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The maker of musicians - The DJ as starmaker

2006-07-17 10:44

Because rock 'n' roll is a relatively new art form, we're only just now seeing what happens to people who have, from a very young age, devoted their lives to spreading its gospel.

The subject of George Hickenlooper's "Mayor of the Sunset Strip" is Rodney Bingenheimer, a shy, soft-spoken elf of a man who came of age in Hollywood during the '60s (the young Sonny and Cher were like surrogate parents to him) and went on to become one of the most beloved, respected and instinctive DJs of the '70s and '80s.

Bingenheimer broke countless bands, including Blondie, the Ramones, Van Halen and the Go-Go's, and his show, "Rodney on the Roq," on KROQ in Los Angeles, became a lifeline for anyone hungry for new music. Bingenheimer used his remarkable radar to search out great songs, done by people you hadn't heard of (yet), and sent them out on the airwaves before other radio stations would even touch them. You could argue that he played as big a role in shaping the rock 'n' roll culture of the era as the artists themselves did.

But few people outside Los Angeles even know who Bingenheimer is. And his show, once a must for anyone within listening range who wanted to stay on top of new music, is now relegated to one minuscule nighttime slot. As one of his younger KROQ colleagues says, not unsympathetically, in the film, Bingenheimer is now considered by the station to be the "king of the obscure ... the gateway to things people care about" -- and here, he adds a pause that speaks volumes -- "less." Now that radio is all about programmed playlists, it's no longer valuable, or even advisable, for a DJ to have killer instincts. Or even just ears.

Hickenlooper is a smart young filmmaker who co-directed the 1991 "Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse," which documented the making of Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now." More recently, he gave us the flawed but inescapably elegant "The Man From Elysian Fields." Here, Hickenlooper doesn't set out just to tell the story of an unsung hero (although that's surely part of his goal). He's deftly filling in a much bigger picture, a sprawling, abstract canvas, rendered in some pretty melancholy colors, about the ways our love of music can affect our lives: Sure, music enriches us. But the rough truth is, it can also beat the crap out of us. I've heard more than one musician reflect ruefully, "Music ruined my life" -- in other words, the love of it spoiled them for anything else.

Next page| "Bingenheimer's celebrity and influence have declined in recent years" | Click here

Meet L.A. DJ Rodney Bingenheimer, who helped launch the careers of Blondie, the Ramones, Van Halen, the Go-Go's and countless others.

By Stephanie Zacharek

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