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THE COCKETTES

Bill Weber and David Weissman made this documentary about the legendary drag show spawned in San Francisco in the countercultural ’60s. Free spirits with names like Goldie Glitter, Hibiscus, and Scrumbly crashed together in various communes and, as the survivors recall in interviews, saw a world where "a revolution could happen any day," where they were "born to change the world."

Mostly they changed clothes, dressing up in garish finds from thrift stores, gaudy treasures redolent of old movie musicals. And like the heroes of those musicals, they decided to put on a show. The Palace Theater, an avant-garde moviehouse, provided a venue, and the nudity, the psychedelic nostalgia, and the creative chaos of their performances drew everyone from socialites to John Waters, who, fresh from Baltimore, along with Divine (in the Cockettes’ Journey to the Center of Uranus she played the Crab on Uranus), became a collaborator. "It was complete sexual anarchy," he recalls. "Which is always a wonderful thing."

Wonderful, but not enough. Success brought the need to have scripts and rehearsals and charge admission — all contrary to the group’s vying ideologies of Marxism and hedonism. It also brought a trip to New York and resounding rejection from the snobs on the East Coast. Later, drugs, dissension, the ’70s, and AIDS would take their toll. What remains, as presented with blithe archness and exhilaration by Weissman and Weber, are shimmering images of sets and costumes reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley, Jean Cocteau, Gustav Klimt, and Kenneth Anger (Hibiscus is featured in Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome). That, and a legacy of boundless excess and self-expression. But from what’s shown of the stage act, I’d have to agree with the New York critic who said, "Having no talent is not enough." (100 minutes)

BY PETER KEOUGH

Issue Date: July 4 - 11, 2002
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