Dir: David Weissman & Bill Weber. US. 2002. 99mins.
This marvellously evocative documentary was a clear audience favourite at the Sundance Film Festival, and was equally well-received at its Panorama screening in Berlin this week. A bidding war for US rights is underway and international arthouse buyers are also likely to pursue it since its joie de vivre and poignant picture of a time long gone will enchant up-scale audiences. Its long term value as a timeless well-crafted documentary is considerable.
In telling the story of the formation of the wild San Francisco performing troupe The Cockettes, from its unexpected and meteoric rise to its sad crumble, film-makers Weissman and Weber succeed on a number of levels. The film is a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney Let's-Put-On-A-Show musical; a raucous portrait of the explosion in gay life and culture in San Francisco; a tender lament for the vital creativity and cheerful hedonism of the day; and a perfect analogy for the free-spirited anarchy that was sweeping the US and the world and then fatally annexed into the mainstream. But while its final impression is of innocence lost, The Cockettes is principally a delicious celebration of this extraordinary, drug-fuelled ensemble, whose shows such as Tinsel Tarts In A Hot Coma and Tropical Heatwave/Hot Voodoo were the talk of the town and even got them a stage run in New York City.
Indeed the film starts on Nov 7, 1971, with the turning point in the story of The Cockettes - their New York opening night. John Lennon, Angela Lansbury, Gore Vidal, Anthony Perkins and other New York luminaries are all in attendance at the Anderson Theatre on the Lower East Side. Visitors to San Francisco such as Rex Reed and Truman Capote had gushed and raved over their performances and New York was about to get its first taste of the uncouth West Coast darlings.
Weissman and Weber then track back to their beginnings. The Cockettes were founded in 1969 by Hibiscus, a member of the San Francisco commune KaliFlower. Hibiscus' passion for dressing up in flamboyant costumes and performing was infectious, and he soon had gathered around him a bunch of hippies, mostly gay men and women, whose all-singing, all-dancing revues soon became the talk of the town. Campy, lavish, unpolished and riotous, the shows at the Palace Theater in North Beach became wildly popular and a magnet for unconventional talents such as Sylvester and Divine to participate in.
Through salty interviews with Cockettes such as Dusty Dawn, Sweet Pam, Goldie Glitters, Marshall Olds and John Flowers, we learn of the in-fighting, sexual shenanigans, drug habits, commune rivalry and ego wars that went on in the group, usually all revolving around the handsome and enigmatic Hibiscus. New York marks a turning point in that many, including Hibiscus, refuse to go, seeing the trip as a betrayal of the Cockettes' uncommercial raison d'etre. More importantly, the New York shows were such a disaster that they marked the beginning of the end. When drugs started getting out of hand and AIDS arrived on the scene, the Cockettes were doomed.
While, of course, it's a classic showbiz tale of rise-and-fall, The Cockettes more significantly also captures the unprecedented irreverence of the time thanks to reminiscences from the surviving Cockettes and the entertaining likes of John Waters, Sylvia Miles and Warhol diva Holly Woodlawn, who recalls the Warhol drag queens' contempt for The Cockettes when they arrived in Manhattan. That unapologetic irreverence, so sanitised in today's pop culture, is still shocking and hilarious today.
Prod co: GranDelusion
Prod: David Weissman
Co-prod: Roger Klorese
Cinematography: Marsha Kahm
Ed: Bill Weber
Mus: Richard "Scrumbly" Koldewyn