The Cockettes

An affectionate history of the psychedelic drag troupe whose rise and fall embodied the utopian idealism, gender-bending anarchy, touching naivete and sad dissolution of San Francisco's blissed-out counterculture scene. The Cockettes were born by accident, the product of a unique confluence of circumstance and personalities. Hibiscus (formerly a clean-cut...read more

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An affectionate history of the psychedelic drag troupe whose rise and fall embodied the utopian idealism, gender-bending anarchy, touching naivete and sad dissolution of San Francisco's blissed-out counterculture scene. The Cockettes were born by accident, the product of a unique confluence of circumstance and personalities. Hibiscus (formerly a clean-cut New York actor named George Harris) arrived in San Francisco in 1968, with beat writer Irving Rosenthal. Innovative movie programmer Sebastian devised the "Nocturnal Dream Shows" series at North Beach's Palace Theater, showing a groundbreaking late-night mix of experimental movies, exploitation pictures and classic Hollywood extravaganzas. The charismatic Hibiscus (whose full beard, vintage dresses, make-up and costume jewelry look defiantly freaky even by today's standards), embraced drag and drugs as paths to spiritual liberation. He attracted a group of like-minded hippies who loved show tunes, dressing up, showing off and dropping acid. They also loved movies, so when Hibiscus asked Sebastian, who encouraged audience participation at his midnight screenings, if he and his friends could do a musical number in exchange for free admission, Sebastian readily agreed. Out of that impromptu performance the rowdy, raunchy Cockettes were born. Most members cohabited in one of two communes — Rosenthal's Kalifornia or an unnamed group soon dubbed the Cockettes commune — where life and performance mingled daily. While they were mostly white, gay and inclined to names like Pristine Condition and Kreemah Ritz, the Cockettes included women, people of color — notably singer Sylvester, probably the most conventionally talented performer of all — and straight men. The group staged increasingly elaborate productions, from horror-picture pastiche "Les Ghouls" (which predated The Rocky Horror Show by several years) to "Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma," attracting a loyal and ever-larger audience that grooved on the revolutionary mix of nudity, camp, glitter and affectionate homages to showbiz excess. But as the Cockettes got bigger, dissention set in. One faction, which included Hibiscus, felt the shows should stay loose and free, while the other favored increasingly professional (relatively speaking) productions and didn't mind getting paid. Hibiscus eventually left to form his own Angels of Light Free Theater Collective, and after a disastrous 1971 New York City appearance, the Cockettes disbanded forever. Filmmakers David Weissman and Bill Weber benefit enormously from the Cockettes' camera craziness &#151 not only did they film performances, but they did the same at home. This amazing footage alternates with interviews that include more than a dozen surviving members of the troupe, whose recollections are by turn funny, touching and mind-boggling. What a time!

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  • Released: 2002
  • Rating: R
  • Review: An affectionate history of the psychedelic drag troupe whose rise and fall embodied the utopian idealism, gender-bending anarchy, touching naivete and sad dissolution of San Francisco's blissed-out counterculture scene. The Cockettes were born by accident,… (more)

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