The Cockettes (2002)

Hibiscus from The Cockettes (2002)

directors Bill Weber and David Weissman
viewed: 02/15/2016

Released in 2002, Bill Weber and David Weissman’s documentary, The Cockettes shines a light on one of San Francisco’s most wonderfully “out there” trippy, hippie freakshows, the all-too-brief troupe of performers.  I’d read about this film when it came out and really don’t know why it took me so long to get around to watching it.  Our present day city is rapidly losing the aspect of the city’s identity that the Cockettes seemed to embody, even as a unique extreme of sorts.

Founded by Hibiscus (a.k.a. George Harris), the particular brand of gay acid hippie drag show ensemble started as a lark at the Palace Theater in North Beach and grew into the talk of the town, anything goes, crazytown fun.   An emblem of the times and yet also one far out and haphazard version of hippiedom.  John Waters and Divine were there and most notable organic member Sylvester was a key player as well.

The film captures surviving members recollecting the communes, the drugs, and the free love openness and artsy lavishness of the troupe’s brief heyday.  As well as their somewhat disastrous venture to New York, where the less than professional impromptu nuttiness of the Left Coast was largely unappreciated.  And would sow the seeds of the group’s demise.

I think if I’d seen this film in 2002, it would have been as interesting, sure.  The glimpse back at that point would have been 30 years into the past, a time much-heralded for the Haight-Ashbury scene and the Summer of Love here.  And it still would have been a breath of fresh freakshow air compared to the hippies and the deadheads.  But watching it in 2016, with the city changing under the weight of the cost of living be the deeply encroaching tech industry, this glimpse seems deeper into the past, not because of the passage of time but because of the disappearance of the types of characters and personalities and an affordable place for them to come and do their things.

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