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Strand Releasing presents
The Cockettes (2002)

"You couldn't tell if it was men or it was women; it was straight people. It was complete sexual anarchy, which is always a wonderful thing."
- John Waters

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: February 09, 2003

Stars: Hibiscus, Sebastian, Scrumbly, Marshall, Dusty Dawn, Goldie Glitters, Sylvester, Jilala, Reggie, Fayette, John Flowers, Kreemah Ritz, Peter Muntin, John Rothermel
Other Stars: John Waters, Divine
Director: Bill Weber, David Weissman

MPAA Rating: R for Nudity, Sexual Content, Drug References, Some Language
Run Time: 01h:39m:08s
Release Date: February 04, 2003
UPC: 712267220427
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B B-B+B+ C-

DVD Review

Someone born in the 1970s or 1980s may find it difficult to believe just how weird things could be in the late '60s and early '70s. And obviously, nowhere would things be weirder at that time or any other than in San Francisco. This documentary takes a look at some of the weirdest of the weird, the bizarre gay/drag/musical troupe, The Cockettes.

The group sprang out of a commune and was essentially the brainchild of one Hibiscus. He somehow convinced the Palace Theatre to give him some free movie tickets if he and some friends put on a little show. Assembling some friends, all whacked out on drugs and in flamboyant costume, stumbled about and kicked high in a trippy sort of cancan. Despite none of them having a lick of talent, they were a huge hit and came back regularly to the Palace, creating ever more elaborate and technically accomplished productions through about 1972, with heavy emphasis on sex and drugs, all in copious amounts and indiscriminate at best.

The Cockettes also contained the seeds of its own destruction: a schism developed between a faction led by Hibiscus that believed all of the shows should be free, and the others who wanted to make money (or at least enough to pay for the substantial costs of the productions as they got more extreme). The end was hastened by a disastrous tour to New York, which proved itself not quite so tolerant of The Cockettes and their clumsy revues. The stage shows have a definite anarchy to them. Besides these shows, the group made a series of films that are a bit more accomplished. Particularly humorous is a brutally nasty satire of Tricia Nixon's wedding, which the interviewees assert deeply embarrassed the Nixon White House.

In addition to the usual talking heads, there are also plenty of photos from the period as well as a ton of film footage. Republicans and right-wing Christians will be gratified at the number of Cockettes who wound up dead of drugs or AIDS (including Hibiscus himself, who was one of the earlier AIDS casualties in 1982). At the same time, considering their wild lifestyles, it's amazing that as many of them are still alive as there are, most of whom are interviewed in this film. The picture also includes comments from director John Waters, who with Divine was a close ally of the Cockettes in their determined mission to shock America, as well as taped interviews with the late Divine.

I'm left with rather mixed emotions about this documentary. On the one hand, a group of people who can't sing, can't dance, and generally have no talents whatsoever being treated like artistes seems to cheapen, if not insult, seriously talented artists; the whole concept seems to cheapen the notion of art and make it indistinguishable from garbage. At the same time, there's a definite appeal to ordinary people attempting to express themselves creatively, talented or not. On the other hand, it's hard to watch this and not get the feeling you're seeing gay rights being set back fifty years before your eyes.... One thing is clear from the documentary: every one of them was having a great time. None of the Cockettes regret anything about their time in the spotlight of shock, and a life enjoyed with no regrets has a lot to be said for it.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The full-frame picture looks surprisingly terrific. As expected, the modern interviews look fine, but the 30-year-old film (remember, shot by people on acid) looks great too. Color is excellent, with good detail. The still photos display some aliasing and pixelation, however.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: The sound is decent as well. The interview segments are all clear and the period recordings are surprisingly good as well. Hiss is only barely perceptible. A little bit of the music strays into the surrounds, but not so much as to draw attention to itself. Range is generally good, though the sound of the live stage shows tends to be a bit harsh. But considering the surely difficult circumstances, it's better than anyone has any right to expect.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 23 cues and remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring His Secret Life, The Iron Ladies, Borstal Boy
9 Deleted Scenes
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: A whopping nine deleted scenes are presented, with a few juicy anecdotes from the main participants. Anyone who enjoys the main feature will find a lot to like here. Unfortunately, there's no 'play all' option. A brief (3m:23s) featurette has interviews with the directors via the Sundance Channel and a theatrical trailer and a TV spot are included. Wrapping up the package are trailers for three gay-themed films released by Strand, including Borstal Boy, a biopic of notorious drunkard Brendan Behan.

Extras Grade: C-


Final Comments

An uninhibited look at some of the most extreme folks on the West Coast in the late 1960s, willing to play without benefit of script, direction or talent. There's nonetheless a liberating feel to the proceedings that's infectious. Required viewing for anyone who asserts that the '60s were about anything other than drugs and sex.


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