The Cockettes

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 5 2003 10:03 a.m. MST

Documentary examining the careers and lives of the San Francisco performance troupe, featuring interviews with members of the Cockettes, John Waters and others; not rated, probable R (profanity, vulgarity, nudity); Tower Theatre.

For those who have been looking for a "Behind the Music"-style documentary about a ragtag group of gender-bending hippies and hopped-up drag queens, there is "The Cockettes," an occasionally interesting but mostly repetitive look at a slice of counterculture that might be best forgotten.

The documentary captures San Francisco as it was moving from the psychedelic '60s to the gay '70s. The Cockettes, a flamboyant ensemble of (mostly) gay men, women and a few babies, straddled the line between the two eras, performing flamboyant stage shows in North Beach and Haight-Ashbury that were fueled by massive quantities of drugs. One Cockette notes that "every person on the stage and in the audience was on drugs," while another explains that "because we were on acid, we thought we looked great."

But unless you're on drugs, you might wonder what all the fuss was about. The Cockettes weren't exactly big on professionalism, and when the group took its traveling freak show to New York, audiences fled the off-Broadway theater. Said one producer: "You've got to deliver in New York. They didn't."

And the documentary, coming from first-timers David Weissman and Bill Weber, doesn't really deliver, either. For such an outlandish subject, the format of "The Cockettes" is surprisingly straightforward: A Cockette is interviewed in present-day, he or she explains what happened in the past, and then some archival footage is shown. Repeat for 99 minutes and you have the movie.

Still, there are some great moments of freakish anarchy, like the group's underground film, "Tricia's Wedding," a tasteless but inspired send-up of the televised nuptials of President Nixon's daughter. And you have to laugh as one straight Cockette explains: "If I had my life to live over again, I might be gay. I've had enough trouble with women."

That the movie ends with a jumble of clashes over ego, money and philosophy (Marxism and hedonism clashed with encroaching capitalism) isn't surprising. It's predictable documentary filmmaking as popularized by VH1's "Behind the Music." As one New York critic wrote after seeing the group, "Having no talent is not enough." After watching "The Cockettes," it's hard to disagree.

"The Cockettes" is not rated but would probably receive an R for frequent use of strong sex-related profanity, frank sexual talk and vulgar humor relating to sexual functions and full male nudity. Running time: 99 minutes.

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