Reviews of THE COCKETTES

(Selected quotes – see full reviews below)

“The Cockettes,” captures the anarchic, freewheeling spirit of San Francisco in the late ’60s-early ’70’s better than any film I’ve ever seen.”
–Todd McCarthy, Daily Variety

The best time I’ve had at the movies here [Sundance Film Festival] has been at a documentary. “The Cockettes” is an exuberant journey into a barely remembered corner of the psychedelic ’60s… At a festival ostensibly celebrating the independent spirit, “The Cockettes” is a reminder of just how wildly independent our spirits once were.”
— David Ansen, Newsweek.com

A fascinatingly detailed snapshot of the flamboyant outer reaches of countercultural San Francisco in the hippie years and an emotional celebration of diversity, liberation, sexual anarchy and fabulousness, “The Cockettes” joyously re-creates the brief but resplendent reign of the legendary freakadelic drag troupe… . The climate of all-embracing acceptance, blurred sexual lines, joyful transgression, rebellion and freedom comes through with warmth, humor and nostalgia.
— David Rooney, Daily Variety

“The Cockettes,” a new documentary by David Weissman and Bill Weber, revisits the San Francisco of the late 1960’s and early 70’s, a time and place so encrusted with legend and cliche that you might wonder if there is anything left to say. It turns out there is quite a lot that the endlessly recycled and diluted images of the storied counterculture have obscured about some of the most interesting and vital parts of the culture itself, which the filmmakers have brought triumphantly to life.
— A.O. Scott, The New York Times

A flamboyant piece of hippie history gets its due in Bill Weber and David Weissman’s loving look at the San Francisco drugs-and-drag theatre troupe. The filmmakers capture the spirit of life in a late-sixties commune as well as the Cockettes’ hallucinogenic romps—performances foisted on audiences who were in the mood for wigged-out frivolity. With its archival footage and hilariously frank interviews, the movie makes for a ragtag portrait of a cultural moment when free expression reigned supreme.
— Bruce Diones, The New Yorker

“THE COCKETTES, a documentary about the fabulous, long-gone San Francisco drag troupe, is too good for words. There’s all kinds of vintage performance footage, plus interviews with surviving members. When The Cockettes started appearing at midnight shows in North Beach in 1970, they were the only true revolutionaries left in town. The film is so good that I don’t go to any other movies today because I want to cradle the feelings it has evoked.”
— JH Tompkins “Sundance Diaries” San Francisco Bay Guardian

“The Cockettes,” is a ribald documentation of the flamboyant gaggle of gender-bending hippies who grabbed their 15 minutes onstage in 1970s San Francisco. It’s a bright encapsulation of a tie-dyed, glittered age… a splendidly comprehensive and expressive portrait.
— Duane Byrge, Hollywood Reporter

“The Cockettes” is an engaging tribute to a theatrical troupe that was the sensation of the late 1960s and early 1970s hippie movement in San Francisco. They were, as John Waters describes them, “hippie acid freak drag queens,” and this sympathetic, straight-ahead look at “people who were allowed to live at the end of their imagination” is a charming and nostalgic revisiting of a lost corner of recent cultural history… This comprehensive and charming film not only recalls those days exactly, it also manages the wonderful trick of taking us back there along with it.
–Kenneth Turan, The Los Angeles Times

“The Cockettes” is a gloriously fun documentary about a hippie-era San Francisco commune that put on mind-bending, gender-blending musical stage revues at the dawn of the ’70s. Irreverent, enormously colorful, filled with moments of broad humor, human folly and even a little heartbreak.
— Shawn Levy, The Portland Oregonian

No film better addresses the differences between the ’60s and the ’00s than Bill Weber and David Weissman’s The Cockettes… This documentary is one of the rare kind that offer a fleeting glimpse of idealism from a past most seem to have forgotten.
— by Susan Gerhard, Filmfestivals.com

An exuberant and fascinating documentary that delighted audiences through the week (Sundance Film Festival).
— Alan Deutschman, salon.com

This is why I go see documentaries in the theater – to be moved and entertained all at once. This is one of those rare docs that paints a grand picture of an era and makes the journey feel like a party. One moment I was laughing my ass off and the next moment I was in tears. Witnessing the creative anarchy of the subjects of “The Cockettes” is pure joy.
– Chris Gore, Film Threat

This marvellously evocative documentary was a clear audience favourite at the Sundance Film Festival, and was equally well-received at its Panorama screening in Berlin this week. A bidding war for US rights is underway and international arthouse buyers are also likely to pursue it since its joie de vivre and poignant picture of a time long gone will enchant up-scale audiences. Its long term value as a timeless well-crafted documentary is considerable.
— Mike Goodridge, Screen International

A warm and hilarious documentary about a legendary ’60s performance troupe… The filmmakers lovingly document the rise and fall of this groundbreaking performance group. Through amazing archival footage and side-splitting interviews with the living members, they capture a side of hippie culture that’s rarely discussed.
— Justin Hartung, MSN Entertainment

A (literally) sparkling documentary … a fabulous ride through a psychedelic time-warp.
— Michael Snyder, THE MIAMI HERALD

Just when you thought there was nothing fresh to know about the counterculture, along comes The Cockettes, a funny, triumphant, and moving documentary about the mad theatrical troupe of San Francisco upstarts who dared to be fab and flamboyant and gay and glam before even the late-‘60s generation knew what to make of them…. takes you closer than just about any movie has to what was once really meant by the term “free-spirited.”
— Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

Co-directors Bill Weber and David Weissman pull off a minor miracle. They capture a precise moment when gay liberation, psychedelic drug experimentation, communal urban living and uninhibited street theater converged, in a city that reveled in randy rebellion.
— Misha Berson, Seattle Times

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. 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.
— Steve Wiecking, Seattle Weekly

Drunken tranny-flapper floozies. Tripped-out hippie communists, acid queens, and fringe artists out on a gender bender. A bizarre study in social engineering. A fabulous spectacle of drugs and glitter. A sign of the apocalypse. I could crack a thesaurus in half trying to describe the Cockettes. David Weissman and Bill Weber’s documentary is a loving window into the lives of the Cockettes—interviews with those still living, volumes of film footage, and remembrances of the fallen.
— Adrian Ryan, The Stranger (Seattle)

“The Cockettes” is a fascinating poke into the soul of the ‘60s and it moves past a simple chronology of a counterculture phenomenon to examine how this predecessor to glitter rock and camp movies, such as “The Rocky Horror Show,” could ever have ascended to such heights.
— Paula Nechak, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

“The Cockettes,” a visually lively and innovative documentary by Bill Weber and Davis Weissman, is an exemplary film about that desire. More, both for those who were there and those who weren’t, it’s an important – revelatory, even – movie about why the 1960s were the 1960s. One can’t say for sure what the Cockettes changed. Until this movie, few outside the Bay Area ever had heard of them. But this expert, heartfelt movie establishes them as being as much a part of swingin’ San Francisco as the Grateful Dead or the Beats. And their spirit will live on. .
— Steven Rosen, Denver Post

Maybe it’s the old-timey, silent film title cards, or the vaudeville piano tinkering on the score, but The Cockettes produces a yearning wistfulness for another time and place—specifically, 1970s San Francisco. Of course, that free love bacchanalia—where every good story began with how many hits of acid were involved and “gender-bending” didn’t refer to the latest Calvin Klein ad campaign—would eventually give way to AIDS and overdoses, but David Weissman and Bill Weber’s unabashedly nostalgic documentary evokes the time just before it all fell apart, and, damn, does it look grand.
— Kimberley Jones, Austin Chronicle

Reviews of THE COCKETTES
(after the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, prior to theatrical release)

From Daily Variety:
January 18, 2002
Todd McCarthy
Sundance wrap-up

“The best time I had all week was provided by Bill Weber and David Weissman’s exuberant documentary “The Cockettes,” a look at the outlandish drug-drag-glitter performance artists of the hippie era that captures the anarchic, freewheeling spirit of San Francisco in the late ’60s-early ’70’s better than any film I’ve ever seen.”

from Newsweek.com:
David Ansen,
Sundance wrap-up

“But the best time I’ve had at the movies here has been at a documentary. “The Cockettes” is an exuberant journey into a barely remembered corner of the psychedelic’60s. The Cockettes were a gender-bending troupe of LSD-imbibing hippie performers whose midnight musical extravaganzas at the Palace Theater in San Francisco were legendary occasions and whose media-hyped New York debut proved to be a disaster. (New Yorkers actually expected them to be good, which hadn’t occurred to them.)

Filmmakers David Weissman and Bill Weber have a treasure trove of archival footage (including hilarious clips from their infamous movie “Tricia’s Wedding”) and wonderful interviews with the surviving members (plus the likes of John Waters). It’s an amazing tale of a time that, for all its excess and sexual anarchy, now seems strikingly innocent.

The coda to this high-flying tale is a sad one – AIDS, drug overdoses, as reality comes crashing down upon these beautiful and silly dreamers. At a festival ostensibly celebrating the independent spirit, “The Cockettes” is a reminder of just how wildly independent our spirits once were. ”

from Daily Variety:
THE COCKETTES
By David Rooney

A fascinatingly detailed snapshot of the flamboyant outer reaches of countercultural San Francisco in the hippie years and an emotional celebration of diversity, liberation, sexual anarchy and fabulousness, “The Cockettes” joyously re-creates the brief but resplendent reign of the legendary freakadelic drag troupe.

One of the pivotal moments covered in documakers Bill Weber and David Weissman’s affectionate chronicle is the group’s disastrous 1971 Off Broadway stint in New York, which showed that the West Coast screamers were a phenomenon that didn’t travel. But this life-affirming time-warp experience should connect with audiences far and wide, suggesting significant theatrical potential in the U.S. and other sophisticated markets, especially, but not exclusively, with audiences old enough to remember the era.

An amorphous ensemble of hippies made up mainly of gay men but also including at least one straight man, a number of women and even a child, the Cockettes migrated from the streets to the stage of San Francisco’s Palace Theater as a singing, dancing, stripping revue that began as a support act for the midnight movie lineup but soon became the main attraction.

Performing together from 1969 through 1972, they created 20 shows with titles like “Gone With the Showboat to Oklahoma” and sci-fi extravaganza “Journey to the Center of Uranus,” which featured drag icon Divine as a human crustacean singing “A Crab on Uranus Means You’re Loved.” The group also starred in four films that make the work of Jack Hill look slick, including “Elevator Girls in Bondage” and “Tricia’s Wedding,” a hilariously slapdash romp that premiered on the night of Tricia Nixon’s White House nuptials, featuring drag incarnations of Jackie and Rose Kennedy, Mamie Eisenhower and Lady Bird Johnson.

Assembling an astonishing range of footage culled mainly from the archives of former Cockette Martin Worman, filmmakers Weissman and Weber, who also edited, have lovingly retraced the group’s rise and fall. The docu starts with the celebrity-studded New York opening, then backtracks to give a vivid picture of San Francisco in the late ’60s, when the Grateful Dead were playing free street concerts, the first gay rights demonstrations were taking place, hippies were dropping acid on Haight Street and a revolution seemed just around the corner.

The Cockettes were formed by newly arrived New York actor George Harris, who blossomed into a messianic figure known as Hibiscus. Dressed in 1940s finery, sequins, furs and glitter, and flagrantly baring their crotches, the hippie sideshow began staging largely improvised fairy tales on acid, with early shows including a “Madame Butterfly” sung in fake Cantonese. The Cockettes evolved into a cultural phenomenon of liberated theater, refining their freewheeling act only to a degree with the addition of a director and, in the latter shows, a script.

As professionalism and structure began creeping into the picture, and as differences sprang up over the idea of charging for what was conceived as free theater, Hibiscus and other core members broke away. The remaining Cockettes staged a Busby Berkeley-inspired ’30s show called “Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma,” which prompted a widely read column by Rex Reed.

The invitation to New York followed, with a planeload of Cockettes crossing the country smashed and in full drag. But jaded New Yorkers expecting polished entertainment were unprepared for what was more like an exuberant but undisciplined manifestation of a lifestyle, and audiences fled.

While popular shows were staged again after the return to San Francisco, the Cockettes’ idyll clearly was over. The last, rather hastily recapped period jumps from the early ’70s, as the group suffered a series of drug deaths, to the 1980s, when key members Hibiscus and drag uber-diva Sylvester were among the early wave of AIDS losses.

Weissman and Weber successfully broaden the scope of their film beyond the Cockettes. Pic notes the era’s complex network of mutually dependent communes, with one house supplying food while others covered child care. Unemployment was the desired norm, with everyone living on food stamps, welfare or disability, much of which was wiped out when Ronald Reagan became governor. The loose attitudes toward property and necessity of theft also are amusingly touched on with the mysterious disappearance of a trunk of Peking Opera costumes that later turned up in the Cockettes revue “Pearls Over Shanghai.”

But what emerges perhaps most strongly is the sense of a time when gender bending was not an issue. The climate of all-embracing acceptance, blurred sexual lines, joyful transgression, rebellion and freedom comes through with warmth, humor and nostalgia. The subjects interviewed are a delightful mix of forthcoming personalities, each with a different view — and often a conflicting recollection — of the experience. The cultural influences of the Cockettes’ peculiar brand of outrageousness can be assessed in part by the extraordinary lineup of famous fans, such as Alice Cooper, Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Rauschenberg, Janis Joplin and Truman Capote.

Most notable among these is director John Waters, whose articulate observations are witty, illuminating and extraordinarily incisive in pinpointing the Cockettes’ place in pop culture. Densely packed with information and insights and never repetitive, the impressively edited docu is stylishly assembled using vintage-look silent movie inter-titles and a playful collection of tinkly piano tunes and show numbers. Summing up the Cockettes’ era with poignant wistfulness, the docu closes with group member Anton “Reggie” Dunnigan’s saddened assessment of the world today as a place of wars, banks, lies and corruption. “Give me a torn dress, a beach and a hit of acid and that’s enough,” he says. “That’s a lot.”

from the San Francisco Bay Guardian:
“Sundance Diaries”:
JH Tompkins

“THE COCKETTES, a documentary about the fabulous, long-gone San Francisco drag troupe, is too good for words. There’s all kinds of vintage performance footage, plus interviews with surviving members. When The Cockettes started appearing at midnight shows in North Beach in 1970, they were the only true revolutionaries left in town. The film is so good that I don’t go to any other movies today because I want to cradle the feelings it has evoked.”

from Hollywood Reporter:
The Cockettes
Jan. 14, 2002
By Duane Byrge

PARK CITY — Midnight Madness springs full psychedelic circle in “The Cockettes,” a ribald documentation of the flamboyant gaggle of gender-bending hippies who grabbed their 15 minutes onstage in 1970s San Francisco. It’s a bright encapsulation of a tie-dyed, glittered age that is likely to appeal to those who appreciated other rock docs like “Gimme Shelter,” which showed the 1960s through a glass darkly.

An insightfully cheeky entertainment playing here in the documentary competition, “Cockettes” traces the unlikely rise of a ragtag mix of hippies (gays and straights) who sprung up around the flower fringes of Berkeley during the late 1960s and early ’70s. Bonked on LSD and flouting sexual convention, they “blossomed” into full regalia with their outrageous costumes of glitter, dressing up like old movie queens in de rigueur pre-1940s feminine finery. They were a furious sideshow to the countercultural arts scene, including the emergence of moviemaker John Waters and the Cockettes’ hero Divine.

No Rockettes, they kicked up their heels when style was nonstyle and the beautiful people were society’s uglies, the sexual or social outcasts who didn’t fit in. Campy and exhibitionistic, the Cockettes attracted all the “in” people of the era: Andy, Truman, Lee, Rex, David, Elton and all the other tribal members of the so-called homo beautiful.

Filmmakers Bill Weber and David Weissman have compiled a straight-on look that goes beneath the glitter and mascara. Through interviews and archival film footage, they have assembled a splendidly comprehensive and expressive portrait. Best, it resists sentimentalizing: The narcissism, self-destruction, drug use and prima donna behavior give us a glimpse beneath the Cockettes’ emperorlike clothes.

Most tellingly, the film follows the Cockettes on their big trip to New York, where they were embraced by all the right counterculturalists, that is, until they actually performed; then the likes of John Lennon et al. couldn’t find the exits fast enough. This well-told story is ultimately sad and bittersweet: Many of the Cockettes were among the first to die of AIDS. But we see that in their short strut upon the countercultural stage, they managed to kick up their heels in the both the best and only way they could.”

from The Los Angeles Times:
the Sundance preview article by Kenneth Turan:

“The Cockettes” is an engaging tribute to a theatrical troupe that was the sensation of the late 1960s and early 1970s hippie movement in San Francisco. They were, as John Waters describes them, “hippie acid freak drag queens,” and this sympathetic, straight-ahead look at “people who were allowed to live at the end of their imagination” is a charming and nostalgic revisiting of a lost corner of recent cultural history.”

from The Portland Oregonian:
Shawn Levy
“The Best of Sundance”

1) “The Cockettes”: Gloriously fun documentary about a hippie-era San Francisco commune that put on mind-bending, gender-blending musical stage revues at the dawn of the ’70s. Irreverent, enormously colorful, filled with moments of broad humor, human folly and even a little heartbreak.

from Filmfestivals.com
by Susan Gerhard
Review

No film better addresses the differences between the ’60s and the ’00s than Bill Weber and David Weissman’s The Cockettes, a documentary of a short-lived gender-bent, polysexual drag-theater troupe from San Francisco. The group’s roots were hippie communes and their interest in Marxism, showtunes, and LSD made for a whole new kind of trip.

Watching a chorus line of bearded drag queens may not be theater-goers’ idea of a great time circa 2002, but their arrival in New York three decades ago brought out all the stars from the socialite set (Diana Vreeland) to hipsters (John Lennon) and intellectuals (Gore Vidal) intrigued by the limitless, orgiastic quality of the group.

They were gay and straight men, women, even babies (there’s a scene of a fully dragged out woman breastfeeding her child on stage) who lived together, partied together, shopped for vintage clothes together, and came up with shows like “Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma” to “Gone with the Showboat to Oklahoma.” Of course, they bombed out in New York, but success in the traditional sense wasn’t really the point of The Cockettes as told here.

Weber and Weissman harvest a vast amount of research and archival materials from an ex-Cockette’s uncompleted dissertation as they follow the short, bright path of singing-dancing-camp troupe from overwhelming popularity in San Francisco to the disastrous near-conclusion in New York. Interviewees include John Waters and Sylvia Miles, both of whom experienced the Cockettes shows firsthand, as well as ex-Cockettes who survived their ’60s plunge into drugs, sex, and self-reinvention.

Drama unfolds as members of the group leave (Sylvester) and those remaining argue over the correct philosophical approach to theater. A primary player who’d renamed himself Hibiscus insists that charging audience members $2 per show is unconscionable and goes on to form his own group, Angels of Light. But that, too, is short-lived, and Hibiscus returns to the world of more conventional acting, taking parts in soap operas and collecting designer suits along the way. By the time drugs, AIDS, and a changing consciousness take their toll on members of The Cockettes, they have long vanished as a group, leaving their legacy of humor, experimentation, and bold bad taste in tact. This documentary is one of the rare kind that offer a fleeting glimpse of idealism from a past most seem to have forgotten.

from salon.com:
Sundance wrap-up by Alan Deutschman

“There were a few mock celebrities who made a big hit at Sundance, though. Fans flocked to a party for the surviving members an early-70s San Francisco performance troupe of acid-tripping bearded hippie drag queens who helped inspire glitter rock. They were the stars of “The Cockettes,” an exuberant and fascinating documentary that delighted audiences through the week. When one of the aging performers showed up in the kind of way-over-the-top makeup and elaborate costumes portrayed in the film, even the most jaded partygoers interrupted their schmoozing to gape for a prolonged moment.”

from Film Threat:
by Chris Gore

This is why I go see documentaries in the theater – to be moved and entertained all at once. This is one of those rare docs that paints a grand picture of an era and makes the journey feel like a party. One moment I was laughing my ass off and the next moment I was in tears. Witnessing the creative anarchy of the subjects of “The Cockettes” is pure joy.

San Francisco in the late 1960s was a hotbed of hippies and experiments in new lifestyles. When the decade of the seventies dawned, it brought with it some whole new attitudes and the Cockettes were a part of it. To say they were ahead of their time may be an understatement, I don’t think pop culture will ever catch up to the advanced state of euphoria this performance group attained. Their stage shows at The Palace Theater in San Francisco became legendary. Imagine a bunch of men with long, unwashed hair with beards, in full drag kicking up a storm like the Rockettes, but with their schlongs in perfect view flopping around between their legs. With an “anything goes” attitude (and mainly under the influence of the best drugs available at the time including ample amounts of LSD) they put on shows with names like “Paste on Paste,” “Gone with the Showboat to Oklahoma” and “Tropical Heatwave/Hot Voodoo.” Their grand opus was an original stage show called “Pearls Over Shanghai.” It was surreal, vulgar, practically pornographic and they were the hit of San Francisco’s underground.

The group was created by acid freak and self-named drag queen “Hibiscus,” who “organized” their plays and dance numbers. (Though there wasn’t much “organization” involved with anything the Cockettes did – which is part of their charm, of course.) They were men, women, straight and gay and they lived and played together in a community that supported their wondrous creative contributions. While their performances initially opened the screenings of underground films at the Palace, they soon became the main attraction even making low-budget films of their own. It’s no surprise that the Cockettes caught the eye of a young burgeoning filmmaker from Baltimore with his drag queen leading-lady Glenn Milstead. John Waters and Divine became instant fans and Divine even participated as a special guest in the Cockettes performances. Their underground films were smash hits as well including “Elevator Girls in Bondage,” “Luminous Procuress” and, a film that got them national attention, a satire of Pat Nixon’s wedding called “Tricia’s Wedding” that was screened the same day that the actual wedding took place at the White House. But every rise must be accompanied by a fall, and the Cockettes fell hard as they arrived in New York as the toast of the town, only to be humiliated as the laughingstock.

David Weissman and Bill Weber have delivered an epic documentary spanning decades. The film mixes interviews with surviving members of the troupe along with an incredible amount of archival footage of the performances, films and news reports about the phenomenon. It’s one of the few times that I have witnessed an eruption of applause from an audience consisting solely of jaded press people. That never happens.

More than a documentary, it’s a chance to participate in the party that passed by the last few generations. In fact, I may just grow a beard, drop some acid and wear a dress to the next screening.

from Screen International
by Mike Goodridge

This marvellously evocative documentary was a clear audience favourite at the Sundance Film Festival, and was equally well-received at its Panorama screening in Berlin this week. A bidding war for US rights is underway and international arthouse buyers are also likely to pursue it since its joie de vivre and poignant picture of a time long gone will enchant up-scale audiences. Its long term value as a timeless well-crafted documentary is considerable.

In telling the story of the formation of the wild San Francisco performing troupe The Cockettes, from its unexpected and meteoric rise to its sad crumble, film-makers Weissman and Weber succeed on a number of levels. The film is a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney Let’s-Put-On-A-Show musical; a raucous portrait of the explosion in gay life and culture in San Francisco; a tender lament for the vital creativity and cheerful hedonism of the day; and a perfect analogy for the free-spirited anarchy that was sweeping the US and the world and then fatally annexed into the mainstream. But while its final impression is of innocence lost, The Cockettes is principally a delicious celebration of this extraordinary, drug-fuelled ensemble, whose shows such as Tinsel Tarts In A Hot Coma and Tropical Heatwave/Hot Voodoo were the talk of the town and even got them a stage run in New York City.

Indeed the film starts on Nov 7, 1971, with the turning point in the story of The Cockettes – their New York opening night. John Lennon, Angela Lansbury, Gore Vidal, Anthony Perkins and other New York luminaries are all in attendance at the Anderson Theatre on the Lower East Side. Visitors to San Francisco such as Rex Reed and Truman Capote had gushed and raved over their performances and New York was about to get its first taste of the uncouth West Coast darlings.

Weissman and Weber then track back to their beginnings. The Cockettes were founded in 1969 by Hibiscus, a member of the San Francisco commune KaliFlower. Hibiscus’ passion for dressing up in flamboyant costumes and performing was infectious, and he soon had gathered around him a bunch of hippies, mostly gay men and women, whose all-singing, all-dancing revues soon became the talk of the town. Campy, lavish, unpolished and riotous, the shows at the Palace Theater in North Beach became wildly popular and a magnet for unconventional talents such as Sylvester and Divine to participate in.

Through salty interviews with Cockettes such as Dusty Dawn, Sweet Pam, Goldie Glitters, Marshall Olds and John Flowers, we learn of the in-fighting, sexual shenanigans, drug habits, commune rivalry and ego wars that went on in the group, usually all revolving around the handsome and enigmatic Hibiscus. New York marks a turning point in that many, including Hibiscus, refuse to go, seeing the trip as a betrayal of the Cockettes’ uncommercial raison d’etre. More importantly, the New York shows were such a disaster that they marked the beginning of the end. When drugs started getting out of hand and AIDS arrived on the scene, the Cockettes were doomed.

While, of course, it’s a classic showbiz tale of rise-and-fall, The Cockettes more significantly also captures the unprecedented irreverence of the time thanks to reminiscences from the surviving Cockettes and the entertaining likes of John Waters, Sylvia Miles and Warhol diva Holly Woodlawn, who recalls the Warhol drag queens’ contempt for The Cockettes when they arrived in Manhattan. That unapologetic irreverence, so sanitized in today’s pop culture, is still shocking and hilarious today.

from: Justin Hartung, MSN Entertainment:
“THE COCKETTES
Warm and hilarious documentary about a legendary ’60s performance troupe”

In late ’60s San Francisco, a ragtag collective of hippies, performance artists and drag queens formed a theater collective called “The Cockettes.” They staged outrageous–and not always very professional—theater performances and made films that celebrated the more flamboyant, gender-bending aspects of counterculture. Among their ranks were trash-master director John Waters, his huge and hugely popular star, Divine, and future gay disco icon, Sylvester.

The filmmakers lovingly document the rise and fall of this groundbreaking performance group. Through amazing archival footage and side-splitting interviews with the living members, they capture a side of hippie culture that’s rarely discussed. These still-charismatic characters tell their stories with fond remembrance, and a wink in their eyes. Though the troupe eventually fell apart due to infighting and drug abuse, its rise and fall makes a fascinating case study of flower-power liberation–and the price that was paid for it.

from: David Ansen, Newsweek.com

For both sheer entertainment and for a true insider’s glimpse at what the ’60s felt like at their wildest and woolliest, you can’t beat the new documentary “The Cockettes.” Not many people remember this troupe of cross-dressing, acid-dropping San Francisco stage performers. If you didn’t live in San Francisco (where their campy, hallucinatory appearances at the Palace Theater were legendary) or New York (where they bombed on stage after being hyped by the likes of Truman Capote and Rex Reed), you might possibly have seen them in their cult 16mm movie “Tricia’s Wedding,” thoroughly trashing the Nixon-era First Family. But no previous knowledge is necessary to enjoy David Weissman and Bill Weber’s exhilarating, bittersweet historical document. The filmmakers have a treasure trove of archival footage, fascinating interviews with the surviving members of the troupe, not to mention such astute observers as filmmaker John Waters, a kindred subversive spirit.

Audiences today will marvel at the chemical and sexual excess on display. All the same, you can’t help but be struck as well by the innocence of the era, and the genuine if cockeyed idealism that fueled these flamboyant experiments in living. “The Cockettes” captures the anarchic, radically naive spirit of the San Francisco acid culture as well as any film has, but it doesn’t avert its eyes from the fallout, either. The psychedelic dream comes tumbling down in the form of drug overdoses, AIDS and brain damage. At Sundance, where the film first played, viewers who weren’t even born when these flaming creatures burned bright caught the movie’s contact high. “The Cockettes” is not going to be a hit in Pat Robertson country, but if you want to understand what the ’60s felt like at their most decadently madcap, this doc’s for you.

(post-release reviews)

from : A.O. Scott , THE NY TIMES
“Where the Drag Queens Wore Beards”

“The Cockettes,” a new documentary by David Weissman and Bill Weber, revisits the San Francisco of the late 1960’s and early 70’s, a time and place so encrusted with legend and cliche that you might wonder if there is anything left to say. It turns out there is quite a lot that the endlessly recycled and diluted images of the storied counterculture have obscured about some of the most interesting and vital parts of the culture itself, which the filmmakers have brought triumphantly to life.

The movie chronicles the history of a loosely organized collective of drag performers, and in the process illuminates the idealistic, anarchic spirit of the times, its sexual politics, and the tensions between free-form experimentation and the demands of showbiz success. (The film opens today in Manhattan, Sacramento, Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Cambridge, Mass., and Portland, Ore.)

At the center of the film is a slender, bearded man named George Harris, rarely seen without lavish glitter makeup, facial hair dye and resplendent thrift-shop couture. A young, clean-cut actor from New York, Harris traveled to San Francisco in 1967 with a friend named Irving Rosenthal and, as migrants to that city have done since before the Gold Rush, set about reinventing himself. He moved into a commune, took the name Hibiscus and began a series of spiritual, sexual and artistic adventures dutifully set down in letters to his mother back East. (She reads some of them on camera).

Hibiscus, who died in 1982, survives in the recollections of his old friends and in film clips culled from what must be a remarkably rich archive assembled by a former Cockette and theater historian, Martin Wolman. Hibiscus emerges as a kind of Neal Cassady of the Bay Area drag scene, a figure of almost mythological charisma, embodying the moment’s spontaneity, joy and daring. Installed in a commune called Kaliflower, where Rosenthal was theoretician and taskmaster in chief, Hibiscus collected around himself a free-form tribe whose fondness for elaborate costumes, old music, LSD and wild theatricality was the soil from which the Cockettes blossomed.

The group, which began performing psychedelic camp burlesque as a teaser for midnight movies at the Palace theater in North Beach, was an eclectic mix of gay and straight, black and white, men and women. They decked themselves out in vintage clothes and glitter-and-sequin-encrusted cardboard accessories, but, to judge from the films of their early shows, they usually ended up naked. Their shows were an immediate local sensation, and a perfect reflection of the flowering countercultural ethos: naughty, motley and Utopian.

Absorbing influences from Technicolor musicals to Eastern mysticism, the Cockettes began putting on more and more elaborate and ambitious shows and – to the chagrin of some, including Hibiscus himself – getting paid for them. They also made some films, including “Tricia’s Wedding,” a ribald, hilarious sendup of the marriage of President Richard M. Nixon’s daughter that has clear affinities with the director John Waters’s work. (Mr. Waters and his star, the immortal Divine, found a spiritual second home in San Francisco, as well as paying customers for their movies.)

The internal politics of the Cockettes are as fascinating as their theater. Although the veterans, from the perspective of middle age, look back fondly on the old days, they also recall various points of friction and dissension. Drag purists objected to the participation of women, and passionate devotees of the communal ethic chafed at encroaching professionalization. These tensions reached something of a climax in 1971 when the troupe’s success won it an invitation to travel to New York for an engagement at the Anderson theater on the Lower East Side.

Hibiscus and some others stayed behind and formed the Children of Light Free Theater Collective, while their erstwhile colleagues braved the disdain of the New York critics, and of rival drag queens. The recollections of the Warhol superstar Holly Woodlawn offer a piquant glimpse at a regional clash of countercultures. The exuberant amateurism of the Cockettes did not go over well in the more glamorous, sophisticated New York artistic demimonde. Drag queens with beards? You must be kidding.

For all its buoyancy, “The Cockettes” concludes in a minor key, with the inevitable unraveling of the group and the passing of its moment. Several members were lost to heroin, which replaced LSD as the drug of choice in the early 70’s, and later to AIDS. Hibiscus returned to New York, shaved his beard and traded in his thrift-shop gowns for Armani suits.

The survivors identified by noms de Cockette like Sweet Pam, Jilala, Scrumbly and Dusty Dawn have aged gracefully. It is touching to see them now – grayer, stouter, in sportcoats and sensible blouses – alongside their young, flamboyantly dressed (and undressed) selves. But it is also gratifying to see them preserved in their brief, glorious prime, and to experience, even at second hand, the chaotic, inspired freedom they embodied.

from: Kenneth Turan, LOS ANGELES TIMES
A Look Into Glittering Faces of the ‘60s

“The Cockettes” confounds the cliche that if you remember the ‘60s, you weren’t really there. An irresistible documentary look at the ensemble of the moment in the hippie kingdom of San Francisco, this comprehensive and charming film not only recalls those days exactly, it also manages the wonderful trick of taking us back there along with it.

Directors David Weissman and Bill Weber have used excellent interviews and remarkable vintage footage (some of it compiled by former Cockette Martin Worman for a doctoral dissertation) to illuminate a corner of half-forgotten countercultural history.

By doing so, they’ve also managed to capture the feeling of an era now dealt with largely in terms of bromides about license and free love. If you want to not only see what the ‘60s looked like but experience what it was like to be in them, it’s hard to improve on what’s here. The Cockettes were a performing troupe best defined (by director and early fan John Waters) as a bunch of “hippie acid freak drag queens.” Men and women, some straight but mostly gay, they were united by a passion for LSD, by a belief in “complete sexual anarchy, always a good thing” (Waters again), and by something else, something that can best be described as an unlikely, almost heroic naivete.

As much as the drugs and the blurring of sexual lines, the Cockettes were characterized by a belief that they were part of a revolutionary movement that was going to change the world into something better. It’s hard not to be charmed by their messianic good cheer, their enthusiastic guilelessness and sense of play. These were people who built their own reality, who were, as someone vividly says, “allowed to live at the end of their imagination.”

“Cockettes” begins with a moment—a November 1971 appearance at a New York theater thick with celebrities—that seemed to mark a collective high point for the group but, as we come to see, actually finds them already on a downward slide.

In the early days, the dozen or so former Cockettes interviewed for the film just seemed to find each other in the spaced-out melting pot of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury. What united them was a passion for dressing up like you wouldn’t believe; it was, someone says, as if they communicated through drag.

The leader of this pack was New York transplant George Harris, now known as Hibiscus, accurately described as looking like “Jesus Christ with lipstick.”

Still intensely charismatic in vintage videos, Hibiscus was the group’s acknowledged visionary inspiration, and it was his idea that what the company (named for Radio City’s Rockettes) needed was to be on stage.

As chance would have, North Beach’s Palace Theater was running a midnight film series called the Nocturnal Dream Shows.

Agreeing to appear in exchange for free tickets, the Cockettes’ can-can dancing combination of anarchy, nudity, glitter, drugs and lace became an instant success, and a San Francisco institution was born.

Filmmakers Weissman and Weber have done a heroic job of getting the surviving Cockettes on film, from the guileless Sweet Pam and the waspish Goldie Glitters to token male heterosexual Marshall and self-described bad girl Fayette, whose life ambition was to be an adventuress.

The group put on a series of loosely constructed shows with names like “Gone With the Showboat to Oklahoma” that, remembers Sweet Pam, “were so untraditional, so far from the mainstream, they were almost illegal.” Film was also dabbled in, from “Elevator Girls in Bondage” to the mock “Tricia’s Wedding,” which debuted at the Palace on the same day as the actual event in the Nixon White House.

As show followed show, the big question with the Cockettes became, one member put it, “can mediocrity stand success?” Celebrity led to ego problems, and a split developed between Hibiscus and his allies, who believed in the purity of free performance, and those who believed in professionalism and felt money should be changing hands.

But the truth was that what the Cockettes did was always more the public expression of a lifestyle than a stage event that could be planned or transplanted, hence the group’s celebrated flop in New York. In addition to personality clashes, the ensemble was also done in by early deaths, first from drug addiction and later from AIDS.

Still, it’s possible to see in their idiosyncratic work a prefiguring of everything from gay liberation to glam rock. As journalist Lillian Roxon predicted back then, “Every time you see too much glitter, or a rhinestone out of place, you [will] know it’s because of the Cockettes.”

from Shawn Levy, The Portland Oregonian:
“Feather-boa flamboyance” 06/28/02

Face paint and costumes, dancing in the streets and tripping to the stars, a revolution around the corner and a nonstop party everywhere: San Francisco in the ’60s.The stories are legion and legend: the Grateful Dead and the Human Be-In, love burgers and acid tests, runaways crowding Haight Street and the Jefferson Airplane playing for free in Golden Gate Park. It’s all been gone over so often for so long that you wouldn’t believe that any aspect of it could be waiting to be told.

Unless, of course, you’ve seen “The Cockettes.”

A wild, endearing, masterful documentary by David Weissman and Bill Weber, “The Cockettes” tells the unlikely but true story of a group of communal housemates who combined sexual liberation, LSD, show tunes, dress-up, semi-nudity, an available stage and a ready audience of like-minded souls into one of the most outrageous sidebars to a truly outrageous epoch. Availing themselves of photos and hours of filmed footage (including home movies and the troupe’s films “Elevator Girls in Bondage” and the hilarious “Tricia’s Wedding”) and recording interviews with several of the surviving Cockettes and people who witnessed the group’s legendary performances, Weissman and Weber have built a glorious crazy quilt, part time capsule, part celebration, part acid flashback, part elegy.

We start with George Harris, a handsome New York actor, semi-famous for being photographed inserting a flower into a National Guardsman’s rifle at a Vietnam War protest rally, who comes to San Francisco and transforms himself into Hibiscus — a priest of self-expression bedecked in glitter and robes and described by one Cockette as looking like “Jesus Christ with lipstick.” After living at a commune with excessively strict rules, Hibiscus moves to another, freer house, where he influences his new friends to dress outlandishly, sing and dance in public, and generally make psychedelic spectacles of themselves.

He finds lots of eager takers: the musically inclined Scrumbly, the tomboyish Sweet Pam, the cattish Goldie Glitters, the vampish Dusty Dawn, the sexpot Fayette, the doctrinaire aesthete Jilala. They forage through thrift shops for costumes, they subsist on a special kind of welfare meant for the mentally disabled (and who, looking at them, would challenge their right to it?). And after one of Hibiscus’ most felicitous inspirations, they take to the stage of the Palace Theater in North Beach as The Cockettes, a gender-blending, mind-bending, high-kick chorus singing Broadway tunes without bothering to rehearse or even plan out a show.

They’re a hit, and soon their act becomes more elaborate and they do real shows:”Pearls Over Shanghai,” “Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma,” “Gone With the Showboat to Oklahoma,” even a film satirizing the White House wedding of Richard Nixon’s daughter, Tricia. The group’s ranks expand to include the future disco star Sylvester and John Waters’ house drag queen, Divine. Critic Rex Reed catches them one night andproclaims their greatness to the world, leading to an offer to bring the show to New York — an irresistible temptation that starts the troupe down a ruinous road.

Weissman and Weber have done a heroic job not only of wrangling all the material they’ve gathered here but assembling it into a coherent whole. The picture is peppered with humor, history and odd revelations and builds to a not-so-surprising but nevertheless deflating finale, with internal politics dividing the troupe and drug abuse and AIDS claiming members one by one.

No one ever makes the claim that the wild days of the Cockettes had any deep meaning, but beyond the great many moments of astonishment, amusement and glee it affords, the film does leave you with the lingering regret that you missed a hell of a good party. It is, as the kids used to say, a trip.

from: J.B., the NY Daily News:
“The Cockettes” 3 stars

It couldn’t have been easy to capture the essence of the Cockettes, a largely improvisational theater troupe in hippie-era San Francisco that was more than the sum of its gender-bending, LSD-tripping, “bearded lady” parts. But this documentary by Bill Weber and David Weissman does it beautifully, putting into perspective why the group — so refreshing and of the moment in their hometown — went bust on Broadway. The filmmakers tracked down surviving members (many died of drug overdoses or AIDS) and archival footage of those heady days of anything goes, when their underground Nixon parody film, “Tricia’s Wedding,” got better reviews than the real thing over in the White House. Some of the footage unwittingly resembles outtakes from Jack Smith’s 1963 “Flaming Creatures,” that ethereal dance of slightly spooky high spirits. The Cockettes epitomized a brief confluence of new possibilities, not so much in theater as in personal style, lending them a certain historical value that greatly exceeds their contribution to theater.

from: Michael Snyder, THE MIAMI HERALD
“The Cockettes” Jul. 12, 2002

A (literally) sparkling documentary account of a strange, flamboyant cultural manifestation: The Cockettes, the gender-twisting, San Francisco-based theatrical troupe of the early ‘70s. The Cockettes’ ambisexual make-up (hetero, homo, male, female), and their flouting of authority and conventional society, arose from the era’s communal hippie mentality and free-love movement. But this outrageous, glitter-encrusted “family” also presaged or influenced the glam-rock scene, performance art and the call for gay rights. Directors Bill Weber and David Weissman dug up kaleidoscopic archival footage, including TV news reports, raw home movies and clips from underground films such as The Cockettes’ 1971 parody Tricia’s Wedding. They folded in interviews with surviving company members as they are today and fans that include trash-loving filmmaker John Waters. For the curious or lovers of the avant-garde, the final cut is like a fabulous ride through a psychedelic time-warp.

from: Connie Ogle, THE MIAMI HERALD
” A free-spirited, indulgent time is recaptured in ‘The Cockettes’” , Jul. 12, 2002

The Cockettes may well have been “hippie acid freak drag queens” operating in “complete sexual anarchy,” as filmmaker John Waters explains, but in this affectionate documentary they mostly seem impossibly naive and sweet, imaginative hedonists who existed in a world that could not possibly last. The Cockettes, an entertaining film that follows the San Francisco ensemble’s freeform creation in late 1969 to its eventual breakup in 1972, recaptures a time and place and a way of life that seems refreshingly light years away from today’s somber mood.

The film opens on the eve of the group’s debut in New York, then quickly jumps back to its origins as the brainchild of Hibiscus, a member of a commune dedicated to creating free theater. The performers were united in this desire, as well as in one to ingest prodigious amounts of LSD. They were also children of their time: “We really did believe there’d be a revolution any minute,” says Marshall Olds, the troupe’s lone heterosexual man.

The first performance was an impromptu show at a midnight film series at The Palace Theater in North Beach. Buried in garish glitter and lavish costumes (at least until some ended up half-naked), they sang and danced, for the most part quite ineptly.

Skill didn’t matter, though. The Cockettes were a hit. The group’s appeal was magnetic: mostly gay (but not all) male (but not all) performers in outrageous drag, shedding inhibitions and clothing in an unstructured free-for-all. Popularity was definitely enhanced by the fact that the appreciative audience was also wrecked on LSD. “People were allowed to live at the end of their imaginations,” Cockette Fayette Hauser notes. And so everyone did.

Directors David Weissman and Bill Weber let the former Cockettes talk fondly of the old days and the transition from scriptless revelry to productions that eventually required a director. One of the film’s more entertaining aspects is its contrasting of the skinny young dancers covered in sequins and feathers and, sometimes, nothing, to the cleancut respectable-looking folk they became (there are a couple of exceptions, however).

The former Cockettes wistfully recall the joys of discovering sexual freedom and speak candidly about drug use (one member confesses he got more out of acid than he ever did from religion). Also well used are interviews with an affable Waters, whose movies were first shown at The Palace, and whose star Divine performed with The Cockettes.

The film climaxes with the New York debut, in which the Cockettes bombed dreadfully in front of a sophisticated, probably sober audience that expected a traditional show. And by then the group had already splintered: Some members objected to charging for shows, although no one made very much money.

The Cockettes didn’t know it, but the ensemble was doomed from the start. The 1970s would end; many of the performers would have to get jobs. Their freewheeling ways couldn’t last, especially when combined with heroin abuse. But The Cockettes is a sweet reminder of their lost and lively world.

from: Laura Kelly, SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL
“Cockettes: Bawdy flower children romp in San Francisco” July 12 2002

The flower-child innocence of San Francisco’s 1960s counterculture spawned the bawdy, often naked, LSD-laced stage phenomenon called the Cockettes. Co-directors David Weissman and Bill Weber trace the group from its spontaneous and joyful inception to a just-as-unlikely implosion from success and bickering over money.

This loose band of flamboyantly costumed dancing queens was made up mostly of gay men, but also a few women and a handful of straight guys. All were hippies fully committed to exploring an alternative and communal lifestyle. The Cockettes was the brainchild of a gay, would-be actor called Hibiscus, who first gathered his acolytes by singing show tunes while sitting in a tree.

The charismatic, creative leader adorned his revelers with glitter and secondhand gowns. At a theater famous for its midnight movies, they offered a short, impromptu display of their off-kilter dancing and off-key singing. They were an instant hit, and eventually ended up on Broadway.

This colorful, informative documentary details the troupe’s rise and fall in interviews with former members—some still buoyantly innocent, some scarred by seriously deep-fried brains. AIDS decimated cast members in the intervening years. Cult film director John Waters, whose star Divine headlined with the group occasionally, gives lengthy commentary.

Stock footage of actual performances is brief—but, in a way, that’s fitting. These performances were meant to be expressions of the moment, not talent parades recorded for posterity. From a distance of more than 30 years, it’s difficult to appreciate the cutting-edge cultural experimentation that gave rise such a new and bizarre performance group.

from: Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
“QUEENS FOR A DAY The “Cockettes” sing out”

Just when you thought there was nothing fresh to know about the counterculture, along comes The Cockettes, a funny, triumphant, and moving documentary about the mad theatrical troupe of San Francisco upstarts who dared to be fab and flamboyant and gay and glam before even the late-‘60s generation knew what to make of them. On stage, high on acid, the Cockettes, in their beards and glitter, would flop around nude, or in assorted combinations of surreal thrift-shop drapery, enacting bitch-queen parodies of Broadway musicals. Led by a fellow named Hibiscus, who looked sort of like Brad Pitt as a spangly Jesus, they didn’t just bend gender into Silly Putty; they did it before anyone had a name for it.

Bill Weber and David Weissman’s film, which weaves home-movie footage around witty interviews with the middle-aged surviving Cockettes, unveils a community of wacked innocents who were, in their way, visionaries of exhibitionism—the missing link between hippie and drag, between Andy Warhol’s superstars and John Waters’ freaks. In one of the film’s most hilarious and telling episodes, the Cockettes, in 1971, finally make it to New York City, where they become the toast of the town until they go up on stage…and bomb. The Cockettes weren’t talented, exactly, yet thebedazzled flakiness of their passion takes you closer than just about any movie has to what was once really meant by the term “free-spirited.” EW Grade: A-

from: Misha Berson, Seattle Times Friday, July 26, 2002

When the Cockettes made their New York debut in 1971, they were riding high. Rex Reed and Truman Capote had seen one of the San Francisco drag-camp ensemble’s wild, late-night musicals in North Beach, and talked them up to tout hip Manhattan. John Lennon and other celebs flocked to their East Village opening night.

But the Cockettes, beloved symbols of tacky fabulousness and gender-bending in their hometown, bombed big in Manhattan. They were attacked as inept singers and dancers, and for being silly, passé, rank amateurs.

What critics didn’t get was that the Cockettes never aspired to great theater. (Their motto: “Will success spoil mediocrity?”) The troupe was simply a unique manifestation of late ‘60s San Francisco counterculture at its campiest and most bacchanalian.

Their essence is marvelously captured in the new documentary, “The Cockettes.”

I saw some of the Cockettes’ insane, flash-tacky happenings at SF’s Palace Theatre years ago. But those who didn’t can still enjoy this film, as a historical adjunct to the more recent drag-queen fantasia “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”

With recent interviews and a wealth of clips from archival “home movies” of the Cockettes (and from the group’s no-budget features, including the famously lurid “Trisha’s Wedding”), co-directors Bill Weber and David Weissman pull off a minor miracle. They capture a precise moment when gay liberation, psychedelic drug experimentation, communal urban living and uninhibited street theater converged, in a city that reveled in randy rebellion.

The film chronicles the group’s formation by the self-named Hibiscus (née George Harris), a free spirit who loved to dance around SF’s hippified Haight Ashbury in glitter-covered beard and filmy chiffon draperies.

Like a transvestite Pan, Hibiscus was a guru to men and women, straights and gays who longed to flaunt their outrageousness, too. Soon they were living communally and performing shows between old movies at the Palace — basically excuses to dress up, act out and co-opt ‘30s movie-musical shtick.

Former Cockettes (drag queens Goldie Glitters, Rumi, Kreemah Ritz; “real” women Fayette Hauser, Sweet Pam and Dusty Dawn) describe the scene with candor, humor and affection. They admit the group’s flamboyance was stoked by countless tabs of LSD (one alum can’t recall performing when she wasn’t on drugs), and a rowdy, messianic innocence.

“We believed there’d be a revolution at any moment,” recalls one member. Filmmaker John Waters, a fan and cohort, describes the crew as “hippie acid-freak drag queens. … You couldn’t tell if it was men or women. It was complete sexual anarchy.”

Others tell of thrift-store raids for garish duds, and unapologetically living on government food stamps and welfare “to maintain (an) artsy alternative life style.” Snippets of Cockettes productions (i.e., “Elevator Girls in Bondage,” “Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma”) prove that their cult success had little to do with performing talent. (An exception: the singer Sylvester, who became a minor pop star.)

In the early ‘70s the Cockettes split , riven by ideological and ego clashes. And later, their hedonist ethic took a sad toll on many alums, via drugs and AIDS.

“The Cockettes” doesn’t romanticize any of this. But mainly, it celebrates the group’s playful spark of nonconformity, glancing vividly back at what Hibiscus grandly called his “angels of light.”

from: Steve Wiecking, Seattle Weekly July 25 – 31, 2002
Drag Art: Achieving utopia, if only on stage

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.

from: Adrian Ryan, The Stranger
THE COCKETTES: Get Really Stoned and See this Show

Drunken tranny-FLapper floozies. Tripped-out hippie communists, acid queens, and fringe artists out on a gender bender. A bizarre study in social engineering. A fabulous spectacle of drugs and glitter. A sign of the apocalypse. I could crack a thesaurus in half trying to describe the Cockettes.

The Cockettes were a short-lived phenomenon of sorts, a distillation of everything that pops into your head when you think “late ‘60s San Francisco”: psychedelia, sexual revolution, anti-war, anti-capitalism, queers and hippies running amok, at a time when sartorial eccentricity was a fierce political statement that could really get one noticed.

The story of the Cockettes begins with a drugged-out lefty homo called “Hibiscus” (née George Harris), who was famous in ‘60s San Francisco for being weirder than the rest of ‘60s San Francisco (and that’s really saying something). He believed in and preached the values of free food, free love, and, most of all, free art. In no time, Hibiscus attracted an almost equally freaky group of friends and followers who were all in outrageous drag, dropping acid and performing in the streets. As their popularity grew, the group began to score real gigs in legit theaters, thrilling energetic audiences with musical revues like Gone with the Showboat to Oklahoma, Tropical Heatwave/Hot Voodoo, and their first all-original script, Pearls Over Shanghai. The acid-addled drag revue was soon renowned as the hallmark of creative spontaneity—each production a must-see event more sumptuous than the last.

David Weissman and Bill Weber’s documentary is a loving window into the lives of the Cockettes—interviews with those still living, volumes of film footage, and remembrances of the fallen. The film contains over 11,000 photographs and every known scrap of Cockettes footage in existence. If you think this sounds like overkill, you’re right. But it would be a screaming tragedy if this story was lost to time, and a little overkill is a small price to pay to preserve this singular moment in American pop culture history.

from: Paula Nechak, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Friday, July 26, 2002
Counterculture ride with ‘60s troupe drips with nostalgia

“Make love, not war” was the slogan of the 1960s and the raucous and ribald documentary “The Cockettes” reincarnates the sentiment—if not always adhering to the message.

The San Francisco-based drag troupe was indeed, as one member noted, testament to the ‘60s and ‘70s desire to “live at the end of the imagination” and that imagination, as often as not, included backbiting and rivalry.

This exhaustively detailed documentary by David Weissman and Bill Weber chronicles the birth of a phenomenon that only could have existed in such an anarchic moment in our cultural history. The hippie movement was alive and San Francisco’s gay face was beginning to show itself.

A young gay man named Hibiscus, part of a commune called Kali Flower, formed a casual chorus line of men and women intent upon performing their improvised brand of theater to anyone interested in watching. Before long they were doing a weekly midnight musical at The Palace Theatre, dripping in makeup, wild costumes, glitter and drugs, where they staged shows with such tantalizing titles as “Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma” and “Pearls Over Shanghai.”

Gay and straight alliances formed and shattered, politics and sexual activity were rampant, babies were born and arguments ensued as the troupe struggled with outgrowing their modest talents and approached becoming bona fide celebrities on the city’s cult circuit.

“The Cockettes” is a fascinating poke into the soul of the ‘60s and it moves past a simple chronology of a counterculture phenomenon to examine how this predecessor to glitter rock and camp movies, such as “The Rocky Horror Show,” could ever have ascended to such heights.

The directors delve into the backdrop of psychedelia and the event—the Vietnam War—that fueled an insurrectionist sexual revolution and a “don’t trust anyone over 30” attitude. By historically getting into the trenches with the “flower power” generation who invaded San Francisco in droves, we almost believe the idealism and naivete that was espoused could have changed the world.

With interviews from surviving troupe members as well as celebrities such as director John Waters (who called them “the first hip drag queens”), we’re witness to the troupe’s rise—as well as its fall—after a brutal East Coast tour, drug overdoses, AIDS and, most of all, too much success.

From: Byron Beck, Willamette Week

SAN FRANCISCO TREAT The Cockettes make an amazing cock tale.

“When we thought sexy, we thought Lenin.” –Jilala, a Cockette

In San Francisco’s communal culture of the early ’70s, everyone hitchhiked, smoked pot and dropped acid. But not all co-op’ers smeared lipstick on their faces, strapped dildos to their orifices, or pranced across the stage of North Beach’s infamous Palace Theater in six-inch heels and not much else for a midnight drag show.

No, that activity was reserved for a special group of socially adept socialists known as “The Cockettes.”

Fun-loving radical faeries (years before queer pioneer Harry Hay coined the term), this group of what filmmaker John Waters calls “hippie, acid-freak drag queens” has lived in the relatively ill-defined oblivion of homosexual folklore for decades. Until now.

For The Cockettes, David Weissman and Bill Weber gathered interviews with former cast members–currently a collection of accountants, house husbands and drug-addled oral historians–and raw footage of these flaming faggots in action at late-night performances, in their Haight-Ashbury commune, on the street and at their disastrous debut in New York City.

Along the way, this public-broadcasting-meets-Behind the Music flick introduces you to a hilarious cast of characters. These guys (and a couple of gals) are just as happy to show you their wee-wees as they are willing to reveal that they have little (if any) talent–and none is more memorable than the Cockettes’ “Maybelline-covered messiah,” Hibiscus.

A former New Yorker named George Harris, Hibiscus is perhaps best known as one of the dudes in the famous picture where clean-cut students stick flowers in the end of a soldier’s bayonet. He hit the West Coast, eventually landing in what became the Cockette House, where he became the center of a de facto religion dedicated to the ideals of communal life through drag (loosely based on what fellow-Cockette Jilala calls “bible communism.”) Like any religious leader, Hibiscus needed his followers to be faithful, despite his encouragement for them to live at the ends of their imaginations. When the flock decided to think for itself–some had the nerve to suggest rehearsing or being paid for their drug-enhanced extravaganzas–Hibiscus bolted.

While Hibiscus’ story serves as the mannequin on which this tale is (well) hung, there are plenty of drag artistes to meet: This is where queer phenom/ Prince-precursor Sylvester started to show us how “mighty real” he really was, and the dearly departed Divine and Waters, her creator, were swept up in the sexual anarchy of this group for a time.

When the Cockettes tried to make it big in the Big Apple in November of ’71, the magic of their androgynous, semi-spontaneous free-for-alls all but disappeared. Unimpressed with the out-of-towners, one New York snob, Gore Vidal, even had the gall to say, “No talent is not enough!”

That doesn’t matter, though, because the Cockettes were “stars.” And like all stars, eventually they imploded under the weight of their own brilliance and the changing mood of a country on the verge of a meltdown. But for a short while, these idealistic glitter “gals” shone with the light of a thousand supernova divas.

from: Steven Rosen, Denver Post August 09, 2002
Spirit of ’60s San Francisco lives on in documentary

It’s hard enough to want to be an artist – it often means a life of long working hours, lack of recognition and financial sacrifice. But some people – maybe very foolish, maybe very brave – want to go even further. They want to live their art, to make what they create indistinguishable from who they are. They not only want to change the world, but also themselves. Sometimes they succeed, but often it’s an impossible dream. They burn themselves out, like a raging forest fire after the trees are gone.

“The Cockettes,” a visually lively and innovative documentary by Bill Weber and Davis Weissman, is an exemplary film about that desire. More, both for those who were there and those who weren’t, it’s an important – revelatory, even – movie about why the 1960s were the 1960s. “People were allowed to live at the end of their imaginations,” one interview subject says. Another observes: “We were born to change everything.”

George Harris was such a person. At the height of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury hippie days, he moved into the KaliFlower commune and changed his name to Hibiscus. And he started to walk around San Francisco as if he were a chorus girl in a Busby Berkeley musical – by way of the Marrakesh Express. Bedecked in robes, skirts, and headdresses; wearing heavy facial glitter and lipstick to complement his long-flowing hair and thick beard, he let his freak flag fly. He also had a messianic quality – at love-ins, he’d get other hippies to dance like Isadora Duncan.

Soon, the Cockettes were born – “hippie acid freak drag queens,” in the words of director John Waters, who was a fan and is interviewed in the movie. Mostly men but also women (and one nursing baby), predominantly gay but not exclusively, they became an anarchic and celebratory gender-bending lifestyle movement as well as popular entertainers. They were gay liberation, but also more. They weren’t professional female impersonators per se – the female Cockettes dressed eccentrically, too. And the men didn’t always try to hide their privates – or their beards – to further any illusion they were women.

“The Cockettes,” which uses fascinating archival footage as well as interviews with ex-Cockettes, shows just how far Hibiscus and his minions got. There is footage from their San Francisco stage shows, where they developed a following for their warped musicals like “Gone With the Showboat to Oklahoma” and “Hot Greeks.” This movie also contains excerpts from their long-lost DIY movies, “Tricia’s Wedding” and “Elevator Girls in Bondage.” (“Tricia,” which premiered on the night of Tricia Nixon’s wedding in the White House, is a riotously scandalous work in which one Cockette plays a drunken Mamie Eisenhower and another an out-of-it Rose Kennedy.)

A product of 1960s and early-’70s San Francisco, the Cockettes weren’t completely without precedent. In New York, Andy Warhol’s Factory produced its own strange “superstars” who lived their art and made low-budget movies. (One of them, Holly Woodlawn, is interviewed). But, befitting New York, there was a jaded sense of decadence – and also art-world sophistication – to their scene. By contrast, the Cockettes were about youthful exuberance and optimistic celebration of life – and LSD-fueled cosmic consciousness.

“The Cockettes” makes this point brilliantly, with footage from the troupe’s disastrous opening-night show in New York. An all-star audience, eagerly in search of the next big thing, walks out disgusted with the amateurism. “They expected professional performers. But this was our lifestyle,” says a former Cockette.

The movie is not just a giddy blast from the past. Toward the end, the tragedy sets in – deaths from hard drugs and AIDS. Hibiscus was one of the first – he died in 1982. AIDS also claimed the group’s most talented member, Sylvester, who eventually found success as a disco-era singer. Martin Worman, an ex-Cockette who wrote a dissertation on the group and shared his information and contacts with the filmmakers, also died of AIDS in 1993. But others have fared well, and contribute insightful and good-spirited interviews.

One can’t say for sure what the Cockettes changed. Until this movie, few outside the Bay Area ever had heard of them. But this expert, heartfelt movie establishes them as being as much a part of swingin’ San Francisco as the Grateful Dead or the Beats. And their spirit will live on.

from: Kimberley Jones , Austin Chronicle
The Cockettes

Maybe it’s the old-timey, silent film title cards, or the vaudeville piano tinkering on the score, but The Cockettes produces a yearning wistfulness for another time and place—specifically, 1970s San Francisco. Of course, that free love bacchanalia—where every good story began with how many hits of acid were involved and “gender-bending” didn’t refer to the latest Calvin Klein ad campaign—would eventually give way to AIDS and overdoses, but David Weissman and Bill Weber’s unabashedly nostalgic documentary evokes the time just before it all fell apart, and, damn, does it look grand.

Using indispensable archival footage, photographs, and recordings, the film steeps itself in that milieu to recount the rise and fall of the Cockettes, an S.F. theatrical troupe made up of gay men, a sprinkling of straight women, one baby, many, many hits of acid, and a trunk full of chiffon. The troupe’s motley beginnings were as the impromptu halftime entertainment at the Palace Theater’s midnight shows. They hopped onstage in full drag and stripped to a Rolling Stones song; the audience loved it so much, the Cockettes started the song over and did it again.

Soon the troupe went from sideshow to center stage, packing in the audience for their famously flamboyant (and mostly unrehearsed) revues, like “Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma” and “Gone With the Showboat to Oklahoma.” The Cockettes and their shows were united in a desire to explore the fluidity of sexuality—and to do so using a lot of drugs. (One surviving member laughs and recalls that they were practically “brushing our teeth” with LSD.) Eventually, the group’s enormous celebrity in North Beach (devotees included Janis Joplin, Rex Reed, and Truman Capote) led to an ever-so-slightly heightened professionalism, which caused the group to splinter; the remaining Cockettes had a show run briefly off-Broadway to disapproving New York audiences unamused by the group’s love of anarchic, if somewhat amateurish, fun.

Weissman and Weber use illuminating interviews with the surviving troupe members and others in the community, like filmmaker John Waters, to explore the Cockettes’ commune beginnings and eventual collapse (self-professed queen Goldie Glitters is especially fun to watch sniffing about how they never should have let women into the gang). Inevitably, the film’s coda catalogues the many deaths— most lost to drug overdose or AIDS—and the film turns especially poignant when ex-Cockette Anton Dunnigan, who passed away before the film’s release, recalls those happier times: “Just give me a torn dress, a hit of acid, and let’s hit the beach.” Cue the footage of Cockettes in spangles and glitter, high-kicking and belting out show tunes at the top of their lungs. Damn, it looks grand.

From: Nathan Rabin, THE ONION
The Cockettes

The misbegotten gender-bending progeny of Busby Berkeley, Karl Marx, and Timothy Leary, the amateurish theatre troupe The Cockettes burned brightly for two and a half eventful years in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s before calling it quits. Today, the group’s name generally evokes little more than puzzled shrugs, but its influence can be felt on everything from glam-rock to The Rocky Horror Picture Show to the career of John Waters, an early fan and troupe supporter.

Led by a charismatic actor who dropped out and re-christened himself “Hibiscus,” The Cockettes’ self-consciously naughty performances blurred the line separating amateurs from professionals and audiences from performers. The group began, appropriately enough, as broke, acid-soaked audience members who gravitated to midnight screenings of campy old musicals. One such fabled night, they decided to get up on stage and “perform,” after a fashion, and the rest is history, though much of it has been forgotten. The assured, affectionate feature debut of directors Bill Weber and David Weissman, The Cockettes makes a terrific case for the group’s historical importance, even though its performances seem more fun to discuss than watch. The surviving Cockettes interviewed here seem all too aware of their failings as singers and dancers, and while their act was a sensation in permissive, hippie-friendly San Francisco, it struck out in the more judgmental New York. Once considered shocking and obscene, The Cockettes’ show now seems tame and almost quaint, less like the work of avant-garde provocateurs than like naughty post-adolescents basking in personal and professional freedom. The group’s real genius, Weber and Weissman suggest, wasn’t the shows it put on, but the lifestyle it led, and their film poignantly captures the unfettered sense of possibility the troupe encouraged. Watching The Cockettes, it’s easy to understand the now-middle-aged group members’ fondness for their bygone era and place, as well as why most of the living Cockettes moved on and now sport conventional garb worlds away from the flamboyant attire of their heyday.

from: AB, Washington City Paper
THE COCKETTES
Documentarians Bill Weber and David Weissman have a sober, linear, terrifically entertaining take on one of the wildest rides of the hippie era: the ascendancy and messy decline of San Francisco do-it-yourself theater troupe the Cockettes. A loose aggregation of androgynes, glitter hippies, thermonuclear queens, show-tune aficionados, and straight women, the Cockettes staged slap-dash theatrical happenings to such notoriety (and with such increasing polish) that the troupe itself soon became the stuff of ’30s Broadway musicals. The members are shocking and liberating even now, not for their pansexual outrageousness, but for the abandon and joy with which they pursued the ideal of communal ecstasy.

from: Douglas Cruickshank, Salon.com
Complete Sexual Anarchy

The Cockettes exuded the optimism, playfulness,sexiness and theatricality of a subculture that slipped away almost as soon as it was born.

After midnight one evening in the early 1970s, I was standing in the Pagoda Palace Theater on Washington Square in San Francisco. At the time, the theater ran Chinese movies during the day and then, at midnight, the Chinese audience streamed out and in came a multicolored, unruly herd of glitter- and feather-bedecked hippies reeking of pot and patchouli oil. (It’s a cliché now, but those were indeed the pervasive aromas.) Onstage, penises and breasts bounced around wantonly. There was dancing, there was singing, everybody was loaded on some sort of mind-altering substance, and unbridled sexual outrageousness spilled out into an audience that could be described as enthusiastic only if you’re into extreme understatement.

The glorious Cockettes, the florid and fluorescent LSD-fueled drag review that briefly lit up San Francisco, and excited the media as far away as Paris, 30 some years ago were onstage performing one of their live shows. It might have been “Journey to the Center of Uranus” or “Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma” or any number of other wacky, apolitical extravaganzas — Rodgers & Hammerstein gone terribly, terribly wrong. Whatever it was, it looked like Kabuki collaboratively produced by Busby Berkeley, Dr. Seuss and Federico Fellini, generously seasoned with Carmen Miranda. As John Waters has described the scene, “It was complete sexual anarchy, which is always a wonderful thing.”

I had a beat-up Nikon F hanging around my neck when poet Allen Ginsberg, obviously stoned out of his gourd, walked up, pointed at the camera and said, “Delicious! Take many, many, many pictures.” I did, too, but I’ll be damned if I know what happened to them. I’ve always regretted losing those photos, but my regret has been mollified by the recent release of “The Cockettes,” a new feature documentary. It airs Friday, June 21, on the Sundance channel and has opened, or soon will, in theaters across the country. It’s also showing at film festivals around the world.

“The Cockettes” is a curious celluloid time capsule that succeeds in a way that few films have at accurately capturing the spirit and riotous acting-out — sexual and otherwise — that typified the most frequently disparaged and caricatured decade of the 20th century: the ’60s. But then the Cockettes would be nearly impossible to caricature — they aspired to cartoonishness and, to their own surprise, reached that sparkling mountaintop, and even stayed there awhile.

The film’s directors, David Weissman and Bill Weber, who spent four years putting the documentary together, describe the Cockettes as “the last hurrah of the Haight-Ashbury at its best.” It’s an interesting distinction because, contrary to so much of what’s been written or filmed about those times, there was indeed a “best,” though most of the lightheartedness, exhilaration and artistic experimentation had been replaced by hard drugs, hard times and bad vibes before the Cockettes first shimmered into existence in 1969.

That may be one of the reasons they shone so brightly: The Haight and the impossibly naive dream of hippiedom were crumbling, but the Cockettes still exuded the optimism, playfulness, sexiness and theatricality of a subculture that slipped away almost as soon as it was born. It was a time, too, when the dark specter of AIDS was still more than a decade in the future and sexual abandon seemed to be consequence-free.

The Cockettes were certainly into sex, drugs, excess and self-indulgence, as creative communities often are, but Weissman and Weber’s film goes behind the glitter and eye shadow and finds that there was something more substantial to the group as well. In addition to being intoxicatingly funny, they succeeded at forming a community of sexual renegades that was focused on new ideas at least as much as it was on sex, maybe more so.

As Weissman put it when we first spoke nearly two years ago while the film was still in production, “This was not about female impersonation. This was what came to be known as ‘gender-fuck.’ There had never been bearded hippie drag queens before.” Underneath the hedonism and circus sideshow frivolity the Cockettes shared an interest in pushing the parameters of sexuality, social acceptance and theater about as far as they could be pushed — they were aggressively messing with cultural presumptions and having a hell of a good time doing it.

Fayette Hauser, one of the original Cockettes, who appears frequently in the film, said of those times, “We were living in a parallel universe of myth, fantasy, self-exploration and high drag. What mattered was enlightenment. A new idea was the valued currency. We treated each other like gods and so we became gods. This acid-induced, profoundly honed persona was what we saw in each other … In our minds, we lived more fully, loved more deeply and dressed more beautifully than anyone else in the world. We were divas of the highest order and everyone wanted to be a Cockette.”

It would have been easy to make “The Cockettes” little more than an exercise in nostalgia, but instead it’s a highly entertaining act of counterculture archaeology; what Weissman and Weber went through to dig up performance footage, still photos and former Cockettes is worthy of another documentary. Some Cockettes just couldn’t be found. “There was one in particular that we were dying to find,” Weissman says, “who I looked for literally for three and a half years, who we never were able to find, then she miraculously reappeared just a few weeks ago — that was Harlow. Harlow was a ’60s fixture in San Francisco not just as a Cockette, but also as a member of the Plaster Casters. There were so many people who were dying to find out what happened to Harlow, Peter Coyote had contacted us to say, ‘Do you know where Harlow is?’ And Chet Helms from the Family Dog asked, ‘Where’s Harlow?’ Turns out she’s been living out in the country, in Southern California, for a long time.”

“How far have the Cockettes drifted?” I ask Weissman. “Who among them has the least Cockettish life today?” “Most of them live fairly quiet lives,” he says. “Most are fairly marginal financially, nobody’s really become a yuppie in any way. In their hearts, they’re all still Cockettes.” And several, including the troupe’s founder, Hibiscus, died of AIDs.

In conjunction with the San Francisco screening, Weissman and Weber have curated an exhibition of original show posters and documentary photographs at the city’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. I happened to be walking through the exhibit when Weissman, Harlow, another Cockette named Rumi and San Francisco photographer Robert Altman showed up to see the photos, many of which Altman took. Altman was chief photographer at Rolling Stone from 1969 to 1971 and continues to work as a photographer and Web designer in San Francisco. When the Cockettes were at their peak, he was assigned by Rags, an alternative fashion magazine of the time, to do photos to accompany an article about the troupe by Mary Peacock. “I spent about four days living with the Cockettes,” Altman told me, “over at their commune. I wouldn’t call it bedlam, but it was certainly nonstop activity … Hibiscus had come along and drew all these people to him … he had a sense of fun about being gay: ‘Not only is it OK to be gay and be out of the closet, but we can sing and dance about it and put on a show about it.'”

Weissman and Weber were determined that their film not be simply a glorified home movie, a cinematic scrapbook of hippie memories. “Bill and I struggled all through making the film,” Weissman says. “We wanted to make a movie that was not a nostalgia piece about something that happened once, but was about possibilities that are timeless — a movie that could serve as a reminder of how important it is when you’re young to be a rebel, to ask questions and to have fun. To seek community and not be totally driven by career and money.”

Nor were Weissman and Weber hoping to bring about some kind of resurrection. “I think that individual eras can’t and shouldn’t be re-created,” Weissman says. “Each era has potential for its own appropriate style of art and rebellion. Things have to come out of their own moments and yet they can also be informed by history. Certainly the Cockettes were very informed by the 1920s and the ’30s aesthetically — but they were also completely a reflection of their time much the way Burning Man is a reflection of the era it came out of.”

In recent years, the success of films like “Priscilla Queen of the Desert,” “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and “Paris Is Burning” have brought gender-bending cinema to a mainstream audience. Whether “The Cockettes” can also reach that audience, as Weissman hopes, remains to be seen. He’s pushing for it to be viewed as a movie that will have appeal beyond gay filmgoers. “I think a lot of people have assumed that this movie is just another drag queen movie,” he says, “but it’s had huge appeal for people who are interested in both the counterculture of the era and countercultures generally. I never saw it particularly in terms of gay things. None of these people came out of the gay movement per se, they came out of acid, they came out of Haight-Ashbury. There are a bunch of straight guys in dresses in a lot of our pictures, a bunch of them.” As Hauser puts it in the film, “People were allowed to live at the end of their imaginations.”

The Cockettes’ trajectory was a relatively short one. They came together in 1969 and it was all over by 1972, their collapse helped along by money disputes and a disastrous New York debut; their act just didn’t work out of context. The East and West countercultures may have had a desire for sexual theatrics in common, but they didn’t speak each other’s language. The New York catastrophe is seen in “The Cockettes” along with its polar opposite: footage of some of their rollickingly good San Francisco performances, as well as clips from their film, an orgiastic send-up of Richard Nixon’s daughter’s marriage called “Tricia’s Wedding,” and the San Francisco arrival of the divine Divine for several guest appearances with the group.

Not surprisingly, Weissman and Weber’s film has engendered plenty of strong reaction. “We’ve had a lot of powerful, personal testimony,” Weissman says. “A woman came up to us at Sundance who said that she had always hung out with the Diggers in the Haight. And she said to me, ‘It’s just become so hard to talk about that time period, because people just think, Oh, hippies, big fuckin’ deal. This is the first thing I’ve ever seen that really captures the complexity and exuberance of what that period felt like.'”

Seeing “The Cockettes” today is an odd bit of time travel to an era when sex, how we saw it, how we talked about it and what it meant to us seems eons away from the present. Despite the hippie revolution that was centered in San Francisco, there was still a great deal of societal naiveté about sex, and gay liberation was still very much in its infancy, which is perhaps why there continues to be something very refreshing about the Cockettes, their spirit and sense of humor.

After the show that night, as I walked out of the Pagoda Palace, the pocket of my Army field jacket stuffed with film canisters headed for oblivion, I spotted Ginsberg talking with a small group of people near the curb. Two things about him were different from when I’d seen him earlier: His pen had leaked all over the pocket of his white shirt and he was wearing lipstick.

from Desson Howe, Washington Post
San Francisco’s Drag-Induced High
THEY WERE living in complete freedom—at least, in the way they defined it.

The bearded, hippie, drag-queen troupe known as the Cockettes, that is. And in the late ‘60s/early 1970s, their home was San Francisco’s Palace Theater, where they acted like the Rockettes of Radio City Music Hall.

Well, not completely like the Rockettes. As we learn in “The Cockettes,” a sentimental documentary about their good old days, these performers, most of them gay men (although there were some heterosexual men and women), were a ragtag bunch for whom song-and-dance choreography and other professional precision amounted to work.

Dressed in outlandish gear—or in some cases, not dressed at all—they would (to screaming ovations) perform as they were, as they wanted, and when they wanted.
Their one-of-a-kind numbers such as “Elevator Girls in Bondage” and “Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma” were unforgettable cult hits to such patrons as Janis Joplin, Anthony Perkins and Jerry Garcia, to name a few. They also made underground films, including “Tricia’s Wedding,” in which performer Goldie Glitters plays Tricia Nixon at her own LSD-spiked wedding.

“Cockettes” has the glorious, gaudy benefit of much stock footage of Those Days, featuring all manner of drag queen, bearded lady and lactating hippie. We meet some colorful folks, including a Cockette woman, who proudly raised her newborn in one of the Cockette communes, and co-founder George Harris, aka Hibiscus, one of the more outlandish performers, who is shown as an iconic protester pushing flowers into the muzzle of a gun in the heyday of the ‘60s.

Many of the players, now dressed in the more sedate attire of their autumnal years, reflect sentimentally on a time that was so outrageous nothing could surprise anyone. Among the documentary’s many articulate speakers is Baltimore filmmaker John Waters, whose “Multiple Maniacs” was a huge success at the Cockettes’ own Palace Theater, a movie house where the troupe performed before the films came on. The cinema, Waters claims, was where transsexual performer Divine decided to dump the name of Glenn Milstead forever.

Filmmakers Bill Weber and David Weissman have created a gentle film that doesn’t seek to show people in ironic light. It simply pays rapt attention to people with such colorful names as Goldie Glitters, Jilala and Dusty Dawn, remembering a sequined, wild, bygone era, pre-AIDS, when everything seemed possible.