LONDON — He has spent a lifetime on the sometimes cozy — and often lonely — edges of celebrity, playing Davy Jones’ double on “The Monkees” television series, attending recording sessions with the Beach Boys, playing bass with Rod Stewart on “Top of the Pops,” and sleeping in Neil Young’s garage when the parties ended and he couldn’t find a bed.
He is the man to thank for getting major British bands from the Sex Pistols to Coldplay onto American radio waves, and was instrumental in getting David Bowie his first recording contract with Mercury Records. His name is Rodney Bingenheimer — L.A.’s Sunday late night KROQ listeners know him as Rodney on the Roq — and he’s the subject of a documentary due out in March in the U.S. called “Mayor of the Sunset Strip.”
“He is probably the world’s most famous un-famous person, and the godfather of alternative music,” said George Hickenlooper, who wrote and directed the documentary, which has been wowing audiences on the festival circuit, and has just been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.
“He changed radio from Top 40 bubble gum into an outlet for the latest alternative music. I think he is one of the 10 biggest influences in 20th-century popular culture,” added Hickenlooper, during an interview before the film’s screening at the London Film Festival last month.
Five-and-a-half years in the making, the feature-length film is a warts-and-all tribute to the oddball kid from Mountain View, Calif., with the shaggy bangs —now his trademark — and a love of celebrity heat. Sonny and Cher couldn’t help but let him hang around backstage, and Phil Spector let him sleep on his sofa.
“There is something ineffable about Rodney. He’s like this living piece of Andy Warhol art,” said Hickenlooper, who directed “The Man from Elysian Fields,” starring Mick Jagger, and the documentary “Hearts of Darkness,” about the making of “Apocalypse Now.” “And he has an amazing ability to draw different people together.”
The documentary features interviews with Spector, Bowie, Jagger, Cher, Deborah Harry, Chris Martin, Courtney Love and Liam Gallagher, who gush about all the good Rodney’s done for them — and all the bad things he could have done, but didn’t do. “I think it was refreshing for all of these celebrities to know someone who didn’t want anything from them, who just wanted to bask in their glow,” said Hickenlooper.
Despite Rodney’s glittering pals — he even dated the young Linda Ronstadt for a while — and great ear for music, he never managed to turn his passion into a money-making business. Today, he works as a DJ on the Sunday midnight to 3 a.m. shift at the radio station, earning $500 a week. But his instincts are sharp as ever. “Rodney kept telling me I had to interview Chris Martin from Coldplay — and that was way before anyone knew who they were. So I gave in and we interviewed him — and look where Coldplay went,” said Hickenlooper.