Created for cinephiles and eccentric non-tourists, The Standard Guide to LA Cult Films will have you exploring the city through a whole new lens. After hiding out in your room with these classic, cult, and culture-driven films, grab your map and head out into the city. Our guide will have you well-oriented in LA’s vibrant film subculture.
ABOUT THE FILMS
In the aftermath of the Watts riots, Stax Records produced a benefit concert for the people of the Watts community in LA. The result led to the creation of Wattstax, one of the most soul-stirring cinema verité music documentaries ever made. Key R&B, soul, gospel, and funk performers, such as Isaac Hayes and Richard Pryor, performed an unforgettable tribute to the vibrant Watts neighborhood.
*Take a historic tour of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The setting that held this inspiring concert will have you singing some of the soulful jams heard in Wattstax.
Director Roman Polanski’s first film after Rosemary’s Baby and last in the U.S. is a dark masterpiece of '70s cinema. The neo-noir mystery stars Jack Nicholson as J.J. “Jake” Gittes, a sleazeball private investigator caught in a web of corruption and murder during the early 20th century California water wars.
*Rent a Metro Bike and head to nearby Chinatown to explore the neighborhood where Polanski’s film was set. Don’t forget to make a wish at the Lucky Wishing Well and pay a visit to the Los Angeles River.
A timeless tale of Hollywood and fame, Sunset Boulevard explores the perspective of those who made it big and lost it, and those who never quite made it at all. Through the stories of seven prominent silent-film actors and directors who play themselves, this iconoclastic exposé made a statement that was despised by the studio establishment.
*Take the Starline Tour and visit over 50 movie locations, including the Alto Nido Apartments, which served as character Joe Gillis’s apartment in the movie.
This fascinating time capsule captures the essence of Hollywood in the heat of the famous culture wars. The film was so risqué that it was banned in France for “a certain number of perversities.” Mondo Hollywood stars Frank Zappa, Richard Alpert (later Ram Dass), Gypsy Boots, Jayne Mansfeld, eccentric utopian trust fund kids, would-be actors, artists, and—eerily—both Manson victim Jay Sebring and Manson Family associate Bobby Beausoleil.
*Every LA visitor has to hike up to the Hollywood Sign at least once. Roll up some legal weed or drop an edible and head up the Mt. Hollywood trail for a mind–bending side-angle view of the sign as seen in the movie.
The Source Family is a documentary that tells the story of an outlandish group of 140 young devotees of “Father Yod,” a controversial restaurateur-turned-spiritual leader with 14 wives and his own psychedelic rock band. Their popular health-food restaurant made them the darlings of Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, but their outsider ideals led to their dramatic downfall.
*Journey into LA’s famed Nichols Canyon to catch a glimpse of the original Source Family “Father House” compound.
Director Michelangelo Antonioni portrays LA counterculture with this gorgeous depiction of a student radical on the run from the police. The lush docu-surrealist film was cast with mostly unknown actors and mixes actual footage of campus unrest into the story of two star-crossed lovers.
*Drive up to the scenic Zabriskie Point in Death Valley for breathtaking views.
This gem features a combination of a commune and occult '70s cinema directed by Warhol collaborator Chuck Wein. The eclectic film follows a model who travels to an occult center in Maui and meets cosmic surfers and Jesus freaks. It was shot without a script or professional actors, and when that started to back fire, the producer brought in his client Jimi Hendrix to save the film.
*Pay a visit to Nickelodeon on Sunset. This LA staple was the former psychedelic Aquarius Theatre, which hosted many concerts and movie premieres, including Rainbow Bridge.
Shot on a shoestring using mostly non-actors, director Charles Burnett was able to portray harsh realities and moments of pure poetry in the LA ghetto of Watts during the ‘70s. The film is told through the eyes of Stan, a sensitive dreamer who works in a slaughterhouse. Film critic Manohla Dargis called it “an American masterpiece, independent to the bone.”
*A famous landmark of the Watts community, the Watts Towers collection of 17 interconnected sculptural structures can still be explored today.
This significant film was unreleased for 40 years before critics declared it the best rock documentary ever made. Director Les Blank’s first feature film is an ingeniously loose, lyrical portrait of famed LA musician-turned-Oklahoma rocker Leon Russell. The feature focuses on the height of Russell’s influence, with glimpses of George Harrison’s The Concert for Bangladesh, George Jones, and Willie Nelson, and gorgeous moments of Blank’s signature Americana.
*Head over to Pop Obscure Records in downtown LA and see if you can score any Leon Russell records.
This maniacal utopian '70s classic stars real-life couple Tippi Hedren and Noel Marshall and their 14-year-old jailbait daughter Melanie Griffith, along with 110 large lions, tigers, leopards, and cheetahs. It’s a dreamy and disastrous love story that has justly been labeled “the most dangerous film ever made.”
*Take a sunset safari ride through the Shambala Preserve and meet some of the lions and animals used in the film. Make your summer safari reservations ASAP.
A talented computer engineer finds out that a work colleague has been stealing his programming. He tries to hack into the company system and track down the man who stole his plans for a new game and must battle an inter-dimensional world run by a fascistic master control program. The mind-boggling animation effects and ‘80s video game aesthetic are deeply vintage yet ahead of their time.
*Flynn’s Arcade, an iconic setting in TRON, is now the hip Akasha restaurant inside the historic landmark Hull Building. Have some farm-to-table cuisine followed by a short walk over to Sony Pictures Studios for a behind-the-scenes tour.
Filmed in South Central and Venice, Breakin’ set the tone for break dancers across the nation. Adolfo “Shabba-Doo” Quinones and Michael “Boogaloo-Shrimp” Chambers meet up with struggling jazz dancer Lucinda Dickey and cause a sensation—not to mention Ice-T’s first appearance on film.
*Venture to The Venice Beach Boardwalk, where Ozone and Turbo had some intense dance-battle scenes.
This cult classic mockumentary depicts the rise and fall of a fictional British heavy metal band. Directed, written, scored by, and starring Rob Reiner, the movie satirizes the wild reputations of rock musicians. The influential comedy was validated by Ozzy Osbourne himself, who thought it was an actual documentary.
*The famed “Atlanta” Recording Industry Convention location in This Is Spinal Tap can be found at The Westin Bonaventure Hotel in downtown LA.
Based on a true story, director Allison Anders follows the lives of Sad Girl and Mousie, young Latina women coming of age in Echo Park. Mi Vida Loca is a raw depiction of two women navigating love, friendship, and the realities of gang violence in the neighborhood. Anders chose to cast largely unknown actors, some of whom were actual gang members.
*Stop by Echo Park Lake to see Queen of the Angels, also known as “Lady of the Lake” by Ada May Sharpless. The sculpture has seen almost a century in Echo Park and was created long before the days of Sad Girl and Mousie.
This neo-noir adaptation of the 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick has become a science fiction classic. Blade Runner examines the implications of technology for society and the larger environment through literature, religious symbolism, and dramatic themes. Harrison Ford plays Deckard, a bounty hunter hired to terminate four genetically engineered “replicants” in a dystopian Los Angeles.
*Check out J.F. Sebastian’s home at the Bradbury Building. Built in 1894, the historic architectural landmark was the location of Blade Runner’s final action scene.