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  • Paramount Pictures

    The late Tupac Shakur, above, and Dr. Dre put out "California Love" in 1996. Put it on and you've got a reason to dance.

  • Dan Poush

    Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, inspiration for his famous song.

  • Jean-Jacques Levy / Associated Press file

    Charlie Parker's "Relaxin' at Camarillo" is a classic with varying moods.

  • 20th Century Fox

    Henry Fonda starred in the wrenching tale of the Joads in "The Grapes of Wrath," 1940, adapted from the book by John Steinbeck.

  • The Beach Boys – how California can you get? – make The Bee's unscientific California tunes list with "California Girls" from 1965.

  • Phil Bray / Focus Features

    Sean Penn, center, starred as San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk in the 2008 biopic "Milk."

Movies and music: Starring California

Published: Sunday, Apr. 22, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 10AANDE
Last Modified: Sunday, Apr. 22, 2012 - 2:00 pm

As the Golden State and center of the movie and recording industries, California is ground zero for sun-and-fun pop cultural expressions.

But movies and songs that just celebrate the state's beauty would be boring. The best ones acknowledge the California dream but add a twist.

Filmmakers often are more fascinated by the underside of paradise than its sand-and-palm tree surface. They prefer stories about the dis- enfranchised, who cannot share in the state's prosperity (when there is prosperity). Or they might focus on the drifters, schemers and shifty actor/waiters looking to score.

The best California songs play on the state's breezy beauty, with harmonies that sound like sunshine. Then they temper that sunshine with skepticism or lyrical or melodic melancholy.

Yet there still are wonderful songs full of pure, straightforward boosterism. But those are hard to pull off, unless you are Jeanette MacDonald.

Here are some of the best movies and songs featuring the state or one of its cities, with bonus points for cultural or historical relevance and for Sacramento shout-outs.


"Bullitt" (1968): "Dirty Harry" could have taken this slot, but "Bullitt" wins for A) being less fascist; B) pairing the rugged Steve McQueen with the young, regally beautiful Jacqueline Bisset; C-Z) the car chase.

"Chinatown"(1974): Adultery, murder, water wars, incest, nose bandages: it's L.A. noir at its most twisty, this time in color.

"El Norte" (1983): Mixing harsh reality with magical realism, Gregory Nava's Oscar-nominated epic follows the arduous journey of two young illegal immigrants from Guatemala to Los Angeles.

"Five Easy Pieces" (1970): Jack Nicholson's character rejects his upper-crust family's expectations not by dropping out in San Francisco but doing the truly unexpected: working in the oil fields of Bakersfield.

"The Graduate" (1967): Dustin Hoffman embodies the ennui among children of the privileged and the pervasive restlessness of the 1960s. This is also a rare bi-state film, traveling from Pasadena to Berkeley.

"The Grapes of Wrath" (1940): Based on the John Steinbeck novel, this film captures the desperation of Dust Bowl immigrants whose willingness to perform backbreaking labor fueled California's economy.

"Milk" (2008): This biopic of slain 1970s San Francisco supervisor and civil rights activist Harvey Milk captures a key moment in California history. It also shows the great progress within the gay- and lesbian-rights movement over the past 40 years.

"Sideways" (2004): What says 2000s California more than saturated sunlight, a striving, underemployed protagonist and excessive wine consumption? • b"Sunset Boulevard" (1950): Hollywood is lousy with show-business cautionary tales. None is as creepily effective as this one about a faded star and her resentful boy toy.

"Vertigo" (1958): The landmarks are recognizable, but San Francisco exists most clearly in Jimmy Stewart's obsessive character. The city always has been a haven for troubled souls, and this one wears a fedora instead of a flower in his hair.


"Beverly Hills," Weezer, (2005): A crazily infectious song of mock-aspiration that takes the air, but not the fun, out of the California dream.

"Bound Away," Cake (2011): A slightly mournful yet pragmatic ode to life on the road, it name-checks "Sacramento, California" as the band's home.

"California Dreamin'," The Mamas and the Papas (1965): The wall-of-sound harmonies set the standard for California songs. But it's the wistfulness that sticks.

"California Girls," The Beach Boys (1965): See "California Dreamin'."

"California Love," Tupac Shakur and Dr. Dre (1996): The partiest song that ever partied, it celebrates a state "where you never find a dance floor empty." And "Sactown" gets a mention by (a non-hologram) Tupac.

"Come a Long Way," Michelle Shocked (1992): Via acoustic guitar, steady rhythmic build and an imaginary motorcycle, Shocked (playing Tuesday at the Palms in Winters) offers a travelogue tribute, from East L.A. to San Pedro.

"Folsom Prison Blues," Johnny Cash (1956): Thanks to Cash, Folsom is Sacramento's best-known suburb internationally.

"Freeway," Aimee Mann (2008): Mann's sinuously melodic critique takes on surface- obsessed Southern California, specifically Orange County, where, Mann sings, "everyone's a doctor or a specialist in retail."

"Girls, Girls, Girls," Motley Crüe (1987): A paean to groupies and strippers, dreamers and dirt- bags, and to the influential Sunset Strip hard-rock scene of the 1980s.

"I Left My Heart in San Francisco," Tony Bennett (1962): The song is slight. Bennett's vocals – always great, now age-defyingly supple – give it weight.

"Kern River," Merle Haggard (1985): Haggard sings of a "mean piece of water" in which he never will swim again. It sounds like a farewell to Haggard's hometown, Bakersfield.

"Ladies of the Canyon," Joni Mitchell (1970): Mitchell sets her song in Laurel Canyon, the geographic hub of 1960s and '70s folk rock. With the lyrics "Trina wears her wampum beads" and "her coat's a secondhand one," she cap- tures a California archetype: the female bohemian.

"Lights," Journey (1978): A longtime San Francisco standard, it became an anthem with a Steve Perry-assisted crowd sing-along at the 2010 World Series.

"My Darling Clementine," Western folk ballad (1800s): The tale of the dead love of a "miner 49er," it's historical, sad and still catchy.

"Relaxin' at Camarillo," Charlie Parker (1947): A sometimes soothing, often thrilling Parker classic, it was written shortly after the musician's forced rehab stay at Camarillo State Hospital.

"Sacramento," Middle of the Road (1972): The Scottish band's ABBA-esque tribute to Sacramento was a big hit in Europe. The song really goes on about how nice the weather is here.

"San Francisco," Jeanette MacDonald (1936): McDonald's somewhat shrill entreaty to "open your golden gate" still raises goosebumps every time.

"(Sitting On) the Dock of the Bay," Otis Redding (1968): The song lilts like those waves coming in, even though the lyrics are full of regret.

"Straight Outta Compton," N.W.A. (1988): The lyrics are so nihilistic and misogynistic they sound like parody. But the beats and don't-give-a-(care) attitude are as bracing today as when N.W.A. first changed the rap game.

"Under the Bridge," Red Hot Chili Peppers (1991): Heroin addiction and love for the City of Angels color a poignant song.

"The Valley," Los Lobos (2007): Lent great warmth by David Hidalgo's vocals, the song tracks the struggles and small satisfactions within an immigrant's workday in a place far from home.

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