When Cherie Currie sang "California you're so nice/California you're paradise," the irony in her voice—all that petulant Valley Girl boredom and indifference—reflected a new cultural mood in Los Angeles. While hot rods, bikinis, and tasty waves abounded in the songs of the Runaways, just as they had in the music of the Beach Boys, Currie's detachment implied that the idyll Brian Wilson had been crooning over was anything but real.
One of the great achievements of The Runaways, Floria Sigismondi's new film about the legendary band, is to evoke that particular paradise—the real one, that is—in fine detail. Southern California in the mid-1970s was evolving, and as the Runaways' raw sound presaged, it was time for the mellow country-rock vibe then dominating the Sunset Strip music scene (think Jackson Browne, The Eagles, and the rest of that Topanga Canyon crap) to move over for the polymorphous perversity of glam and punk.
In her review last week of The Runaways, the LA Weekly's Karina Longworth described the Los Angeles of this period as "dystopic." (I think she meant dystopian.) And yet as compared to the overdeveloped, smog-choked collection of exurbs it is today, I can assure you as someone who was there that the Southern California of that era was, in its own fashion, so nice. To give you a sense of what I mean, here are some key things to look for in the film.
The grass is never green. Nevermind the cruddy condition of the Hollywood(land) sign, one of the few clichés Sigismondi resorts to. The dry, patchy, yellow lawns out front of the movie's working-class tract homes are a much better indicator of a paradise fraying. There were historic droughts in Southern California in the 1970s, to be sure, but the truth—as anyone who has seen Chinatown knows—is that water has always been a rare commodity in Los Angeles, and in those less affluent neighborhoods of the city this is what front yards often look like.