender named Tommy Perna, who knew a guy in San Francisco who was looking for a few good film projects to get behind, the wonderful and generous Greg Little. Thanks to Greg, this one-year project that turned into five years is finally done. Without him we would’ve never been able to finish.”

Carter himself is seen throughout the film, running cameras and snapping shots, and his name pops up so many times during the credits that one has to wonder whether he did the catering and sewed the costumes together. “Of course,” he says, “there are lots of others who’ve helped this process along, but it was up to me to get it rolling, then follow through until everything was completed.”

One of the squirmier bits in a film full of squirmy bits shows Rodney unleashing some choice verbal dirt clods at Carter over the producer’s decision to do his own radio show on a rival radio station, opposite Bingenheimer’s time slot. Still, and despite the flare-up, their friendship remains intact.

“After a few bumps in the proverbial road,” Carter says, “Rodney and I have become even closer. People should know that Rodney is quite the private person and that he was really cautious about this film from the beginning. I mean, imagine that somebody was doing The Peter Fletcher Story. You would lie in bed at night thinking, ‘I wonder how I’m going come off in this movie.’ That’s how Rodney was for five years. And I can’t say that I blame him. He’s a dear friend, and I value our long relationship, and hopefully good things will come to him from this film. Which was my original intent when I first started this project. I owe him.”


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