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 the bedazzled flakiness of their passion takes you closer than just about any movie has to what was once really meant by the term ”free-spirited.”