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On New Year's Eve, 1969, a flamboyant ragtag troupe of genderbending hippies took the stage of San Francisco's Palace Theater and The Cockettes were born. For the next 2 1/2 years, these outrageous drag performers created 20 shows with titles like "A Crab on Uranus Means You're Loved" and "Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma," and were featured in four underground films. But when the Cockettes flew to New York City to appear Off Broadway - well, you'll just have to see what happened when New Yorkers took a look at them. Documentarians Weissman and Weber have crafted a record of a wondrous time and a wild group in The Cockettes. Written by
Imagine if people told you about a wonderful party they had... and you said, sure, sounds like you had a great time... and then they handed you a two-hour movie of the highlights. What are the odds you would have as good a time as they did? Not very high, especially if you AREN'T high...
That's the problem with The Cockettes, the story of a once-heralded, now largely forgotten theater troupe in San Francisco whose hippie drag shows were a sensation circa 1970. It's an interesting slice of that era, for a while, but neither the vintage footage (they filmed themselves a lot) nor the modern-day interviews are that much more compelling or moving than what you were up to in 1970, or what you think about it now as a respectable middle- aged person. (It is pretty funny to see a pleasant-looking gay bourgeois in his 50s with a neat haircut and mustache be identified by a name like "Scrumbly" or "Kreemah Ritz." One of them, by the way, is the pianist Peter Mintun, well known in San Francisco for reviving 30s society music in venues like the Fairmont Hotel. Funny, the word "Cockettes" doesn't appear on his own website offering his sophisticated musical services, though it does have a picture of him with the most famous Cockette alumnus, disco-era figure Sylvester.)
To judge by the vintage footage, in fact, their stage parodies of old Hollywood movies were pretty terrible, though they might well have been fun in the right altered state of mind. John Waters recalls the spirit of tolerance that greeted him when he came to San Francisco with his movies and was embraced by The Cockettes, but maybe it's that California laidbackness that was responsible for The Cockettes' work seeming so slapdash and slack next to his own films-- they didn't have the sense of outsider desperation that runs through his films like an exposed nerve (or, similarly, through Rainer Werner Fassbinder's films when he put actresses acting like drag queens through the old Hollywood paces). Nor did they have the classical discipline that Charles Ludlam brought to his brilliantly campy farces at the Theater of the Ridiculous in Greenwich Village. (It was a disastrous trip to New York, facing crowds who expected something cleverer than hippies sashaying in the nude in a bad conga line, that pretty much ended the party.)
Ultimately, for all the talk about them being pioneers in genderbending and transgressive art, it's hard to say that The Cockettes had a real point of view about sexuality-- what they mainly had was a good time, which the audience of a documentary will only share in bits and pieces at this late date.
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