directed by Bill Weber and David Weissman
runs July 26-Aug. 1 at Varsity
Whatever happened to the idea that being who you wanted to be could save the world? What we've really lost with the passing of the '60s and those intoxicating summers of love is not so much the crucial political gains as the social consciousness that allowed a country to think that it could reinvent the meaning of "the pursuit of happiness." The grand achievement of this documentary about the titular troupe of late-'60s/early-'70s San Francisco stage performers is that their ebullience recalls a time not yet mourning the loss of the free spirit. "It was complete sexual anarchy," says interviewee John Waters, who attended several Cockettes shows, "which is always a wonderful thing."
The Cockettes were a ragtag bunch of dropouts—men, women, gay, straight, and whatever—who found constructive purpose in that anarchy. Beginning circa 1969 at the Palace Theatre in North Beach (where Waters' underground films also first took off), the communal performers threw together increasingly vivid but scrappy camp musical entertainments that became so hip that the Cockettes reached Broadway in 1971. There, they promptly bombed, of course, under the pressure of New York's heightened critical scrutiny.
Despite engaging interviews and terrific archival footage (e.g., the group's priceless filmic spoof of Tricia Nixon's wedding), the film engenders the distressing notion that the Cockettes' fall may have been our own. Using the catastrophic Broadway opening to shape their story arc, co-directors Bill Weber and David Weissman relate not only the short, dizzying history of the troupe itself but the courageous dreams of an entire generation.
So much is here, in fact, that the documentary's exhaustive reach comes close to wearing you down with its wealth of information. You could also quibble that not a few of these adventurers would have made for very annoying company, sexually anarchic or no. (Cue Goldie Glitters, a queen who says that the idea of women in the group always bothered him.)
Never mind, though—the journey traced here is an exhilarating celebration of androgyny, pansexuality, and social liberation. Above all else, the Cockettes' brief glory demonstrates the enduring human potential—in the right circumstances, with the right encouragement—to make our lives as colorful as our dreams.