A lot goes into trying to capture the essence of a city on film. Sometimes it's as simple as shooting at certain locales, but the soundtrack and score are just as significant, as is dialogue that rings true, the right style, and even props. With Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (set during the Manson era) coming up in July, we are likely to get a provocative amalgamation of all of the above, a retrofied reflection of our city — specifically Hollywood — in all its grimey, glam glory. Q.T. is good at that. (Just imagine if he'd made The Dirt, for example. That actually might've been as dangerous as the book!) Music will surely be a big part of his new film if past work is any indication.
Bringing the visual and aural together to evoke a place, its people, the environment and ultimately its allure can be tricky. It's an esoteric thing that's difficult to dissect, but when filmmakers get it right, it's like coming home after a long, hard day and escaping to an exciting new world at the same time. It's that sweet spot where our personal references (both pop culture-minded and personal) are deftly stroked and evoked by the movie's scenic and sonic vision, and what makes visceral storytelling ring true. Here, in no particular order, is a list of movies (some obvious, some not) that bring together music and visuals to unforgettably convey the inimitable mojo of Los Angeles, which if you ask me (and most people), has the best sights and sounds in the world. Suggested listening follows each.
Under The Silver Lake
The recently released indie film starring Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-man) and Riley Keough (Elvis' grand-daughter) has received mixed reviews for its convoluted storyline, but anyone who actually lives/lived in Silver Lake has got to admit that this Lynchian, hipster noir captures the neighborhood's quirky charm and the scruffy, stonery, apathetic mindset of the millennials and moneyed types who live there these days. Does that make it kinda annoying? A little. But the backdrops (Hollywood Forever, The Standard Downtown, Hillhurst, the reservoir), references and music are way too much fun to hate, as are the deep conspiracy theories involving the stuff we listen to, eat (cereal and tomato pie, natch) and what we read (L.A. Weekly's print edition is practically a character in this!).
Listen: The Association: “Never My Love”; Cornershop: “Brim Full Of Asha”
The opening scene in Paul Thomas Anderson's '70s porn saga is my favorite because it captures an enticing sense of time and place. The San Fernando Valley disco, lit up in neon outside and flashing strobes inside, pumping to the beat of The Emotions' “Best of My Love” and panning to the entirety of the “family” we'll come to know intimately — catching up, dancing, eating, snorting and ultimately, fornicating. You immediately want to be there with them, donning sexy polyester duds and doing the same. Every scene feels like this, especially the pool parties at Jack Horner's (Burt Reynolds) house. The sex here is almost beside the point.
Listen: KC & Sunshine Band: “Boogie Shoes”; Night Ranger: “Sister Christian”
Even though it's about single life in Los Angeles circa 1996, watch Swingers today and it's surprisingly still spot on, at least when it comes to the awkwardness of trying to find love in the city. The Swing music scene was huge back when it was filmed and some iconic locales, such as the Derby and the coffee shop by the 101 freeway, are gone or remodeled. Most of us don't drive to bars, much less use a “Club” steering wheel car lock these days, either. But The Dresden is still there, as is its venerable duo of Marty & Elayne — who are still singing “Stayin' Alive,” as they do in the movie every week. All in all, this film makes for a surreal reflection of L.A., past and present.
Listen: Frank Sinata: “You're Nobody Til Somebody Loves You”; Big Bad Voodoo Daddy: “You and Me and the Bottle Makes Three Tonight”
Frank Zappa's ode to totally awesome girl speak in the '80s, as originated in the Valley, inspired us all to talk like idiots, and this film immortalized the moment. But it did a lot more. It captured the contrasting landscapes and lifestyles of L.A. — from the retail wonderland that was the Sherman Oaks Galleria to Hollywood's cavernous punk rock clubs. Playing a lovable punk rock boy in love with a sheltered Val chick, this is also the movie that put Nicolas Cage on the map. And it's like, a total classic celluloid and soundtrack–wise.
Listen: Modern English: “Melt With You”; The Plimsouls: “Million Miles Away”
Get Him To The Greek
Speaking of star-making turns, Russell Brand became a bonafide movie force in this uproarious comedy, playing hedonistic hot mess Aldous Snow; Jonah Hill's young music industry lackey must help get him to play a very important concert at the legendary L.A. music venue, but not before traveling the world on a sex, drugs and rock & roll–filled romp that he almost doesn't survive. This one is less about L.A., and more about the music industry (which is of course based right here). The satiric take and shameless tone might be a little dated now that PC culture has taken over and streaming sites determine album sales, but the egoism — P. Diddy! — is timeless.
Listen: T. Rex: “20th Century Boy”; Infant Sorrow: “Furry Walls”
Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco on the Sunset Strip was where the young queens of noise came to be, but as this moxie-filled little biopic illustrates, it was in Valley neighborhoods — practicing in garages and ravaging teen house parties early on — where these five young gals cut their teeth on rock & roll, before reaching unexpected heights musically and then imploding. Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning don't quite capture Joan Jett and Cherie Currie's raw charisma, but they're close enough. The music, true story and Michael Shannon as Kim Fowley make up for anything the movie lacks, even if the stories about the infamous Svengali that came out later give this one an icky tone today.
Listen: The Runaways: “Cherry Bomb”; David Bowie: “Rebel Rebel”
La La Land
You either love or hate La La, and all the accolades it got early on made for some deserved backlash. But despite the naysayers, you don't forget this modern musical, at least not right away. It's a corny fantasy about making it in the City of Angels, and while I don't think it captures the nuances of our town, especially not for us natives, it does seem to evoke the dreamy idea of this city for those who envision what it'd be like to live and maybe even find success here. The celebratory original soundtrack is actually kind of fun, too.
Listen: La La Land Cast: “Another Day of Sun”; John Legend: “Start A Fire”
Straight Outta Compton
If La La Land fails to convey realism, this biopic about N.W.A.'s rise — which came out a year prior — was all about keeping it real, at least in terms of delving into the environment that inspired the ground-breaking rap group's music. Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E's arresting sounds conveyed their experiences living in the hood — the drugs, the violence, the discrimination and the challenges of navigating relationships with family, friends and women, and it did it with, yessir, attitude.
Listen: N.W.A.: “Fuck tha Police”; Eazy-E: “Boyz-N-The-Hood”
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
“This is my happening and it freaks me out!” When androgynous Z-Man utters this line in the vivacious party scene from Russ Meyers and Roger Ebert's sexy, campy classic, he could really be talking about Los Angeles in general. The ladies of the all-girl rock band The Kelly Affair (renamed The Carrie Nations) are wide-eyed with awe at the scene before them, and the opportunity coming to the city affords them, but they'll deal with drama, deviancy and ultimately death, on the road to stardom. This is actually a cautionary tale, not a celebratory one, but the fab fashion, cheesy dialogue and groovy tunage make it a hoot even when heads start to roll.
Listen: Strawberry Alarm Clock: “Incense and Peppermints”; The Carrie Nations: “Find It”
Tarantino's masterpiece is mostly all about the dialogue, but the backdrops — cityscapes, bars, homes, diners and an unforgettable pawn shop — in L.A. and the Valley make for wistful and wondrous setting. This movie wouldn't feel or affect quite as much if it'd been filmed anywhere else. From Beverly Hills to Hawthorne to Pasadena to Canoga Park, Pulp's sense of place informs the story and the incredible acting more than it does in any other Tarantino film. And as is always the case with this audacious auteur, the soundtrack is as killer as the storyline.
Listen: Chuck Berry: “You Never Can Tell”; Al Green: “Let's Stay Together”