the best documentaries about los angeles
"OJ: Made In America" won an Oscar for its in-depth excavation of the trial of the century, but it also whet our appetites for more Los Angeles. So here’s your guide to the City of Angels, told through its best docs.
First, if you haven't watched OJ: Made in America yet, head straight to Hulu. You won't regret it. It's definitely worth putting aside 467 minutes of your life for. Yes, it's an insanely long documentary, and yes, it's about a case that's been covered in forensic detail before. But… it is so much more than that. The film is as much a portrait of LA — the city, its inhabitants, its law enforcement — as it is O.J. Simpson. It makes you think about LA as a one-of-a-kind city, where wild tales are a dime a dozen. When we're talking about LA, such stories aren't hard to find. Watch these and you'll catch yourself saying "Only in LA" more times than you can imagine.
The Source Family
This is the story of the other LA cult. Not the one that ended in bloody slaughter at 10050 Cielo Drive, the one about the group who lived in a Hollywood Hills mansion, dressed like The Polyphonic Spree, had names like Sunflower and Heaven, binged on LSD and weed, made psychedelic music, and had a lot of sex. The "spiritual commune" was spearheaded by Father Yod, a charismatic 50-year-old with an epic beard. Like most cult leaders, he took things too far, seducing vulnerable teenage girls and pretending to be a living, breathing god. As the film shows, he was a self-mythologizing charlatan who somehow got his band gigs at Beverly Hills High School and UCLA. Back in 70s LA, anything was possible.
The Decline of Western Civilization
This film, the first in Penelope Spheeris's LA subculture trilogy, peers into the dingy basement clubs of the city's punk scene. Shot in 1979 and 1980, it features a treasure trove of archive footage: Black Flag, the Germs, the Circle Jerks, all performing at the peak of their careers. The bands reveal how they live, how they sleep in box-like sleeping quarters backstage, amid all the glorious graffiti and grime. As far as time capsules of early 80s LA go, you can do no better. It immortalizes Germs frontman Darby Crash, who died of a heroin-induced suicide shortly before the movie was released, and whose face adorns the movie's poster. Watch this along with The Decline of Western Civilization III, which spotlights LA's gutter punks in the 90s.
Tales of the Grim Sleeper
Nick Broomfield's doc is about two things. Firstly, it's about a serial killer dubbed the "Grim Sleeper" who murdered 100-plus women over two decades. Secondly — and arguably foremost — it's about LA's crime-ridden South Central. Broomfield reveals how the LAPD let these murders go on for over 20 years without alerting the local community, and how, essentially, they let the guy get away with it. He says they were even pleased about it, because the victims were either gang members, prostitutes, or generally "socially undesirable." He shows how, in South Central, the law couldn't be more different from the rest of LA.
Dogtown and Z-Boys
"A film about the birth of the now." So goes the tagline for Stacy Peralta's landmark skate doc, which lays bare the roots of modern-day street skating. Sean Penn, in a cool Cali voice over, tells us about 70s Venice, LA, where surfers from broken homes discovered they could ride tarmac banks as if they were waves. Back then, before Baywatch, before articles like Venice Beach: from nasty to nice were popping up in the Guardian, this rundown part of LA was nicknamed "Dogtown" and a "slum by the sea." It was against this backdrop that the Zephyr skate team (Tony Alva, Jay Adams, et al.) surfaced. Penn makes you nostalgic for a time when skaters were like rockstars, before energy drinks ruled the business. Then you wonder, was Sean Penn a skater? I wonder what Sean Penn looked like as a skater?
Bukowski: Born Into This
Charles Bukowski is arguably the best chronicler of LA's sleazy underbelly, its shady back alleys, its bruised barflies. His novels are about LA. Watching him in this documentary, peering through his cracked windshield as he cruises through the city, you feel like you've stepped inside one of his stories. Then the filmmaker wheels in Tom Waits, Sean Penn, and — ahem — Bono, to shed light on the broad influence of Bukowski's LA tales. He also tracks down one of Bukowski's postal-worker pals who appeared in his novel Post Office, name barely altered. He happily confirms that yes, what you read was accurate. And yes, Bukowski could totally drink you under the table.
Crips and Bloods: Made in America
Another doc helmed by skate chronicler Stacy Peralta, this is the story of the long-term rivalry between two of the most notorious gangs in the City of Angels: the Crips and Bloods. Accompanied by Forest Whitaker's sober voice-over, Peralta zooms in on each tribe and then steps back to question both the response from the LAPD and what leads African-American males to join gangs in the first place. It's a reminder of how crazy it was — and still is — to live in certain parts of LA, where simply wearing the wrong color tee could get you killed.
Lost Angels: Skid Row Is My Home
LA's Skid Row is home to roughly 11,000 people, two thirds of whom struggle with mental health or drug addiction or both. It highlights the economic divide in LA, a city home to Hollywood movie stars and billionaire CEOs who pray they don't break down when speeding through the troubled district. This doc parks itself in the heart of the area once described as "an open asylum for the mentally ill." It introduces you to the faces of the homeless: the old lady who loves cats, the ex-punk who left a troubled past in NYC, the eccentrics, the desperate and vulnerable, and yes, the mentally ill. It sheds light on what it's actually like to live there, to lay your head on the pavement, outside, surrounded by burn barrels and desperate drug users, and try to sleep. Just imagine that for a second.
Text Oliver Lunn