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and David Weissman

Trust gay San Francisco to turn hippie aimlessness and dreams of self-actualization into a splendid theater of communal ecstasy. In late-’60s Haight-Ashbury, a group of freaks too freaky for the dropouts and flower children—androgynes, thermonuclear queens, straight women thrilled to have landed in Oz, show-tune aficionados, glitter hippies, and, for a while, the soon-to-be disco sensation Sylvester—coalesced around the charismatic model/poet/actor Hibiscus. They funneled their youthful energy, their gender-boundless lifestyle, and the city’s rich supply of prewar couture into outrageous, half-baked stage performance, but tensions were built into the group at its birth: Hibiscus thought he had founded the Angels of Light Free Theater, but his performers went onstage as the Cockettes, part drag revue, part hippie sideshow—and nothing like San Francisco had seen before. “Complete sexual anarchy,” in John Waters’ words. Documentarians Bill Weber and David Weissman have constructed this wild ride very cleanly, zeroing in on various aspects of the Cockettes’ existence—their dependence on drugs, strains over membership, their quests for finery and cash—with the help of a surprisingly huge amount of archival film and interviews with many of the participants (grown and glossy in some cases, unrepentant and still sparkling liike a firecracker in others). The first half of The Cockettes is a charming portrait of the counterculture’s society and politics, with San Francisco’s communes functioning like a cross between frat houses and Mardi Gras krewes, each with its own identity. But a disastrous foray to New York proved the Cockettes’ Waterloo: What looked like tinseled, ecstatic Broadway to the hippie world became half-baked bearded drag to East Coast theatergoing sophisticates. Still, even as their summers of love faded into a heroin- and AIDS-wracked autumn, the members of the troupe kept their heads up. Gorgeous, cheerful, pansexual, fantastically dressed, often naked, and absolutely fearless, the Cockettes gave as much to modern theater as they took from old musicals. —Arion Berger