Screened as part of NZIFF 2002
…Or, Sex and Drugs and Show Tunes. In Haight-Ashbury in the late sixties the sex was polymorphous, the drugs were psychedelic, and showtunes were the province of oddball collective the Cockettes. In a community where every extended household had its speciality – here they fixed your car; there they fed you – there had to be a place for drag vaudeville, and from 1969 to 1972 Cockette House was it.
This grandly entertaining documentary celebrates a fabled time when amateurs in third-hand tat, or no clothes at all, wowed the stoned with chaotic chorus lines, made deranged no-budget movie epics like Elevator Girls in Bondage, and even made a splash, or at least a belly-flop, on Broadway. Alice Cooper, Robert Rauschenberg, Janis Joplin, Truman Capote and Warhol himself had sung their praises, but was the New York City of Warhol’s superstars adequately prepared for a planeload of screaming fruits and nuts from sunny California?
The nominal star of the show – at least when Divine wasn’t guesting as the Crab on Uranus – was the amazing Sylvester, who would attain music immortality a few years thence with ‘(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real’. But with a troupe as anarchic as this one, everybody was a star, and the charm of this film record lies in how the individual personalities of the participants are allowed to shine: brassy Fayette, fey Jilala, suspiciously demure Sweet Pam, dazed Marshall and acid bitch supreme Goldie Glitters.
Their memories are illuminated by startlingly apt period footage (when Sweet Pam recalls encountering Hibiscus singing show tunes in a tree, for instance, we cut to Hibiscus, singing show tunes, in what looks damn like a tree) and amplified by eye-witness accounts from fellow freaks and fellow travellers (such as a pithy John Waters or Allen Ginsberg, taking the cake for bad drag).
If a story as gloriously shambolic as that of the Cockettes can be said to have a climax, it’s the collective’s big Broadway début, and Weissman and Weber wisely structure their film around that pivotal event. Will their almost-singing, almost-dancing extravaganza go down a treat, or like a lead balloon? The Cockettes revolves around the timeless musical question: is having no talent enough? — Andrew Langridge