Los Angeles Plays Itself

This 2003 documentary by Thom Andersen was finally made available for the home video market in the autumn of last year. I’ll confess that I hadn’t heard of it. I’m pretty up on things, generally. I mean, I knew about the Helvetica and Linotype documentaries. I knew about Side by Side. But not this.

So maybe it was my head in the sand, maybe it was something else. It all seems to have been a little hush hush. You don’t need to think very hard to come up with a reason why it took more than 10 years for the film to appear on DVD. And the same thought will explain why, even now, you can’t buy a Region 2/European version.

Rights. Clearances. You’d think the media conglomerates would be friendlier towards education and more supportive of academic work or film historiography. This film does shade towards a personal polemic, but it is still fascinating, detailed, brilliantly done.

But although I looked, I could only buy an imported Region 1 DVD or Blu-Ray, and I couldn’t find a legitimate download.

I could find an illegitimate download. It was low resolution (640×480) and looked soft and painterly when displayed on my HDTV. When I first played it, the sound was not just a little out of synch, but a good minute, playing the voice-over over completely the wrong pictures. Using different playback software fixed this problem. My daughter complained that the voice over was monotonous, and it certainly can be at times. But I found it interesting enough to watch all the way through. It reminded me of Adam Curtis documentaries. The clips were there to support the polemic.

The complaint in the film is that Los Angeles is often distorted or misrepresented in films. Cars turn corners in the movies and are suddenly 30 miles away. Characters exit a building to find themselves on a street 15 miles away. Los Angeles is often called upon to play other cities, or different countries: New York, Chicago, Switzerland. People are portrayed as living either in the hills above the city or on the beach. Rarely do we see them in the midst of the vast suburban sprawl where most of the inhabitants live. There are some wonderful modernist buildings in the city, examples of progressive, utopian architecture: but they are usually depicted as the homes of crime lords and drug dealers: only evil people choose to live in modern buildings.

My favourite sequences in the film were

  • the one about the Bradbury Building and all its appearances in film (including Blade Runner, which I’m going to see again tonight);
  • The Bunker Hill history, showing how its gradual destruction and disappearance was recorded in the movies;
  • The Chinatown sequence, discussing the background to the script, and the way in which the film’s fictionalised and temporally transposed story of water corruption serves to conceal the real scandals of Los Angeles history;
  • and the LAPD sequence, discussing how the police are seen as an occupying force, working against the interests of the people they’re supposed to serve: are they the only police force whose motto is in ironic quote marks?

There is much, much more. Street corners, diners, motels, locations that turn up again and again. Things that get knocked down and rebuilt as simulations. The film puts to bed a lot of the myths about Los Angeles. It complains that it is the only major city known by its initials – and blames the movies. The idea that ‘nobody walks’ and that ‘everybody drives’ is exposed as an example of a white privileged viewpoint. In Steve Martin’s LA Story, there are only two black characters with speaking roles: they are both in the service industry.

It was interesting to see excerpts of forgotten, independent, neo-realist films such as Killer of SheepThe Exiles and Bush Mama, depicting the Los Angeles ‘hidden’ by the movies, or only ever viewed through the lens of the privileged cop point-of-view, which sees brown people as the enemy within. These are ‘foreign’ films made in the heart of the city largely ignored by the film industry that is based there.

This page lists the films excerpted in the documentary, in order, including their repeated appearances. If you can get hold of a copy, highly recommended, rights be damned.



One of the undoubted benefits of the YouTube era has been the surprising availability of almost miraculous cultural artefacts. For example, I still can’t quite get my head around the fact that you can find a concert film of the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl in 1964. Back in 1977, when the 1964 and 1965 concerts were included  on a vinyl release, I would scarcely have believed that one day I would be able to watch – and in reasonable quality, considering it was 50 years ago.

I blogged a while ago about the appearance (on the UK iTunes store, at least) of Bruce Springsteen bootlegs, particularly from the 1978 Darkness on the Edge of Town tour. YouTube has a number of gems, too. I was never lucky enough to see Springsteen in the pre-stadium days, but the bootlegs and YouTube allow you to get a taste. You can also compare, perhaps unfortunately, to more recent shows.

Back in the early 1980s, all we knew was that there was a film of Springsteen performing Rosalita in Phoenix in 1978. I remember it being featured in the legendary Jeff Bridges-presented documentary about rock music (“Rock ‘n’ Roll – phew!”). The 9+ minute video was an tantalising glimpse of just how exciting Springsteen could be in his heyday.

1978 Springsteen is loose and rangy, diving all over the stage like a deranged mannequin. His set consisted of recent songs from Darkness, classics from his first three albums, unreleased tracks (“Independence Day”, “Fire”, “Because the Night”, “The Ties That Bind”), and classic covers, such as the Detroit Medley and the extended “Quarter to Three.” You simply cannot watch without being astonished at his energy levels, his showmanship, his rapport with the audience, the love and trust evident in his relationship with Clarence Clemons.

Recent Springsteen is still brilliant, that’s not what I’m saying. He knows that every night is someone’s first and only show, and he brings it to the absolute limit every single time. But 60-year-old Bruce is (of course) stiffer, less athletic than 29-year-old Bruce, and his voice is tighter and has less range. He’s also performing in a completely different way, simply because of the nature and size of the venues. And the E Street Band of 1978 was smaller, playing more intimate venues, and I’m afraid much better than the E Street Band of today. Two of the original members are dead, and the additional personnel have to be there, I suppose, because Bruce and Clarence together used to be the show, and older Bruce needs more help in the vast arenas he now plays around the world.

The Capitol Theatre show is available as an audio Bootleg – or (see above) as a pretty ropy black and white video recording of a TV broadcast. It’s low contrast, horribly degraded, visually, looking more or less the same as the Beatles Hollywood Bowl footage of 14 years earlier. But: it is brilliant. It’s Springsteen the guitar hero, the guy who leapt onto amplifiers and onto pianos and PA stacks – health and safety be damned. It’s the Springsteen of the 9-minute “Prove It All Night”, the 14-minute “Quarter to Three”.

There is a colour video from the 1978 tour. It came from slightly earlier in the summer, and was probably a local TV show, this time in Maryland. In spite of the colour, the video quality still leaves much to be desired, but that doesn’t matter. There’s something incredibly moving about performances of “Thunder Road” and so on in this era. I feel incredibly lucky to have access to these historical documents, the kinds of things I would never have believed could exist, back then. And maybe – just like the 1975 Hammersmith Odeon show, which is available in very good quality – they will emerge in more pristine condition.

I defy anyone to watch the 1978 Detroit Medley and not feel unconstrained joy.

Winterland Night – Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

Winterland Night (Live)UK iTunes Store users who are also Bruce Springsteen fans will have noticed a burgeoning of bootlegs on the store over the past couple of years. There’s some kind of loophole, right? There are so many by now that it’s hard to choose between them. For example, from the 1978 (Darkness on the Edge of Town) tour alone, there are: Capitol Theatre, Passaic (New Jersey); Roxy Theatre (LA); Fox Theatre (Atlanta); and Winterland (San Francisco). Being unlicensed recordings, many of these are available in more than one version – at more than one price.

Take Winterland Night, which was broadcast on the radio in December of 1978 and famously features a live performance of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” You can buy this show for £7.99 or £14.99. Both are complete shows. Both are rip-offs, since the original recordings are bootlegs. What to do, then? Well, I used to have Winterland Night on a cassette tape, back in the day. I wanted to hear it again, so I thought about it for a few days and bought the £7.99 one.

I first heard it back in the early 1980s, when, through a friend of a friend, I had a regular supply of Bruce boots. The recordings were always on tapes, and always recordings of recordings of recordings, so quite stretchy with lots of wow and flutter. I was quite keen to hear the digitally mastered version of the original radio broadcasts.

The audio quality is okay. Like all radio broadcasts, it all sounds a bit over-compressed, and there’s a strong sense of “through the desk” with very little crowd noise. Sometimes, a bootleg from-the-crowd, while being of worse quality than a radio feed, will have more of the feel of being there. Still, Winterland Night is a decent document of a single gig on a single night. Knowing he was on the radio, knowing it would be bootlegged, Springsteen performs for posterity.

1978 was a very good year for Bruce gigs. He wasn’t yet so huge that he was playing the vast stadia he’s been playing ever since Born in the USA (1984). We’re also still in the era of long, long intros, stories, and a regular repertoire of crowd favourites such as the Detroit Medley. For me, this is the foundation of his reputation as a live performer. It’s pre-Nils Lofgren, but also pre-having too many guitars and other musicians on the stage. This is hard-core E Street Band, with much of the burden borne by Roy Bittan and Springsteen himself on lead guitar. The album just released, Darkness, is one of his very best, and the live versions of songs such as “Badlands,” “The Promised Land,” “Prove it all Night,” “Racing in the Street” and “Candy’s Room” are electric.

I mainly bought this so my youngest daughter could have a definitive version of her favourite, “Prove it all Night,” which at thirteen minutes and twenty-three seconds includes the full, unfiltered, Professor Roy Bittan piano intro and the scorching, hyper-real, guitar solo – all of which takes place before the song-as-recorded even begins.

Other highlights? “Fire”: “The Fever,” (as recorded by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes); “Because the Night”; a fourteen-minute “Backstreets” and the Detroit Medley. Hold your nose, but recommended.

p.s. A very special thanks to Autocorrect for changing Winterland to Hinterland every time I typed it.