Movie Atlas: Welcome to La La Land

For our new series of Movie Atlas articles, we’re taking a journey around the world using classic films made on location. In our last article, we traveled back in time to the California coastline of the mid-20th century. For this article, we’re staying on the west coast and visiting our favorite movie town.

It’s Oscar season, and this year no-one got more nominations than La La Land, a heartwarming musical which shows off Los Angeles at its very best. A city that’s adored and savaged in equal part, LA is a crazy, sprawling town full of iconic locations – from Venice Beach to the Hollywood sign and the Griffith Observatory. It’s a city that’s appeared in many movies in many guises, but only a few put it front and center the way La La Land does.

In celebration of its success, we’re taking a look at a few recent celluloid beauties that really capture LA’s spirit, starting of course with the Oscar favorite…

La La Land (2016)


This musical romance is a love letter to Los Angeles. A visual feast in glorious widescreen Cinemascope, it was shot at 48 separate locations all over the city. The movie’s most romantic moment was danced in Griffith Park, overlooking the twinkling lights of the city, but it also shows off the Warner Bros. Studios backlot, Pasadena’s elegant Colorado Street Bridge, and the stunning Art Deco masterpiece that is the Griffith Observatory (in homage to the classic LA movie, Rebel Without A Cause).

And then there’s the unexpected. The intersection of the 110 and 105 freeways was shut down for the movie’s opening scenes, which somehow manage to inject glamour into the pain of the LA rush hour. And we also get to see the city’s quirky side: the folk art monument Watts Towers, the wildly cool Angels Flight funicular (sadly not currently open to the public), and Downtown’s hipster hotspot Grand Central Market. Thank you, La La Land, for reminding the world of how beautiful Los Angeles can be.

LA Confidential (1997)


Although it’s not set in real time, this thriller was filmed almost entirely on location, a determined effort by its director Curtis Hanson to show off his native city. The movie is set in the Fifties, but its style is contemporary, almost timeless, and the city is still very recognizable. The movie doesn’t show you traditional LA hotspots. In fact Hanson avoided them deliberately, so as not to detract from the characters. What it captures instead is the feel of the city, the streets, the homes, the architecture.

Forty-five locations were used, in places like Echo Park, Lincoln Heights, Macarthur Park and Elysian Park – a little off-the-beaten-track, characterful and very LA. It’s a movie where style is everything, and it offers a great chance to peek at architectural gems like the Lovell Health House in affluent Los Feliz. In the movie it’s the home of a high-class pimp, but in reality it was built by Richard Neutra in 1929 for physician and naturopath Philip Lovell.

Mulholland Drive (2001)


Mulholland Drive is one of those insanely long streets that weaves its way through a huge swathe of Los Angeles. It goes all the way from Hollywood to the ocean, sometimes becoming a dirt road, and even changes its name. But at night its elevation over the city provides sparkling vistas and a little eerieness. A little like David Lynch’s much-loved movie of the same name – long, often dark, a little creepy, and confusing.

Funnily enough, you barely see Mulholland Drive in Mulholland Drive, though it’s where the action starts, with a spectacular car crash. However, you do see quite a bit of LA. There are some sweeping overviews of the city, including aerial shots of the Hollywood sign and Downtown by day and by night. Although the characters spend a lot of time in apartments, they also drive through the streets, park in Downtown lots and walk down alleys (the kinds you find behind apartment buildings – a very familiar scene to Angelenos, but maybe not quite so normal to movie-watchers).

The homes definitely have that LA feel. From the swanky modern pad overlooking the cityscape to the old-fashioned courtyard apartment complex (in real life Il Borghese on North Sycamore in Hancock Park), they really capture the range of cool homes you find in the city of angels. And of course there are plenty of palm trees. If you want to know what LA really feels like, and love David Lynch – check out Mulholland Drive.

Swingers (1996)


It’s Los Angeles in the Nineties. A group of young actors are hanging out in east Hollywood, emulating (with varying degrees of success) their heroes, the Rat Pack. Filmed entirely on location, Swingers has been praised for capturing LA and its wannabe lifestyle. The apartment that Mike (Jon Favreau) lives in is the real deal (5874 Franklin Avenue), as is the coffee shop where he and his buddies meet (the Hollywood Hills, now the 101 Coffee Shop at 6145 Franklin).

The friends also make their way round the city’s nightspots. In one scene, their cars drive down Fairfax, passing Canter’s Deli and the Hollywood Star Lanes Bowling Alley on Hollywood Boulevard (now demolished). The guys hang out at the Formosa Cafe (7156 Santa Monica), and at swing bars the Dresden Room Restaurant (1760 North Vermont) and the Derby (4500 Los Feliz). It’s a great slice of LA life in the Nineties, including footage of places now consigned to history.

LA Story (1991)


The offbeat comedy LA Story is made with great familiarity, wandering the streets of the city like a resident. That may be because it was made by one of its famous residents, Steve Martin, who lovingly (but with his tongue firmly in his cheek) guides viewers in and out of Hollywood apartments, along the freeways and up the Pacific Coast Highway through a hazy, sun-soaked Malibu. There are shots of the murals and boardwalk in Venice Beach, of Martin skating through the halls of the LA County Museum of Art, and of the wonderful Hollywood Forever cemetery. There is even the chance to see some landmarks that are no longer around: the Tail o’ the Pup outdoor hot dog stand on San Vicente in West Hollywood, and the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire, doubling as L’Idiot restaurant. The ultimate LA movie? Could be.

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