Los Angeles

Romancing LA: Life and love in Los Angeles

Four LA residents, including La La Land director Damien Chazelle, offer their distinctive views of the city’s poetic side

Los Angeles had become a byword for a congested, superficial, desperately aspirational city. And then director Damien Chazelle dropped La La Land on us, reminding everyone that LA can actually be a city of romance.

We call on four LA residents – two photographers, a writer and Chazelle himself – to offer their own views of the city’s poetic side.

In the land beyond cliché

ELAINE LIPWORTH follows in the footsteps of La La Land’s Mia and Sebastian, searching for ‘a romantic fantasy grounded in real lives’

Los Angeles is not the most obvious destination for romance.

A collection of disparate neighbourhoods linked by a network of gridlocked freeways, the city has long been synonymous with movies (‘The Business’) and characterised by its obsession with youth – and rejuvenation. Those ubiquitous LA images encompass the wealthy, gated enclaves of Bel Air and Beverly Hills, hotel infinity pools in which nobody swims and grandiose houses on pristine streets where nobody walks. From Marina Del Rey to Malibu, the beaches are beautiful, but they’re depicted as scenic outdoor gyms, where serious fitness enthusiasts gather for dawn workouts.

Los Angelinos (I count myself among them, having relocated to southern California from the UK more than two decades ago) have a different view.

To me, LA is romantic, exciting and diverse. Fellow immigrant Anthony Hopkins, who lives in Malibu, has often told me that LA fires his imagination: he loves the beaches, the hikes and the upbeat optimism of Californians; while Gwyneth Paltrow confided that she moved back from London to LA because it ‘feels like home’ – the light, the pomegranate trees, the healthy outdoor lifestyle and the great restaurants.

Thirty-two-year-old director Damien Chazelle of Whiplash fame is similarly enamoured. His affecting and exhilarating musical, La La Land, is a dazzling love letter to the city, a contemporary romantic tale infused with old-fashioned magical realism. Emma Stone plays Mia, an aspiring actress dealing with rejection and failed auditions. Her love interest: Sebastian – played by Ryan Gosling – a broke jazz pianist who dreams of opening his own jazz club. The title itself is telling: the dictionary definition of ‘La La Land’ is ‘a euphoric dreamlike mental state detached from the harsher realities of life’.

There’s always this life to it. The city is always breathing. Even if it’s four in the morning, there’s still a pulse

Anthony Samaniego, Los Angeles-based photographer

Los Angeles

There’s nothing original about the plot of La La Land: two dreamers take an instant dislike to each other and after a series of false starts, fall in love. But the story is riveting and there’s a magnetic connection between the two leads: they previously showed a natural chemistry in the comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love and the drama Gangster Squad. Chazelle says Stone could relate to her character’s disappointing experience of LA ‘because she has so many heart-wrenching stories – some of which we incorporated into the movie – of bad auditions or rejection. Emma moved to LA with her own dreams at the age of 15 and just started auditioning,’ says the director. ‘She burst onto the scene so quickly that the general public didn’t see the work that went into that, but Emma was one of thousands of actresses who descend on LA…it’s just this insane crowd of people.’

Evoking Hollywood’s golden age, the film is devoid of hackneyed Californian landmarks – there isn’t a single shot of Venice Beach, the Walk of Fame or Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. We are immersed in the lives of the characters: in hole-in-the-wall jazz clubs, pool parties, a film studio coffee shop, their apartments. ‘The way the film mixes two people leading very hip, modern lives with all these iconic Hollywood locales is unique,’ says La La Land producer Marc Platt. ‘You get a feeling both of the romantic fantasy of the city and its grounding in real lives.’

‘You can look in one direction and feel you’re in 1940s Hollywood, and then turn your head and you’re in 2016,’ adds production designer David Wasco, noting that the film capitalises on the ‘timelessness inherent in the city itself.’

Damien Chazelle is hardly the first filmmaker to recognise the romance of Los Angeles. In 1991, Steve Martin wrote and starred in LA Story, a charming magical realist comedy about the experiences of a TV meteorologist. Before There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson made a trilogy of films – Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love – that were beautiful (and sometimes very eccentric) love letters to the San Fernando Valley. Doug Liman’s 1996 indie comedy Swingers showed LA as a cool, jazzy town filled with foolish romantics looking for love – and the perfect martini.

With Chazelle casting his lens around more than 40 locations for La La Land, the City of Stars (also the name of one of the film’s most memorable songs) has never looked more beautiful. Here are nine romantic spots in LA to fall for.

The Lighthouse Café

The Lighthouse Cafe, Los Angeles
Credit: Yuri Hasegawa

In one memorable scene from La La Land, filmed at this old-school club, Gosling’s Sebastian explains his passion for ‘pure jazz’ to Stone’s Mia (who doesn’t like it). Legends who’ve played at the historic venue include Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. ‘The music here isn’t cool, smooth jazz; it’s traditional – jazz as it should be, the kind Ryan Gosling’s character loves,’ says Lighthouse manager Steven Grehl. A short walk from the Lighthouse is the highly romantic Hermosa Beach Pier, where Sebastian first sings City of Stars.

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Griffith Observatory

The observatory’s planetarium is the setting for an intoxicating fantasy sequence, in which Sebastian and Mia glide up into the sky and waltz through the stars. The 1935 art deco landmark, which also featured in 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause starring James Dean, has panoramic views over the city and the Hollywood sign. Open until 10pm, it’s the perfect setting for stargazing – or sunset watching, with the lights of LA twinkling below.

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El Matador State Beach

El Matador beach, Los Angeles

Avoid the Venice Beach crowds and drive along the scenic Pacific Coast Highway to the rugged El Matador State Beach, the most romantic in southern California. About 10 kilometres northwest of Malibu, El Matador is known for its stunning shoreline, sparkling water and is popular with local bodyboarders – but free of tourists. There’s a steep path to the shore, hidden coves, sea caves and massive rocks.

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Smoke House

Going by the name of Lipton’s in La La Land, this is where Mia first hears Sebastian playing the piano. Originally opened in 1946, the restaurant has been in its present location in the San Fernando Valley since 1949, handily across the road from the Warner Bros studios. An old-school Hollywood haunt, the Smoke House counted Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Judy Garland as regulars. Sink into the dimly lit, dark red booths and order a Steak Sinatra, named in honour of the legendary crooner who liked his filet mignon sautéed with peppers, garlic and red wine, over a plate of linguine.

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Watts Towers

Watts Towers, Los Angeles
Credit: Yuri Hasegawa

This folk art monument, south of Downtown LA in the dynamic inner-city Watts neighbourhood, shows up in La La Land in a montage showing Mia and Sebastian getting to know each other over the course of several dates in romantic spots around the city. The towers, originally named Nuestro Pueblo (‘Our Town’), consist of 17 multicoloured mosaic-covered steel sculptures, the tallest 30 metres high. Italian-American artist Simon Rodia worked on the project alone for 33 years, using recycled material such as scrap metal, broken bottles, seashells and tiles.

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Inn of the Seventh Ray

Head inland from the Pacific Coast Highway along a narrow road winding through the Santa Monica Mountains and you’ll find it hidden in Topanga Canyon. Arguably LA’s most romantic restaurant, the Inn of the Seventh Ray has a dreamy vibe, with waterfalls and winding brick paths leading to candlelit tables where you dine creekside amid old oaks and sycamores. Psychiatrists Ralph and Lucile Yaney built the restaurant in 1973 on the site of an abandoned church. They were early devotees of healthy, organic eating and part of the hippy Topanga counterculture, which included musicians Neil Young and Linda Ronstadt. Unsurprisingly, the restaurant is popular for weddings: ‘We’ve had one woman marry here three times,’ says Ron Mass, manager of the Inn for 25 years.

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Aero Theater

Aero Theatre, Los Angeles
Credit: Yuri Hasegawa

In La La Land, Sebastian and Mia first hold hands at the Rialto Theater in Pasadena, which has been closed since 2007. Just as romantic is the Aero Theater on Santa Monica’s hip Montana Avenue, which dates back to 1940 and was featured in sci-fi cult classic Donnie Darko. Owned by the American Cinematheque, the Aero is a haven for cinephiles, screening contemporary independent films and classics ranging from David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago to Jacques Demy’s 1964 romantic musical masterpiece The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Damien Chazelle’s favourite film). There are frequent talks: Viggo Mortensen was here recently, discussing his latest film Captain Fantastic; while Iron Man director Jon Favreau is a regular. For an intimate post-movie supper, walk to nearby Art’s Table, sit at a pavement table and order the restaurant’s signature lobster mac and cheese or turkey burger.

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Getty Villa

For a glimpse of life in the first century, the Getty Villa, in the hills above Pacific Palisades, is less well-known than the Getty Center half an hour’s drive away – but equally impressive. Housing extraordinary collections of ancient Greek and Roman art, the beautiful building – conceived by billionaire industrialist Paul Getty – is a replica of a Roman villa in Herculaneum. Ancient art spanning 7,000 years is on display, including Getty’s most prised possession: the Lansdowne Herakles, a large Roman marble statue from about 125 AD; and a Hellenistic marble, Portrait of a Bearded Man, dating from about 150 BC. There’s a magnificent courtyard, four tranquil gardens with herbs and plants that flourished in the ancient Mediterranean, a reflecting pool, fountains and a café with great snacks and dramatic ocean views. Greek plays are performed at the villa’s outdoor theatre.

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Two Bunch Palms

For the ultimate La La Land experience, hire a 1980s Buick convertible – Seb’s car in the film – and take the Insterstate 10 east to Two Bunch Palms, a highly unusual desert resort close to Palm Springs. Reportedly Al Capone’s secret hideaway (there’s even a suite named after the notorious gangster with an underground tunnel and watchtower), the resort has been a beloved getaway for Hollywood players over the decades. It’s adults-only and there’s no dress code: people go for dinner barefoot, clad in bathrobes, after soaking in the ‘healing’ lithium-rich mineral hot springs. Spa treatments include the Healing Earth treatment: a sand scrub and desert herb massage ‘to cleanse and awaken your spirit’. Floating in the mineral pool at night, after a glass of wine, the sky thick with stars, you might spot a rare white owl in the palm trees.

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Going la la for LA

Song and dance man: Damien Chazelle (left), directing Ryan Gosling (right) on the set of La La Land, is a big fan of French New Wave musicals. Credit: Dale Robinette
Credit: Dale Robinette

Director Damien Chazelle on falling for LA

Growing up on the east coast of America, there was a lot of snobbery about LA. To me, the city represented the action movies I watched as a kid, like Speed and Terminator. It looked like a concrete jungle that seemed unliveable. I moved to LA nine years ago (because I wanted to make movies) very hesitantly, just feeling, ‘I’ve got to at least try it out.’

The experiences you see in the film are actually close to my own. I was uneasy in Los Angeles at first and I felt a little isolated. Then I fell deeper and deeper in love with the city. It was a late-blooming love affair. I discovered that it’s so much more than I thought it was.

There is something very poignant about Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in the film. It is like the star system of old Hollywood where you’re rooting for them to get together, then when things start to not go so well for them in the movie there’s this sense of loss. There’s something magical that they create onscreen.

Our great production designer David Wasco has lived in LA all of his life, so he knew these little nooks and crannies that he would take us to. It was a wonderful process of learning more about my own city. There were certain things I knew I wanted to celebrate, like Griffith Observatory. There were also iconic sites that I wanted to steer away from, like the Hollywood sign, that I felt we’d seen enough of in movies recently. And then it was this process of discovery. We would find a location and sometimes we’d have to add little touches, like a street lamp, or shoot at a certain time of day, or paint a wall, just to give it a little extra magic. We wanted to have that combination of the grittier, real location with a little bit of pixie dust.

La La Land is about the city I live in and the music I grew up playing. What is beautiful to me about LA is that it is full of people who have moved to the city to chase their dreams. So many of them are told that they’re living in ‘La La Land’, in other words that they are just crazy. I wanted to make a movie that saluted all those people pursuing their dreams. Part of what I love about LA and wanted to capture in the film is the way it reveals itself slowly. It doesn’t give you everything on a silver platter, the way that New York or certain European cities do. You have to search a little bit more in LA. That can be frustrating, but it can also be really rewarding.

Cathay Pacific flies to Los Angeles from Hong Kong 28 times a week.