Sunset Strip: SXSW Review

Color-packed doc boasts a lifetime's worth of glamour and sleaze 

The Hans Fjellestad-directed documentary traces the cultural history of the iconic 1.5-mile stretch.

AUSTIN - Entertaining almost to a fault, Hans Fjellestad's Sunset Strip is, like any good denizen of L.A.'s famous drag, happy to bite off more than it should chew. The result is a dense, often delicious tour through one of pop culture's epicenters that will please on the non-fiction circuit and be a go-to resource for years to come.

Given the wealth of high-profile interviewees Fjellestad attracts and the span of history he covers, one imagines the raw footage being reworked into miniseries format -- Ken Burns visits the underworld. A cute animated credits sequence at the end nods to how many famous characters and stories didn't make the final cut.

But what's here is ample. Beginning with the 19th Century poinsettia fields that became a barrier between Hollywood and Beverly Hills, the doc traces the cultural history of this 1.5-mile stretch, combining vintage nightlife footage with a parade of celebrity interviews ranging from Johnny Depp to Phyllis Diller.

PHOTOS: The Scene at SXSW 2012

Moving chronologically, Fjellestad spends a particularly satisfying stretch describing places from the Golden Era -- the Garden of Allah, the Chateau Marmont (in multiple incarnations), and the so-called House of Francis, a bordello where MGM screenwriters could rent a workroom and bounce ideas off of culturally savvy ladies of the evening.

Many will wish the film could linger here, interviewing Kenneth Anger and others about forgotten scandals, but Fjellestad must move on -- to the nightclub era, dominated by names like Trocadero and Ciro's. The filmmakers find colorful seediness here, too -- recruiting some old-school wiseguys to sit swapping tales of Mickey Cohen -- before segueing into a brief rundown of the striptease scene.

The stories and the faces get more familiar as we move beyond this era's glamour, but that's not to say they're less entertaining. The Whisky, the Roxy, and the Rainbow get their share of praise, with stories of groupie favors and Zeppelin antics rounding out the 60s/70s picture, before Fjellestad careens through the standup-comedy explosion, the romanticized blight of hair metal, punk, and a 90s hipster revival tarnished by grunge and River Phoenix's death.

PHOTOS: SXSW's Can't-Miss Movies

Somewhere around the 60-minute mark, viewers may grow stunned by the number of famous faces paying homage to this chunk of asphalt. The movie rarely takes a breath, and while its comprehensive scope is admirable, a narrower focus might have allowed Fjellestad to, say, dig around in clubs' storied green rooms or offer other first-hand evidence to break up the talking heads.

Still, it's hard to take issue with a Sunset Strip portrait that can't come up for air. By the time Fjellestad gets to the "is the scene dead?" musings at the end, audiences may be so invigorated they find the notion impossible to believe.

Venue: South By Southwest film festival, 24 Beats Per Second
Production Company: SpeakEasy Films
Director-Music: Hans Fjellestad
Producers: Joe Mundo, Tommy Alastra, Donovan Leitch
Executive producers: Matt Sorum, Sean Carver, Elizabeth Gross, Stan Bharti, Bob Rose
Director of photography: Arlene Nelson
Editors: Hans Fjellestad, Abe Levy
Sales: Movie Packaging Company
No rating, 100 minutes