The Hickenlooper Tapes: When George Met Rodney

Photo by Rodney Bingenheimer

L.A. WEEKLY: When you assembled Hearts of Darkness, you had Eleanor Coppola’s documentary footage, the tape recordings, the whole legend that had grown up around the making of Apocalypse Now. With Mayor of the Sunset Strip, to what extent did you know, going in, what you were looking for? Did you enter the project with preconceptions? Did themes emerge as you were shooting, or while you were editing?

GEORGE HICKENLOOPER: Literally, my first impression of Rodney was hearing him on the radio late at night when I first moved to L.A., in 1987. He had this very kind of unprepossessing voice that didn’t match the chocolatey-rich timbres of most FM DJs — so there was already a question: Why would this station even have him on the air? But my interest didn’t really go beyond that until I was approached by Chris Carter, who showed me photographs of Rodney with about every pop star and movie star you could name, and I thought, “Wow, this guy is a kind of living Zelig.” Then, when I was introduced to Rodney — I was brought to this single-room apartment covered floor to ceiling with photographs of himself with various celebrities — it reminded me of that moment in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man when we see the protagonist, who feels like he doesn’t exist, sitting in a small room surrounded by light bulbs that illuminate his skin. Similarly, I thought, when Rodney was showing me his photographs for the first time, he seemed to actually glow. And then, talking to Rodney over a couple of hours, I began to see myself there, I began asking questions of myself: Why am I so drawn to celebrity? As I heard from Rodney about his fractured childhood — I also come from a broken family — I began to see him as a kind of Everyman, in many ways a caricature but also a mirror, not just for me but for what the culture has become as the nuclear family has broken down, as interest in religion has declined — we sort of fill those fractures with celebrity, with these demigods. And I thought, now here’s a launching pad for a really powerful documentary. If I can set this in a larger framework, with Rodney as a metaphor for certain larger themes . . . I mean, all those people in Des Moines who think about Hollywood, who end up coming here, wanting, somehow, to be closer to celebrity — there must be a common denominator, people looking for something externally that they can never get internally.

In the movie, Lance Loud makes the inevitable comparison between Rodney and Andy Warhol.

Well, there is a superficial similarity. I mean, sure, they both loved the idea of celebrity and were able to parlay that into helping other people, other careers. The fundamental difference, I think, is that Warhol was very shrewd about it, a good capitalist. Whatever Rodney did, he did selflessly, without giving a thought to material gain.

Partial filmography: Mayor of the Sunset Strip (2003), The Man From Elysian Fields (2001), The Big Brass Ring (1999), Dogtown (1997), Monte Hellman: American Auteur (1997), Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade (1994, a 25-minute film starring Billy Bob Thornton, and the basis for the 1996 feature), Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991).

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