Director: Penelope Spheeris
Running Time: 100 minutes/93 minutes/86 minutes
There’s something of a cult buzz around Penelope Spheeris’ three-part documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization. Over the course of around twenty years, Spheeris (Wayne’s World) explored the evolving punk, metal and rock scene in Los Angeles, interviewing big names on the circuit, their fans, as well as those acts relegated to the scrapheap of punk rock history. Now the trilogy is being reissued in a special four disc box set just in time for the director’s 70th birthday.
It’s perhaps tricky to take an overview of the whole five or so hours of footage without first taking a look at each individual feature. Whilst these three documentaries do create a history of the L.A. scene, they also approach their material in some markedly different ways.
The first instalment of The Decline of Western Civilization was shot between December ’79 and May ‘80 and explores early punk—bands such as Black Flag (before Rollins joined), X, Germs and Circle Jerks. Interview footage with Germs singer, Darby Crash has particular resonance; he killed himself just before the film was released. We see the baby-faced singer in his kitchen, playing around with his pet tarantula, cooking eggs, and talking frankly about his need to get stoned before going on stage.
Through a mixture of live gig footage and interviews, Part I builds a picture of a subculture which is conversely both energetic and exhilarating, but also destructive and nihilistic—one of the fans explains how he’s good at violence, while Spheeris pulls out the dark underbelly with some of its far right tendencies.
Part II takes us right into the hey-day (or is that dying days?) of L.A.’s glam rock and metal scene in the mid to late ‘80s. It’s all big hair, spandex, Jack Daniels and strippers. There’s less concert footage here; instead the musicians and fans have free reign. What we end up with is a picture of a scene which is the musical equivalent of the end of Scarface—sluggish, drug-addled, gorged on its own success, and ready to burst.
Any metaller worth their salt will already be familiar with a number of scenes from Part II. There’s W.A.S.P guitarist, Chris Holmes drunk in a swimming pool babbling on about booze in front of his mum. Then there’s KISS frontman, Paul Stanley lolling around in bed with nubile young ladies. Aerosmith’s Steve Tyler appears, boasting about the amount of Peruvian marching powder he stuffed up his nose. The pièce de résistance is, of course, Ozzy with the shakes, jabbering manically, cooking eggs (clearly a running theme) and spilling orange juice everywhere, all in a leopard print dressing gown—even if it is (as it’s been suggested) staged. It’s no wonder that by 1988 grunge was ready in the side-lines.
Spheeris almost seems to be giving L.A. a rope with which to hang itself. We’re treated to a sleazy competition to find the best ‘sexy rock and roll’ female dancer (cue much PVC, gyrations and suggestive moves with microphones, scarves, bottles…you name it) while a telling sequence of interview edits shows a vacant hunger for success and vast egotism when Spheeris asks each unknown what they’ll do if they don’t ‘make it’ (by the way, they will). It’s a bit of a relief to see Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine pop up at the end (although they seem oddly placed in some ways) as he growls his way through In My Darkest Hour, although he’s had his own well-documented troubles with the excesses of stardom.
Of course, the documentary-maker’s view is always a skewed one. It would be interesting to see the side she chose not to film, the choices she didn’t make, if you will. And while Part II may sound like somewhere the viewer doesn’t want to be, it’s really not. Much of it is bizarre and comical, appealing to both metallers and non-metallers alike.
By Part III, the grotesque boil of glam has been lanced and instead we’re all lying in the gutter, but we’re definitely not looking at the stars. Again, out of all the possible directions Spheeris could have taken in this final instalment, it’s interesting that she went for street or so-called gutter punks. Gone are the big name interviews with millionaire rock gods, instead we’re very much in the realm of DIY punk, squat living, and bleak prospects. Ask these kids what they’ll be doing in 15 years and they laugh sardonically and say they’ll be dead.
Band footage focuses on hardcore political punk: Final Conflict, Naked Aggression, Litmus Green and The Resistance. However, the emphasis falls more fully on the transient members of the subculture who live on the streets and in squats, spending their time begging, drinking and sneaking into gigs. Interviews show a variety of backgrounds, but an overwhelming majority come from abusive families. The documentary highlights how these runaways’ new family is the scene, but it’s not without a hint of cynicism.
One young punk is a disabled wheelchair user following a crash caused by his own drunk driving. Every night around 40 homeless punks gather in his flat, boozing, passing out, drawing on each other with markers, vomiting in the sink and urinating in the bath. Spheeris asks him if he minds, while pointing out that she can see they’re looking out for him. He nods. But are they really? A close-up on his downcast face, along with scenes of alcohol and drug addled behaviour suggests otherwise. Part III ends on a particularly desolate and tragic note which may surprise some viewers. It’s certainly the most thoughtful and affecting of the trilogy.
The Decline of Western Civilization trilogy will no doubt remain a cult favourite. Its release on DVD, after so many years, is bound to excite those into the punk, hardcore and metal scene, while a range of extensive extras on disc four, including gig footage and unseen interviews will add value to those already familiar with the documentaries. Despite the differences in each film, the trilogy allows us to see the scene’s evolution through each musical era. It’s reassuring that the Swastikas of Part I have been replaced with talk of SHARPs (skinheads against racism) and anti-prejudice patches on jackets. The sexism of Part II has also moved on, with anti-consumerist, political punk—a backlash against the ‘80s excesses. Spheeris’ work offers a fascinating and often funny glimpse into the historic L.A. punk and metal scene, even if it sometimes becomes uncomfortable.
The Decline of Western Civilization Box Set is released on Blu-ray and DVD from Monday 31st August 2015. Buy your copy here.