"The longer I live here," a Los Angeles-based friend recently said, "the more 'I Love L.A.' sounds like an unironic tribute to this city." That hit single by Randy Newman, a singer-songwriter not known for his simple earnestness, has produced a multiplicity of interpretations since it came out in 1983, the year before Los Angeles presented a sunny, colorful, forward-looking image to the world as the host of the Summer Olympic Games. Listeners still wonder now what they wondered back then: when Newman sings the praises — literally — of the likes of Imperial Highway, a "big nasty redhead," Century Boulevard, the Santa Ana winds, and bums on their knees, does he mean it?
"I Love L.A."'s both smirking and enthusiastic music video offers a view of Newman's 1980s Los Angeles, but fifteen years later, he starred in an episode of the public television series Great Streets that presents a slightly more up-to-date, and much more nuanced, picture of the city. In it, the native Angeleno looks at his birthplace through the lens of the 27-mile Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles' most famous street — or, in his own words, "one of those places the movies would've had to invent, if it didn't already exist."
Historian Leonard Pitt (who appears alongside figures like filmmaker Allison Anders, artist Ed Ruscha, and Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek) describes Sunset as the one place along which you can see "every stratum of Los Angeles in the shortest period of time." Or as Newman puts it, "Like a lot of the people who live here, Sunset is humble and hard-working at the beginning," on its inland end. "Go further and it gets a little self-indulgent and outrageous" before it "straightens itself out and grows rich, fat, and respectable." At its coastal end "it gets real twisted, so there's nothing left to do but jump into the Pacific Ocean."
Newman's westward journey, made in an open-topped convertible (albeit not "I Love L.A."'s 1955 Buick) takes him from Union Station (America's last great railway terminal and the origin point of "L.A.'s long, long-anticipated subway system") to Aimee Semple McPherson's Angelus Temple, now-gentrified neighborhoods like Silver Lake then only in mid-gentrification, the humble studio where he laid tracks for some of his biggest records, the corner where D.W. Griffith built Intolerance's ancient Babylon set, the storied celebrity hideout of the Chateau Marmont, UCLA ("almost my alma mater"), the Lake Shrine Temple of the Self-Realization Fellowship, and finally to edge of the continent.
More recently, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne traveled the entirety of Sunset Boulevard again, but on foot and in the opposite direction. The east-to-west route, he writes, "offers a way to explore an intriguing notion: that the key to deciphering contemporary Los Angeles is to focus not on growth and expansion, those building blocks of 20th century Southern California, but instead on all the ways in which the city is doubling back on itself and getting denser." For so much of the city's history, "searching for a metaphor to define Sunset Boulevard, writers" — or musicians or filmmakers or any number of other creators besides — "have described it as a river running west and feeding into the Pacific. But the river flows the other direction now."
Los Angeles has indeed plunged into a thorough transformation since Newman first simultaneously celebrated and satirized it, but something of the distinctively breezy spirit into which he tapped will always remain. "There‘s some kind of ignorance L.A. has that I’m proud of. The open car and the redhead and the Beach Boys, the night just cooling off after a hot day, you got your arm around somebody," he said to the Los Angeles Weekly a few years after taping his Great Streets tour. ”That sounds really good to me. I can‘t think of anything a hell of a lot better than that."
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.