School Of Rock: Los Angeles’ Punk & Rock History on Film

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(Photo by Michael Loccisano//Getty Images)

(Photo by Michael Loccisano//Getty Images)

By Vanessa Payes

The city of Los Angeles has cultivated some of the most influential bands in music history. Surfers, skaters, hippies, metal heads, mystics and junkies all underline the unique aesthetic of many Los Angeles bands.

Iconic rockstars like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Doors, The Runaways and other early pioneers of the city’s punk rock underground were born and bred right here in Los Angeles.

From Hollywood to East Los Angeles and Venice Beach, these ten films rep the city of angels and offer up historic chapters in Los Angeles’ punk and rock and roll history.

When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors (2009) 

Formed in Venice Beach, legendary rock and roll band The Doors are explored intimately in Tom DiCilio’s 2009 documentary When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors.

Narrated by Johnny Depp, the film revels in the wild, unfettered spirit of iconic Doors frontman, Jim Morrison, and chronicles the Los Angeles quartet from their formation in 1965 to Morrison’s death.

The film also includes previously unreleased scenes from Morrison’s rare 1969 semi-autobiographical documentary film HWY: An American Pastoral which takes place in the Mojave desert.

What We Do Is Secret (2007)

The birth of Los Angeles’ punk rock scene is told through this autobiographical account of legendary punk band, The Germs.

Directed by Roger Grossman, What We Do Is Secret, offers up a historic account of the band’s early years and the suicide of its self-destructive frontman, Darby Crash (Shane West).

What We Do Is Secret gives insight to Hollywood’s punk history as its raunch and rebellion was beginning to take hold in the United States.

GIFT (1993)

Perry Farrell’s rare and experimental 1993 film, Gift, is set in Venice Beach and captures the drug addled daze of Jane’s Addiction during the recording of their album, Ritual De Lo Habitual. The largely fictional story explores the days following the fatal overdose of Farrell’s girlfriend Casey Niccoli.

Live performances and real studio recording sessions are interspersed with realistic re-enactments of shady drug deals set against the backdrop of Los Angeles’ gritty beach slums in the early ‘90s.

Renowned Los Angeles street performer, Harry Perry, also makes a cameo appearance playing metal riffs on his guitar while rollerblading down the Venice Beach boardwalk.

The film stars Perry Farell, Casey Niccoli, Eric Avery, Dave Navarro and Steve Perkins as themselves.

 Let Them Know: The Story of Youth Brigade and BYO Records (2009)

 Let Them Know: The Story of Youth Brigade and B.Y.O. Records is a nostalgic look back at the 25 year history of B.Y.O. Records (Better Youth Organization) and hardcore band, Youth Brigade.

Founded by native Angelenos, Mark and Shawn Stern, the band and record label were at the head of Los Angeles’ hardcore scene.

Interviews and rare footage recount the history of West coast hardcore and the development of the do-it-yourself punk rock movement in Los Angeles in the ‘80s.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Funky Monks (1991) 

Shot in producer Rick Rubin’s Laurel Canyon mansion,  Funky Monks provides a candid look into creative process of the Red Hot Chili Peppers as they recorded the album Blood Sugar Sex Magik.

Formed in Los Angeles, the band is shown writing and developing many of the songs on the album. The film features footage of Jon Frusciante recording vocals for the song “Under the Bridge” which is about frontman Anthony Keidis using drugs under a bridge in downtown Los Angeles.

Rick Rubin, Jon Frusciante, Chad Smith, Flea, Anthony Kiedis, and Adam Horowitz (Beastie Boys) appear in director, Gavin Bowden’s sincere documentary.

The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988)

In the late 1980s, Sunset Boulevard played host to a bustling glam metal scene. Penelope Spheeris’ documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, captures the glam metal scene on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip as it was in its prime.

Interviews with Poison, Ozzy Osbourne, KISS, Alice Cooper, Aerosmith and Lemy Kilmister shed light on the rock and roll lifestyle. Groupies, die-hard glam fans and wanna-be rock stars that made up the scene also open up about sex, drugs and rock and roll.

The Runaways (2010)

At a time when rock and roll was dominated by boys, The Runaways came on the scene and made history as one the first all female rock and roll bands.

Directed by Floria Sigismondi, The Runaways tells the story of the influential all-female hard rock band from their beginnings on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip to their subsequent demise.

The film stars Dakota Fanning as the band’s gutsy lead singer Cherie Currie and Kristen Stewart as edgy rocker, Joan Jett.

The Beach Boys and Satan (2008)

This German documentary chronicles the influence of surf band, The Beach Boys and Los Angeles’ counterculture in late ’60s. Directed by Christoph Dreher, The Beach Boys and Satan focuses on singer Brian Wilson’s tortured genius while also revealing a connection between drummer Dennis Wilson and members of Los Angeles’ mystic underground.

Wilson’s friendship with cult leader Charles Manson is explored in the documentary.

Vans Living Off The Wall : East Los (2014)

The rarely seen underground punk rock underground of East Los Angeles is intimately captured through a series of short episodes which explore the subculture through interviews with bands, their fans, and the kids that make up the scene.

Five episodes in Vans documentary series reveal this subculture in its raw form with interviews and live performances as members of the scene celebrate their way of life and invite the viewer into their neighborhood.

Mayor of the Sunset Strip (2003)

Influential KROQ disc jockey Rodney Bingenheimer is profiled in this retrospective documentary which chronicles his immense significance and influence in the success of many iconic bands. Bingenheimer is credited for the evolution of music scenes in Los Angeles from 1960s pop music to punk, new wave, and alternative as he introduced many of the biggest bands to American radio.

Director George Hickenlooper’s documentary, Mayor of The Sunset Strip, offers a glimpse into Los Angeles’ rock history as it celebrates Bingenheimer’s contribution through interviews with Beck, David Bowie, Rob Zombie, Green Day, Gwen Stefani and scores of other rockstars.

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