The Cockettes



USA 2002 : Bill Weber & David Weissman : 99 mins

Exuberant celebration of the Cockettes, a ramshackle band of acid-dropping, cross-dressing, gender-bending, free-living, free-loving, all-singing, all-dancing, self-proclaimed FREAKS who rose out of San Francisco’s anything-goes late 60s Haight-Ashbury scene. The rag-bag group rapidly achieved a brief but significant degree of national fame, even travelling cross-country to New York for a very short-lived off-Broadway adaptation of their distinctive, semi-indescribable melangee of amateurish musical revue, lewd lampoon and general on-stage wig-out.

Clearly a labour of love for all concerned, The Cockettes* cuts between footage of the gang’s heyday and interviews with the survivors, most of them wistfully nostalgic (“For some reason, we were naked all the time”. “It always ends in desolation and in flames. That’s how it ends”), some of them more refreshingly acerbic in their recollections. John Waters pops up as a kind of benign expert witness, and his enthusiasm for what he calls these ‘hippie acid-freak drag queens’ is infectious: “It was complete sexual anarchy, which is always a good thing,” he deadpans.

While the results are never less than absorbingly enjoyable, there’s a nagging sense that this is, at heart, a small-screen venture – and, as with current skate-hagiography Dogtown and Z-Boys(Cockettes being the missing link between that movie and Hedwig and the Angry Inch) there’s unresolved friction between the anything-goes subculture being so unquestioningly celebrated and the conventional nature of the way the material’s been assembled, all neatly-framed talking heads and helpful captions.

But, as with Dogtown, the film-makers have both a goldmine of archive material to draw on (including the Cockettes’ own fleeting underground-movie appearances), and a magnetic, doomed central figure around which the project naturally takes shape: here George Harris, aka Hibiscus (pronounced “High-biscus”, of course), the Cockettes’ bearded guru/genius/pan figure (“We were on acid all the time, so he looked great.”) The film seems to draw its restless kinetic energy from Hibiscus, who cuts such a dramatically exotic figure that it’s immensely frustrating to be told about Harris’s later appearances in conventional TV adverts and soap operas, but not shown any of them. But this is the only notable gap in what’s otherwise an impressive feat of cultural salvage – even people who knew nothing about the Cockettes before seeing this movie will, by the end, be convinced that this really is a story that needed to be told. Now, perhaps, more than ever.

12th March, 2002
(seen 15th February, Cinestar Berlin – Berlin Film Festival)

* For the benefig non-American audiences, the Cockettes’ name is a camp nod to the Rockettes, a legendary group of stage-show dancers at New York’s Radio City Music Hall.

by Neil Young
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