The 20 Best Documentaries About Los Angeles

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About a year ago, I wrote on the 10th anniversary of Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself and claimed that due to its content it “will never get a legitimate theatrical or home release.” Sometimes it’s great to be wrong. This Tuesday, the once-thought impossible is happening, as the video essay will be available on DVD and Blu-ray courtesy of Cinema Guild. On the packaging is a quote from Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times declaring the film to be “the best documentary ever made about Los Angeles.” I agree.

It’s not the only great documentary ever made about Los Angeles, though, and so I’d like to use the release and the quote as inspiration for a list of other essentials. As the second-largest city in the United States, an epicenter of American cultural production for over a century, and a cross-section of myriad environments both geological and sociological, L.A. makes for an excellent documentary setting. And a quick overview of docs that have approached the city reveal every kind of nonfiction film there is. The following barely scratches the surface of worthwhile docs made in and about L.A.

Wattstax (1973)

The so-called “Black Woodstock,” the Wattstax music festival was held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in August of 1972, commemorating the seventh anniversary of the Watts riots. In Mel Stuart’s film of the event (a Golden Globe nominee back when they gave awards to docs), thrilling footage of sets by The Staple Singers, Rufus Thomas and Isaac Hayes alternates with interviews with the residents of Watts and various attendees of the concert. They speak to a variety of issues affecting African Americans, many of which are still sadly relevant. Richard Pryor’s joke about police shooting black men needs no updating. But this is a film about solidarity and cultural celebration, and it’s one of the best (but underseen) concert films ever made.

The Decline of Western Civilization Trilogy (1981, 1988, 1998)

Like a naughty younger cousin of the Up series, these series by Penelope Spheeris kept coming back to L.A. to visit various underground music scenes. The first film tackles punk rock, the second heavy metal and the third gutter punk. When the first came out, punk rock was so verboten in many circles that LAPD Chief Daryl Gates supposedly tried to forbid the doc from playing in the city. That kind of establishment rejection proved irresistible to punk fans, who made the movie a cult hit. All three films feature footage of performances and interviews with bands and fans. And each one feels utterly raw, even dangerous.

Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001)

In the 1970s, a group of former surfers brought their surfboarding moves from the sea to the land and reinvented skateboarding. Former Zephyr team member Stacy Peralta helmed this documentary history of the team, how they came together, how they went from surfing to skateboarding and how they ultimately broke up. Featuring electric home footage the Z-Boys took of themselves, the film examines how an entire subculture forms and develops.

Chain Camera (2001), OT: Our Town (2002) and The Hobart Shakespeareans (2005)

Taken together, these three disparate films form a terrific portrait of the Los Angeles public school system. Kirby Dick’s Chain Camera features high school students given Hi-8 video cameras by the filmmakers, who use the cameras to record their lives for a week before passing them on to another student. The result is a remarkable cross section of the various racial, economic and sexual backgrounds at play in the school. Scott Hamilton Kennedy’s OT: Our Town follows teachers and students at a Compton high school attempting to put on its first play in over 20 years, updating Our Town for their era and surroundings. The Hobart Shakespeareans (another by Mel Stuart) focuses on celebrated teacher Rafe Esquith’s tireless efforts to instruct his inner city elementary school charges, which includes a popular theater program. The positivity and liveliness on display in all these docs is a marked departure from the usual grim depiction of urban school life.

Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003)

Of course it was going to be on here. Anderson’s video essay isn’t just an extraordinary look at how one city has been depicted in film and television over the decades. It’s a dissection of how art uses what we know (or what we think we know) about history and places to influence us, and how those depictions in turn shape that common knowledge. After 11 years of circulating on the Internet and intermittently screening for select audiences, the doc’s legitimate release will hopefully bring it to the attention of many more eyeballs.

Bastards of the Party (2005) and Crips and Bloods: Made in America (2008)

Los Angeles was the birthplace of not one but two of the largest, most violent street gangs in America. And despite their similar origins and the common socioeconomic influences that lead young men to them, the Crips and Bloods have been at each other’s throats for decades. These two docs (the first directed by Cle Shaheed Sloan); the second another by Peralta) both go through the history of the two gangs — the factors that led to their formations in the late ’60s and early ’70s, what leads their recruitment, and what fuels their business and rivalry. Some of the information overlaps, but taken together these docs make for an informative, sobering experience.

I Build the Tower (2006)

From 1921 to 1954, Italian immigrant Sabato Rodia built a series of towers out of concrete, steel and wire in his neighborhood of Watts. There they remain to this day, works of outsider art now legitimized as a historic landmark. The tallest tower stands 99 feet tall. Brad Byer, Rodia’s great-nephew, and filmmaker Edward Landler teamed up to tell of how Rodia came to America, pulled himself out of alcoholism and became maniacally driven to create something big. A gently moving piece of work, this doc demonstrates how sometimes, against all odds, one person can leave a mark on the world.

Made in L.A. (2007)

This Emmy winner from Almudena Carracedo chronicles the efforts of three Latina sweatshop laborers battling Forever 21 for their rights as workers. Lupe, Maura and María all immigrated to America in search of better lives, and as the film joins them they’re trying to assert their own pursuits of happiness against the forces of exploitation. Taking part in a massive boycott and lawsuit against the clothing retailer, the trio go through a terrifically inspiring journey, a Hollywood-ready women power story.

Confessions of a Superhero (2007) and The Reinactors (2008)

Spread out over a few blocks on Hollywood Boulevard is the Hollywood Fantasy in microcosm. Dozens of wannabe actors don the costumes of famous film icons and pose for pictures with tourists, hoping to collect meager donations. David Markey’s The Reinactors looks at the whole breadth of celebrity impersonators and costume wearers prowling the Walk of Fame, while P.J. Hogan’s Confessions of a Superhero focuses specifically on four individuals who, as the title indicates, dress up as superheroes. Both films are full of pathos and sympathy for their struggling characters, though the way Confessions goes in-depth with the psychology of its subjects gives it a substantial edge.

The Garden (2008)

One of the most damning looks at the corruption of big city politics to hit the doc world, this Oscar-nominated film (another by Kennedy) follows the failed fight to protect the South Central Farm, an urban garden maintained by South Central residents for 12 years before its demolition. Despite being a nigh-indisputable good in the community, the whims of a moneyed few won out in the end, making this a dark counterpoint to Made in L.A. To this day, the former site of the South Central Farm remains a vacant lot, scorning the owner’s claim that he wanted to “do something better” with the land.

This is the Life (2008) and Babe’s & Rickey’s Inn (2013)

These two films both scrutinize a music movement as framed within a specific location. Ava DuVernay’s This is the Life introduces viewers to the Good Life Cafe, which was a center of L.A.’s alternative rap and hip-hop culture in the ’90s. Ramin Niami’s Babe’s and Rickey’s Inn is about the South Central blues club of the same name. Both docs are full of great music and fascinating observations on how community gathering points act as pressure cookers for creativity and discovery.

The Hollywood Complex (2011)

This doc by Dylan Nelson and Dan Sturman is horrifying, funny, humorously scary and unnervingly hilarious, sometimes all at once. Every spring, hundreds of parents bring their children to Hollywood, hoping to use television’s pilot season as a way for the kids to break into showbiz. Many of them room in the Oakwood Apartments complex in the Hills, which is where this movie is set. Through the trials and tribulations of photo shoots, tryouts, acting classes and long, long periods of uncertainty, we see the nightmare the media industry puts children through — and that’s all before they even get in the door!

The Source Family (2012)

Los Angeles has long been a haven for a particular brand of kooks and cranks, and nothing showcases it better than this documentary by Maria Demopoulos and Jodi Wille. It chronicles the rise and fall of the eponymous Source Family, a cult of young people who followed “Father Yod,” a charismatic faux-eastern soothsayer. From the late ’60s to the mid ’70s, the group lived in a utopian commune in the Hills, while also running a psychedelic rock band and one of the first health food restaurants in the U.S. (which made an infamous cameo in Annie Hall). Unlike most other docs about cults, this one is pretty upbeat about its subject. All of the former Family members look back on the experience fondly. It seems that the Source Family actually lived up to its ideals of peace and love. Which is exactly the kind of validation California culture will thrive on.

LA-based writer about movies, TV, and other assorted culture stuff. Work collected at http://danschindel.com/