Penelope Spheeris is best known for directing the smash hit comedy Wayne’s World but that’s the least interesting part of her career. She describes The Decline of Western Civilization series as her “life’s work” and it’s not hard to why what she means by that. The 3 films are about 3 very specific moments in time in L.A. counterculture, early ’80s punk, late ’80s hair metal and mid ’90s gutter punk. Spheeris is currently working on a 4th instalment but the film’s focus is being kept under wraps.
The first Decline is a bona-fide classic in its own right and in some ways it deserves its own standalone release. It depicts some of the best bands to come out of the Punk Rock scene in the US such as X, The Germs, Black Flag and the lesser known Catholic Discipline. It’s most consists of concert footage of the aforementioned bands but also contains interviews with them but also most interesting young punks who talk in decidedly un-PC fashion. It became a sensation when it came out and influenced numerous musicians and was even banned in L.A. because of fears of violence.
Spheeris does something very interesting with the concert footage in that for the songs performed she includes subtitles so people can read the lyrics along to the songs which certainly in the case of X and The Germs proves they were more profound than most punk bands. It depicts one of the most exciting times in music unlike any other “punk” film of its time because it’s simply about the music and the relative humble personalities of the people involved with the L.A. Punk scene. The film may have some childish misogyny which is mainly said by young dumb punks mostly in the interview segments but despite Punk being a relatively inclusive scene no matter gender, sexuality, ethnicity some backwards beliefs did creep into it.
If the first Decline most of the people seemed pretty down to earth and humble, The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years is rock n’ roll excess to the extreme and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The first one certainly had funny moments throughout but the Metal Years is just pure comedy gold for it’s 90 minute running time. It’s set around the hair metal scene which was mostly based on the Sunset Strip in the mid ’80s which is some of the most ludicrous music ever recorded, some of the bands seem like they watched This is Spinal Tap and wanted to form a band just like that without realising it was a joke.
Spheeris decides not to film a band like Guns N’ Roses who of course became a sensationally successful band a little after the film’s release but the film opens with the fairly forgotten glam metal band Lizzy Borden who perform a cover of old hard rock standard “Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf. The film despite showing then young bands like Poison and Megadeath (on the request of Spheeris) it also includes interviews with the bands who inspired them like Kiss, Aerosmith and the Bela Lugosi of rock Alice Cooper. The Kiss interviews are so ludicrous, Paul Stanley is lying on a bed with three playboy model esq. girls wrapped around him and Gene Simmons wanted to do “something classy” so he is interviewed in a lingerie section of a department store, its pure rock n’ roll excessive male fantasy but it’s fun to watch.
The film’s highlight however comes from a member of this band called Wet Cherri where Spheeris asks him “what would happen if you don’t make as a rock star?” and in pure blind faith he replies constantly “but I will”, watch the interchange for yourself.
It brings home the fact so many of these bands were deluded to a terrifying degree and it certainly worked charms for some of the bands. The person who speaks the most realistic sense in the whole thing is Motörhead’s Lemmy which might be down to the fact Motörhead despite being loved by metal heads have a more overt punk rock aesthetic and attitude to live. The film remains a time capsule of the last true time rock n’ roll excess was in vogue and the people in the film for the most part make the punks in the previous film seem like die-hard feminists.
The final film in the series is the most under-seen film of the lot and perhaps the most moving and interesting film. Music plays a role in the film but it takes very much a backseat to show the lives of this street punks in L.A. in the mid ’90s. It plays almost like a documentary version of Spheeris’ fictional punk rock cult classic Suburbia which was made 14 years previously.
The similarities between Suburbia and Decline 3 are eerie, both films end in total tragedy. The live styles of the young punks are pretty much the same, either squatting, homeless or one person has a place where everyone crams into. It really gets into the truly heartbreaking lives of these smart kids who for whatever reason are forced to be homeless and just is a stab at how horrible people can be their own children.
The third instalment was the most little seen partly due to the fact Spheeris owned the rights and despite interest from studios they were only willing to release the film if they got the rights to the first two as well. Spheeris in old school punk fashion wanted to control the rights as much as humanly possible but it did have a successful festival run even winning an award at Sundance but didn’t go into general release till the release of this box set. It’s been far too long for this film to be rediscovered and will be a revelation to many fans of the first film.
The wealth of extra material on the this set is truly staggering, each film has around at least an hour of deleted footage of interviews, live performances etc. Penelope Spheeris does commentary on the first two films and Nirvana’s Dave Grohl does a bonus commentary track on the first film. The rest of the material is much of news reports, Q&As and interviews with Penelope Spheeris throughout the years talking about the films. Spheeris’ daughter Anna Fox compiled the bonus features and she certainly took a page out of Criterion’s approach to special features, it’s one of the impressive packages of special features I’ve seen in a long. The new transfers are an obvious massive improvement on previous VHS era bootlegs which were in circulation for years.
Music, Documentary | USA, 2015 | 18| 31st August 2015 (UK) | Second Sight | Dir.Penelope Spheeris |Alice Bag, Henry Rollins, Lemmy, Paul Stanley, Flea, Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne | Buy: [Blu-ray]