The Cockettes

on May 10, 2002 by Sheri Linden
   First-time documentary makers David Weissman and Bill Weber use archival material and present-day interviews to powerful effect in this chronicle of the legendary San Francisco commune-cum-drag troupe. “The Cockettes” is a succinct, intelligent and scintillating slice of cultural history circa 1970, a vivid look at extraordinary individuals who brought their way of life to the stage and prefigured the glam rock sensibility by several years.

   The film begins with the late-1971 arrival of the group in New York--where they were the toast of the town at a celebrity-packed opening night--before stepping back a few years to trace the lineage of San Francisco communes that gave rise to The Cockettes. Eventually Divine performed with them; so did Allen Ginsberg. They began as a ragtag group of freedom seekers, male and female, gay and straight, who shared a predilection for makeup and thrift-shop velvet and lace. Their openness was fueled by acid, nobody worked at “straight jobs,” and “everyone lived at the edge of their imagination.” Combining lavish costumes, musical spoofs, goofy dancing and nudity in their revues, The Cockettes became the main attraction at a North Beach theatre's midnight screenings.

   Silent-style intertitles and a terrific music score help drive the narrative as the filmmakers and their articulate talking heads, including John Waters, take us down the sequin-littered road of Cockettes lore. Archival footage and photos of the troupe's musical productions--“Gone in the Showboat to Oklahoma” just one of many--capture their freewheeling outrageousness. Film clips are brilliantly used--especially extended sequences from the group's uproariously funny “Tricia's Wedding,” an irreverent enactment of the White House nuptials, with Cockettes playing such notables as Rose Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson and, most memorably, Mamie Eisenhower. Without overstating the matter, the filmmakers convey deeper issues: the collision of ideals with commerce; the counterculture clash between New York's Warhol divas and the raw-by-comparison hippies from the Bay. Beyond the glitter, there's a poignancy to the saga as it encapsulates a unique moment in time, and “The Cockettes” is a compelling, loving tribute to that moment. Starring The Cockettes (Dusty Dawn, Anton “Reggie” Dunnigan, John Flowers, Goldie Glitters, Fayette Hauser, Richard “Scrumbly” Koldewyn, Marshall Olds, Ocean Michael Moon, Kreemah Ritz, Rumi, Sweet Pam ), John Waters, Michael Kalmen, Sylvia Miles and Holly Woodlawn. Directed by David Weissman and Bill Weber. Produced by David Weissman. A Strand release. Documentary. Unrated. Running time: 99 min

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