Bill Weber and David Weissman's documentary The Cockettes is a comprehensive recreation of the group and its precise moment in a particularly tumultuous, heady time in American history. It's also a totally delightful hoot.
A hippie commune was where the group had its inception in 1969, under the leadership of Hibiscus (George Harris), who was dedicated to providing free food, as well as art and theatre, to the public. The wild, impossible idealism of the period is what comes through most strongly in the film, with The Cockettes as a more decadent, druggy version of Judy and Mickey putting on a show in the barn. Their "barn" was actually the Palace Theatre in North Beach, where they staged legendary, glitter-strewn midnight musicals such as Gone with the Showboat to Oklahoma and Pearls Over Shanghai. Divine even appeared once as a crustacean, singing "A Crab on Uranus Means You're Loved." Disco star Sylvester also performed, frankly putting the others to shame with his real musical talent. A career "high point" was their film, Tricia's Wedding, a satire of the nuptials of President Nixon's daughter, that depicted a drag queen Tricia, drunken Mamie Eisenhower, and Eartha Kitt spiking the punch with acid. Fan John Waters describes them as "complete sexual anarchy, which is always a wonderful thing.'
Amazingly, many of the original participants are still alive and--more amazingly--still able to communicate. (Hibiscus died of AIDS in 1982.) The filmmakers catch up with such unique personalities as John Flowers, Scrumbly, Dusty Dawn and Goldie Glitters, as well as ubiquitous New York treasure Sylvia Miles. She is particularly effective recalling The Cockettes' famously unsuccessful 1971 New York stage debut ("a disas-tuh!"). New York first-nighters thoroughly rejected the group's gleeful amateurishness, although once the deadly reviews were out, the more underground audiences came to enjoy. Ultra-dapper Peter Mintun, currently Manhattan's most elegant lounge singer, also remembers more raffish days when he was a sorely challenged music director with the group. With success, increased professionalism and business realities began to creep in, driving the group asunder. Many of them objected to charging admission fees for what they still wanted to do for free (an attitude frankly unimaginable in this new millennium). The Cockettes' swan song came with a performance in 1972, after which they disbanded, with some continuing to perform while others dropped out of show business entirely. Drugs and AIDS took their toll, as well, but the memory of The Cockettes lives on in this film, as well as in the work of John Waters, and, of course, the more gaudy moments of subsequent performers ranging from David Bowie and Elton John to Bette Midler and Marilyn Manson.