Monday, March 12, 2012

Waaaay Off-Broadway: "The Cockettes" (2002)

The brazen devil-may-care attitude of this avant-garde theater troupe is infectious, and I mean that in a good way.

In the late 1960's and early 1970's in San Francisco, the hippie movement was in full force. The Palace Theatre showed midnight movies, everything from art films to big budget Hollywood musicals from the 1930's. The shows were popular because they were cheap. On a few occasions, people would get up on stage and entertain the crowd during intermission. Thus the Cockettes were born.

George was a young actor who changed his name to Hibiscus. He and other members of his commune dressed in loud drag, wore more glitter than a person has a right to, and performed theater pieces lampooning current events and the old musicals. The ball started rolling as the performers became more popular than the films, and the Cockettes were headed to New York City and Broadway...which turned into a bigger disaster than anyone ever anticipated.

There is nothing funnier than seeing a person the same age as my parents talk about all the LSD they used to ingest, complete with full nude photos from back in the day. The Cockettes were doing the drag thing long before Rocky Horror came along, but the group fell victim to infighting and success, just like a lot of rock bands.

Not all the men in the Cockettes were gay, interview subject Marshall wasn't (he wishes he was after what women have done to him), but drug abuse took some of the members, and AIDS took more. One of the interview subjects here died of AIDS shortly after the filming, which almost brought me to tears.

You may be wondering: why should we care? The Cockettes, in their prime, were doing their own thing and not giving a flip what other people thought. They lampooned then-current events like Tricia Nixon's wedding, showed their love for the Hollywood musical, and just had a lot of fun doing it. There was a East Coast-West Coast drag rivalry that shows how stupid the rap rivalry is more than anything! Gay men in drag tripping each other in Max's Kansas City in NYC is funnier than the shootings of Tupac and Biggie.

The film was directed by Bill Weber and David Weissman. They found a ton of backstage and onstage footage, and a lot of interviewees who were not embarrassed with what they did. Watch for Jilala, who models many of his bizarre fashions, still making a statement today. The pacing is excellent, the rise and fall of the Cockettes over a three year period follows a classic story arc, and I came to feel real affection for all the "characters."

"The Cockettes" is a great documentary about a time we cannot possibly relive or recreate. Thank goodness Hibiscus put that dress on and dropped that acid. (* * * * *) out of five stars.