LA Plays Itself in the Movies: Riot on the Sunset Strip

(This post is part of the series LA Plays Itself in the Movies – a big thanks to Julia for organizing!)

“Riot on the Sunset Strip” is a masterwork of the teen exploitation genre. Released in 1967, the film was made within six weeks of the infamous curfew riots that took place on the Strip protesting the closure of Pandora’s Box, a club that was then a huge part of the music scene.  The plot (and, as much as I love this movie, I will be the first to admit that there isn’t much of one) follows Andi (who was just seventeen, if you know what I mean) and her friends, who really, really just want to have a good time, but have to put up with flack from hapless authority figures, including a duo of local businessmen, who come off as a live action version of the Muppets’ Waldorf and Statler, and Andi’s estranged father, the head of the Hollywood division of the police department. The storyline plays pretty fast and loose with facts, giving a totally sensationalized representation of the Strip in its heyday as an unincorporated nightlife hub, full of crazy, drug-addled longhairs (that’s totally-square-1960s-grownup-speak for “teenagers”).  Basically, it’s the Los Angeles of middle-America’s worst nightmares.

I first saw the film about three years ago, shortly after I’d moved to the city.  I was mostly interested in the totally awesome musical cameos it features, from bands like the Standells and the Chocolate Watchband, and, at the time, I was really fascinated by the history of that part of town. As I become increasingly cynical (I now ride the bus along Sunset almost every day, and let me tell you, nothing will strip a place of its potential to fascinate like being stuck in the middle of it on a hot, smelly bus, for far longer than any human should be on a hot, smelly bus), I find myself appreciating the naivety of movies like “Riot on the Sunset Strip” more and more.  The movie is just so ridiculous and, at times, earnest, that I just can’t resist it.

But while “Riot on the Sunset Strip” is a hilariously campy portrayal of teen culture, there’s a darker undertone to it, complete with a major plot point revolving around sexual violence, that I’d somehow managed to forget about until I re-watched the movie the other day.  Its portrayal of the Sunset Strip is one that’s undercut by anxiety and fear that people could completely reject authority and control.  The character that Los Angeles plays in this film is seductive and permissive and out of control, a character who has escaped the bounds of authority. The sounds of electric guitars and farfisa organs act like the city’s voice, punctuating the landscape with the sound of juvenile delinquency, of drugs, sex, and rock and roll.  The film’s infamous climax comes when Andi’s drink is drugged and  she totally trips out on acid, doing what amounts to interpretive dance with her shoe (like, seriously, you need to see this film). But I feel like what goes on here is more than just a completely silly version of an acid trip – it’s more like she’s been possessed by the city, by the Strip, with its lights and music, and wild longhaired teenagers; she’s been possessed by a nightmare vision of LA in the 1960s.

Or maybe it’s just a really wonderfully bad movie.

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