the enduring allure of 90s LA on screen

As Straight Outta Compton reignites our love for the city, we look at how other movies captured Los Angeles’ various scenes in the 90s.

by Oliver Lunn
27 August 2015, 8:55am

90s LA was a world of extremes; Baywatch and Botox, Crips and Bloods, Death Row Records and Suge Knight. 90s LA was the place where Arnie saved a yappy Edward Furlong from a shape-shifting T-1000; it was the place where Rodney King got beaten to a pulp by the LAPD; it was a place where prostitutes looked like Julia Roberts. 90s LA was gloriously sleazy and grossly unequal. Not much has changed then.

Movies are the best time capsules. They capture moments, they document scenes and trends, they feed our nostalgia for our own youth. Through them, 90s LA continues to shape our culture - meaning today you can learn how to get the Cher Horowitz look and watch videos on how to get Janet Jackson's hair braids in Poetic Justice. If you go on a 90s LA movie binge these days, you'll long to revisit that moment in time when Tower Records still existed, when hearing the new Smashing Pumpkins cassette was the highlight of your summer, when you dreamed of dating (or being) Winona Ryder.

Janet Jackson in Poetic Justice.

The LA of the 90s is obviously long gone. Neighbourhoods like Echo Park, impoverished and predominantly Hispanic back then, are now lined with Starbucks, but we still have Mi Vida Loca, Allison Anders' gritty hood movie that captures the area back when the existence of the girl gang it depicts wasn't a far cry from reality. The defiant girls' middle-finger-raised attitude was backed up by knuckle tattoos in gothic fonts, hairnets, and rad 90s threads. Sure, today there are probably some hipster girls in Echo Park sporting the same mom-jeans-and-flannel-shirt look, but it's just a little bit contrived, a little bit "hey, check out my 90s grunge shirt I got off eBay for fifty bucks".

A similar world emerges in 1993's Blood In Blood Out, a low-budget indie that zooms in on the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East LA, where "esés" in beige Dickies and tight white vests waged war on rival gangs. Again, there are guys today who don those same Dickies pants, in an attempt to get that #urban look, but you won't find them cruising the streets of South Central in a lowrider while blasting Snoop Dogg's Nuthin' But A G Thang.

Nothing captured the zeitgeist of LA's 90s gangs quite like the prototypical hood movie Boyz n the Hood, featuring NWA's Ice Cube in his debut movie role. It opened up the doors for a stampede of pale imitators and hilarious parodies, but none of them captured the time and place quite like this. It's the kind of film that, despite its moralising tone and its depiction of a sketchy LA neighborhood, squarely places South Central - the beating heart of West Coast hip hop - on the cinephile's must-see movie locations map. That said, Google's first auto-suggestion after typing "South Central" is "ambulance service" so maybe it's not all that safe just yet.

Mi Vida Loca

Through all these hood movies a fuzzy, out of focus Hollywood sign - that emblem of fame and fortune - looms in the background. Panning 14 miles west from South Central to Beverly Hills, where the movie studios glow beneath crisscrossed spotlights, and stars litter the Hollywood Walk of Fame, we enter the domain of the yuppie. To the denizens of Beverly Hills - the yuppies - appearance is everything, and no one knows this better than the snooty store clerks in Pretty Woman. When Julia Roberts' Vivian Ward casually enters a swanky Beverly Hills boutique, clad in street garb, the clerks shoot her multiple looks of disgust before snapping, "You're obviously in the wrong place". LA's disparate worlds don't often collide, but in the movies, that's when the real fireworks begin.

Boyz n the Hood

More than anything, these 90s films captured the correlation between how people dress and where they come from. In South Central, Dickies and doo-rags were ubiquitous. In Beverly Hills, pricey gym wear and pampered poodles prevailed (still do). In Clueless, the disparity between such neighborhoods is neatly summed up when Cher calls her dad from Sun Valley. "I expect you to walk in this door in 20 minutes; everywhere in LA takes 20 minutes," he tells her. To him neighborhoods like South Central and Beverley Hills are essentially worlds apart. And of course, we're in the city of extremes. When zip codes change, trends change, people change.

Pretty Woman

Yet during those same years, just a few blocks down from Beverly Hills, Century City, and the studio backlots that housed Tim Robbins' odious movie exec Griffin Mill in 1992's The Player, punks like Keith Morris (Black Flag, Circle Jerks) were screaming into their microphones about societal conventions and the status quo. In Penelope Spheeris's The Decline Of Western Civilization Part III, a documentary chronicling LA's gutter punk scene of the 90s, Morris recounts one of his favourite lyrics: "Beverly Hills, Century City, all the people look the same, don't they know they're so damn lame?" It's hardly original but you see his point. The film's gutter punk teens - so-called because most of them were homeless and living in back alleys - hang out on Hollywood Boulevard, begging for money while guzzling beer from bottles in brown paper bags. People swiftly walk past them, desperate to escape the stench of the unwashed teens.


Those same punks brawled with the neo-Nazi skinheads, a group they were keen to distance themselves from. In film, neo-Nazi skinheads were immortalised in 1998's American History X, Tony Kaye's blistering drama about the paths of two brothers growing up in Venice, LA (when there wasn't a Whole Foods in sight). During a basketball game at Venice Beach, Edward Norton's neo-Nazi reveals his bare chest, displaying a swastika tattoo to show the black players they're unwelcome. The film is crammed with these in-your-face shocking scenes. This was back when LA movies were almost as audacious as the characters and scenes they depicted.

The Decline Of Western Civilization Part III

LA movies might be less bold today but they're still tipping their hats to their glory years of the 90s. Straight Outta Compton is a good example, nailing the decade's look without overdoing the dated technology (omg pagers!) or the flamboyant fashion trends of the time (omg dungarees and wallet chains!!). Today, inevitably, the way we think about LA in the 90s is shaped by the movies and TV shows we watched growing up. When we think of 90s LA we see David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson bolting towards the sea in their bright red swimwear; we see Keanu Reeves on a bus, with Sandra Bullock behind the wheel, speeding through the city; we see Uma Thurman's immaculate black bob and we hear Tarantino's whiny motor-mouth. Everything we think of when we think of 90s LA - specifically relating to its various scenes - was immortalised and captured on celluloid. Cinema captured slackers (The Big Lebowski), stoners (Friday), rich suburban kids (Clueless), corrupt cops (Internal Affairs), hair metal freaks (Wayne's World 2), and yuppies with gigantic phones (The Player). The films were colourful and daring and they made LA look like one hell of a fun place to live.

American History X