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The Cockettes


The Cockettes

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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.