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With: Larry Brinkin, Dusty Dawn, Anton Dunnigan, John Flowers, Goldie Glitters, Ann Harris, Fayette Hauser, Jilala, Michael Kalmen, Richard Koldewyn, Sylvia Miles, Peter Mintun, Milton Miron, Rumi Missabu, Marshall Olds, Maureen Orth, Kreemah Ritz, John Rothermel, Pamela Tent-Carpenter, John Waters, Errol Wetson, Holly Woodlawn
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Bill Weber, David Weissman
MPAA Rating: R for nudity, sexual content, drug references and some language
Running Time: 100
Date: 01/16/2002

The Cockettes (2002)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

They're a colorful part of San Francisco history, and most people know nothing about them. The Cockettes grew from the fertile flowerbed of the Haight-Ashbury hippie scene in 1969, and kept the hippie era alive for a few moments after it was ready to die. Local filmmakers Bill Weber and David Weissman have patched together a beautiful, vibrant documentary tracing the history of this musical theater group, and in the process, they illustrate just how revolutionary the group was. The film opens today and has a three-week run at the Castro Theatre.

The Cockettes began when a charismatic fellow who called himself Hibiscus gathered a disparate group of hippies in a Haight Street commune. Sharing a love for musicals, dance and theater, they arranged to be the opening act for program of underground midnight movies at North Beach's now-defunct Palace Theater. Doing nothing more than dressing up in wild costumes and makeup and dancing and singing along to a couple of records, they brought the house down and became a bona-fide phenomenon. Over the next several years, their performances escalated into "shows" with titles like "Pearls Over Shanghai."

Director John Waters (Pink Flamingos, Cecil B. DeMented), who was a fan of the midnight film programs, often saw The Cockettes. In this documentary, he cheerfully calls them "hippie acid freak drag queens." One of the most miraculous characteristics of the group was its immersion in, and acceptance of, human sexuality. Men, women, gays, straights and transsexuals jumped into the soup together, sleeping with each other and celebrating sexuality as a unified thing instead of in categories. As The Cockettes' fame spread, the group was invited to perform on Broadway. The movie tells this story in a compelling way by allowing it to unfold as if it were happening in the present, savoring the details and saving the payoff for the end.

Weber and Weissman' collect an astonishing amount of photographs and old films of the group in its heyday, and they interview the surviving members as they are today. Sadly, many are not in good health, and some are HIV-positive. Since the film's completion, both Anton "Reggie" Dunnigan and Dusty Dawn have died. Hibiscus, on the other hand, passed away years ago, and his presence hovers over the film like a ghost. We rarely, if ever, hear him speak. His friends talk about him lovingly, but in different ways, as if no one ever really knew him. There's even an interview with his mother, who performed with him a few times. But even she cannot offer a solution to the Hibiscus enigma -- nor would we want her to.

The film's strength is that it celebrates the contradiction between memory and real history. It doesn't provide a lot of hard-core facts, like a strictly journalistic work would offer. Instead, it leaves certain details purposely -- tantalizingly -- misty. The Cockettes is not a film for the faint of heart or conservative of spirit, but for the rest of us -- especially San Francisco lovers -- it's a spirited film and a must-see.

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