The Cockettes (2002)

Susan Glen

A joyful, wild romp through the heyday of San Francisco's national cultural importance, filled with body glitter, feather boas, and important shoes.

The Cockettes

Director: Bill Weber
Display Artist: David Weissman, Bill Weber
MPAA rating: unrated
Studio: Strand Releasing
Cast: as themselves): Dusty Dawn, Goldie Glitters, Fayette Hauser, Jilala, Michael Kalmen, Sylvia Miles, Kreemah Ritz, Pamela Tent-Carpenter, John Waters, Holly Woodlawn
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2002-06-28 (Limited release)

Oh, to be young and queer-ish and bohemian and on welfare and in San Francisco in 1970. To be draped in feathers and glitter, to live in a commune filled with like-minded drama queens, to fuck everybody in sight (boy, girl, or something else entirely) in a pre-AIDS flurry of musky activity. To think of Lenin as a sex symbol without a trace of irony, to barter and steal everything from loaves of bread to fake eyelashes, and to honestly believe, in a post-Woodstock, pre-Rocky Horror world, that to give a man a makeover was to change his soul forever. If only we were all Cockettes.

The Cockettes, directed by David Weissman and Bill Weber, is a skillfully blended documentary that does as much to set the social and political landscape of Vietnam-era counterculture America as it does to explain the rise and eventual fall of The Cockettes, a super-queer, often-naked performance troupe that set San Francisco aflame but was all too quickly doused out by New York, drug overdoses, and AIDS -- in that order. Using a remarkable collection of vintage film footage and recent interviews with the surviving Cockettes, Weissman and Weber do more than just loan access to this mythologized time/place that played such a pivotal part of the queer liberation movement in San Francisco; they also give a respectful space to the ideal that guided not just the hippie movement in general, but the motley crew that comprised the Cockettes: if we're just really, really cool, everybody else will be, too. Gotta love the philosophies of the naive, or at least the really baked.

The Cockettes were clearly both. As proud of their recreational drug use as their gender-bending, the Cockettes met, loved, fought, fucked, and performed on drugs. Always. Early fan John Waters calls them "hippie acid-freak drag queens," and one of the Cockettes refers to her own drug-induced performances as "dabbling in the dark arts." It's hard to consider rarely rehearsed, always-flawed, frequently incomprehensible song and dance routines with titles like "Gone With the Showboat to Oklahoma," performed in the kind of thrift store headdresses that would make RuPaul and Liberace engage in a real WWF Smackdown, "dark," let alone "art," and yet somehow, the Cockettes pulled all this off, and more. LSD made their world go around, as surely as communal living and poverty inspired their creativity.

Their roots are certainly humble: spending all their welfare checks on make-up, third-hand clothing, and drugs, and wanting desperately to go to the local alternative movie house, they began performing as the Cockettes (named, tongue firmly in cheek, for the famous Rockettes) in exchange for free admittance to underground films. They were led by Hibiscus, the "Jesus Christ with lipstick" who eventually left the group to form the Angels of Light Free Theater, and eventually the group moved from an accidental audience of film-going stoners too high to recognize that real genderfuck is more than slipping a dress onto a boy, to international recognition in newspapers and magazines like Rolling Stone.

In other words, they started getting paid for what they did; their downfall was as inevitable as the failure of the trickle-down economic theories that firmly nailed the lid on the coffin of the '60s idealism that spawned people like Hibiscus in the first place.

The ending of the Cockettes, like the ending of The Cockettes, isn't surprising. But it's still a hard dose of conservative American reality: the group members go their separate ways after a humiliating run in New York City (where they are hammered with review headlines like "Having no talent is not enough!"), take off their feathers, get jobs in the straight world, stop smoking and shooting up everything that isn't nailed down, and watch in disgusted fascination as Hibiscus, the anti-capitalist genderqueer, starts wearing Armani suits and settles down, kept by a New York City finance guy. He ultimately dies, in the early '80s, of AIDS. Nothing's shocking, so they say, but it's no less sad for its predictability.

The Cockettes might come off as more than a bit nostalgic, but not without good reason. As much as it documents the rise and fall of the Cockettes, it documents the rise and fall of a way of life, of a belief that simplicity, kindness, strong drugs and stronger hair gel could really change the world. The truly libratory potential of the Cockettes -- epitomized by troupe member Sweet Sue when she says that, in contrast with the men's gender performance, "the women were not trying to be perfect women. We were going beyond that" -- was never fully realized. But it's clear that they were part of a strong tradition of gender play that now includes drag kings, not just queens, and transgendered, as well as transsexual, people. The Cockettes is a joyful, wild romp through the heyday of San Francisco's national cultural importance, filled with body glitter, feather boas, and important shoes.

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