”People were allowed to live at the end of their imagination,“ says one of the talking heads in The Cockettes, a fascinating, richly detailed documentary about the legendary queer collective based in San Francisco in the late ‘60s and early ’70s. The speaker is talking not so much about that turbulent era as she is about the Cockettes themselves, a commune of artists that predated and foreshadowed David Bowie, glam rock, gender-bending, thrift-store chic and what would soon be termed ”performance art.“ Drawing on cultural and political references both high and low — old Hollywood and Broadway musicals, the Black Panther Party, underground movies, the Vietnam War, the budding gay-rights and feminist movements — the Cockettes, who were men and women, gays and straights, of all races, made movies, put on elaborate stage shows, and collapsed the lines between art and real life. Like the acid-tripping proteges of some rock & roll Auntie Mame, the Cockettes were fearless, fearsome and fierce.
Directors David Weissman and Bill Weber have exhaustively researched the group, whose actual life span was shockingly brief. The group was in existence for less than three years, although its legacy lived on for a time in the careers of Cockettes such as the late disco icon Sylvester and actormodelpoet Hibiscus (who has a surprising connection to the anti-war movement), both of whom died of AIDS in the ‘80s. The film is a shimmering rejuvenation of standard-issue documentary tools — old photos and assorted home movies, talking heads reminiscing in droll anecdotes and deeply astute cultural analysis. And some of the photos and films are astonishingly vibrant not only in terms of content (clips from the Cockettes’ cult film Tricia Nixon‘s Wedding show the group hilariously satirizing the media event that was the former president’s daughter‘s nuptials), but also in terms of style and beauty. The opening shots of the film are close-ups of glittery baubles and trinkets; later, there’s slo-mo footage of the beautiful Hibiscus, clad only in a bolt of sheer, flowing cloth as he channels Isadora Duncan. Sepia footage of Sylvester in glamorous close-up is similarly breathtaking.
The real value of the film, however, lies in its retrieval of a hugely influential — even revolutionary — arts collective from the cultural dustbin where anything that didn‘t happen yesterday, or on MTV, is casually remaindered. In doing so, The Cockettes lays bare the roots of much contemporary pop culture. It also speaks to a time before queer culture itself had been airbrushed into a never-ending Abercrombie & Fitch ad, when a troupe of queens, fairies and misfits of many sexes were avant-garde and radical simply by virtue of being themselves. Which is not to say that they weren’t deeply conscious of the significance of what they were doing, of the larger ramifications of their lives and art. Some of them, anyway.
Of course, in all this diversity lay the seeds of the very tensions that would eventually explode and play out in the definitions and political goals of the queer-rights movement (and in the larger American culture), as issues of money and social ”evolution“ threatened artistic vision and caused rifts in the hippieactivistartistfaggot community. Today‘s city by the bay is clearly but a shadow of the freewheeling San Francisco of myth and legend, the place that once housed and nurtured the Cockettes. It’s both incredibly cool and incredibly sobering to see how far ahead of the curve they all were, living a hugely political life that was all about the revolutionary act of defining self and identity while refusing to be boxed in by labels, or cast out anyone for being too freakish. This is in distinction from faux progressives nowadays who claim to be bored with (or simply beyond) identity labels or politics, but actually use that stance as a way to shut down any real discussions around race or sexuality. The Cockettes encapsulated an America on the brink of change that has since arrived — and is still to come.
THE COCKETTES | Directed by DAVID WEISSMAN and BILL WEBER | Released by Strand Releasing | At Laemmle‘s Sunset 5, Laemmle’s Playhouse 7