Five films featuring Los Angeles as the main character Five films featuring Los Angeles as the main character
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Five films featuring Los Angeles as the main character

From the spectacular La La Land to the languorous Swingers, these films aren’t just set in LA. They feature the City of Angels as a character in its own right.

By Simon Lewis.

Everything got bigger in the 1950s. Cadillacs and Chevrolets were twenty feet long, with space-age fins and bumpers. Bras were volcanic. And films were colourful affairs in ultra-widescreen. They called it Cinemascope, and it’s so strongly associated with that confident era that to make a film in Cinemascope today is to practically insist that it’s watched on a proper big screen, with a feeling of go-getting optimism. Possibly while wearing a pink pastel cardigan.
La La Land may make you want to burst into song. It will definitely make you want to go to LA.
Of course, nobody does make films in Cinemascope today – except for Damien Chazelle, the fast rising writer-director who won an Oscar for his drumming drama Whiplash last year, but has always been a fan of big, bright musicals like Singin’ in the Rain and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. He wanted to to make one set in today’s Los Angeles – and his Oscars success means now he can.
Five films that feature Los Angeles as the main character
La La Land, out 12th January (get tickets here), takes the best parts of those widescreen 50s musicals and puts them in a world we recognise, of traffic jams, money worries and disheartening job interviews. Emma Stone is a struggling actress, Ryan Gosling is a pianist whose unfashionable taste for jazz holds few prospects, but together they find a way to bring romance and colour to their lives.

But the real star of the show, Chazelle says, is Los Angeles itself. “La La Land is about a city that is very epic – it’s a widescreen city. I thought it would be great to shoot it in widescreen, to make it as big and spectacular as a classic Hollywood musical,” he says. There are scenes in the bustling Grand Central food market, on the gridlocked freeway, on Santa Monica pier at sunset, in studio backlots and at the famous Griffith Observatory, with its night-time view of the city twinkling below.
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It may make you want to burst into song. It will definitely make you want to go to LA.

Lots of films are set in in the City of Angels – but only a few let it live and breathe, as an actual character in its own right. Here are four more:

LA Story (1991)

In Steve Martin’s 1991 love letter to his hometown he plays a TV weatherman looking for meaning (since telling people it’s sunny doesn’t offer much). He starts receiving life advice from a traffic information sign and decides it’s Los Angeles itself talking. Inspired, he embarks on affairs with a British journalist (Victoria Tennant) and a gum-popping, free spirited young ‘spokesmodel’ (Sarah Jessica Parker). Set among the beachside boardwalks, swanky open-air restaurants and art galleries of rich LA, it’s a slice of magical realism that makes you feel you’ve just had two weeks in the warm air of West Hollywood.
Probably the brightest, most optimistic, most colourful film ever made.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

The embarrassing premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre is the only scene actually shot on location – but even so, the spirit of Los Angeles shines through in this joyous Cinemascope musical: probably the brightest, most optimistic, most colourful film ever made. Like La La Land, it’s about struggling performers – a chorus girl forced to take odd jobs, a silent film star threatened by talkies and his slapstick sidekick. Together, the late, great Debbie Reynolds, Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor turn messy life into a big, happy song and dance.

LA Confidential (1997)

Los Angeles has its darker side, and no film captures its sleazy sprawl better than Curtis Hanson’s Oscar-winning adaptation of James Ellroy’s novel, in which two 1940s cops who hate each other (Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe) disentangle a plot involving blackmail, prostitution, paparazzi, pin-ups, plastic surgeons, corrupt cops and organised crime. It’s complicated, but a jazzy pulse propels scenes shot on location in LA’s mid-century hangouts with names like the Frolic Room, the Formosa Cafe and the Lovell Health House.
Like La La Land, its heroes are on the fringes of showbiz rather than at its heart, making their struggles all the more relatable.

Swingers (1996)

Some films could only be made in Los Angeles. Hit indie comedy Swingers was written by Jon Favreau to showcase his zingy repartee with Vince Vaughn – “Vegas, baby”, “You’re so money and you don’t even know it,” and so on – but what made it swing was their languorous cruises from diners to bars in seedy East LA (including the Dresden Room, with its out-of-tune duo Marty and Elayne), parking up and strolling the night’s streets in their bowling shirts and wallet chains. Like La La Land, its heroes are on the fringes of showbiz rather than at its heart, making their struggles all the more relatable – and like La La Land, the dancing is a genuine expression of youth, life and fun.