Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Heath Holland On...The Decline of Western Civilization (Parts I & II)

These two films are frequently named as some of the greatest music documentaries ever filmed. Too bad you can’t see them.

It’s hard not to love Penelope Spheeris, the super-cool, super-talented lady who directed Wayne’s World, Black Sheep, and the film versions of The Beverly Hillbillies and The Little Rascals. For a few years in the early-to-mid-‘90s, she was one of Hollywood’s favorite comedy and family directors and has quite a few commercial successes under her belt. But Penelope Spheeris is also a rebel at heart who’s responsible for multiple documentaries dealing with heavy music and the people who play it. The very finest of these is widely considered to be The Decline of Western Civilization trilogy, spanning 17 years of rock and roll and illuminating two very different phenomena: the punk movement and the ‘80s metal movement.

The Decline of Western Civilization was released in the summer of 1981 but filmed between 1979 and 1980, just as the original punk movement was on the verge of morphing into something less identifiable and overtly dangerous. It captures the Los Angeles punk rock scene with an honest lens and without any praise or judgment. It (thankfully) doesn’t seem to have an agenda other than to say “look at what is happening. Look at how our music is changing.”
Sometimes it’s a rough ride and the opening couple of minutes of the film tell you what you’re in for. We find ourselves in the clubs moments before a show begins, surrounded by hordes of angry punks. Some of them sneer at the camera while others stare defiantly. But when the music starts, all hell breaks loose and the mosh pit comes alive with flying fists and feet. From safer distances, some audience members cheer the bands while others hang their heads in their hands, miserable and on the verge of tears. Like the kids on the moshing floor, this film pulls no punches. It's kind of a rough sit.

But there’s a lot of great stuff. In fact, it’s ALL great, but only some of it is fun. TDoWC features performances and interviews with several LA-based bands: Alice Bag Band, X, Germs, The Circle Jerks, Fear, Catholic Discipline, and Black Flag. It’s a real survey of the different sounds that all fall under the punk banner, and it’s interesting to see how different the sounds were in the same musical landscape.

For instance, X is a band that seems to have their act together and cares about the music. The musicianship is strong and they have good riffs and songwriting. Exene Cervenka, one of the lead singers and the former Mrs. Aragorn (she was married to Viggo Mortensen), seems to really care about making good music. During an interview, the bass player takes out a comb and slicks back his pompadour as he talks. These people care about how they look and what they’re doing. Image is important and so is their music. The riffs are tight, the band working together.
On the other hand is the band Germs, which consisted of singer Darby Crash, bassist Lorna Doom, and guitarist Pat Smear. Yes, THAT Pat Smear of Nirvana and Foo Fighters fame, but this is over a decade before any of that, back when he was punching lots of girls in the face (his words). Spheeris asks the singer, Darby Crash, why he gets so loaded before he goes on stage and he answers “Because it’s scary out there.” He spends his performance incoherently staggering around the stage, moaning syllables instead of lyrics and collapsing into audience members who write graffiti on him with markers. By the time this film was released in 1981, Darby Crash was dead from suicide.

Closing the film is the band Fear, who does their absolute best to start a riot from the stage. They yell homophobic slurs and taunt the crowd until the stage is rushed and things get out of control quickly. For a bunch of people who profess to care about nothing, everyone is remarkably sensitive.

Spheeris intercuts the performances with interviews, not just of the bands but also of participants in the lifestyle: skinheads and x-heads and goth girls before goth was really even a thing. The common theme is disillusionment, abandonment, loneliness, and seeking for a place of belonging (at least, that’s what I got from what they were saying). And anger. Lots and lots of anger. It’s tough to sit through. It sounds CRAZY and irrational and it makes me very uncomfortable.
But the final message of the film is one I’m not sure was intentional but which is poignant nonetheless. After an hour and forty minutes of hardcore punk rock, profanity, raised middle fingers and pissed off posturing, there’s still a corporate element at play. “If there’s any A & R people here tonight, go die,” says the lead singer of Fear, moments before the credits roll and the words “Soundtrack available on Polygram Records” appear. And yes, Fear has three songs on the record. Ah, capitalism.

And capitalism is at the heart of the 1988 sequel, The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. Thematically on the other end of the spectrum from the first film, the sequel shows a bunch of bands at various stages of success but with excess being the unifying theme. The title is a bit of a misnomer because not all the bands are metal. For some reason, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry from Aerosmith are featured in the film, as well as Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley from KISS (also not metal). Simmons asked to be interviewed in a lingerie shop with lingerie models perusing the store. Paul Stanley’s interviews are even more hilarious because he’s in a bed with three models and I swear there’s Vaseline on the lens. Sounds about right, doesn’t it?
Alice Cooper turns up because he apparently never says no to a documentary. More fun, though, is as a blonde, spiky haired Ozzy Osbourne, interviewed in a leopard-print bath robe while he makes breakfast in the kitchen. Of all the musicians in the film, Ozzy comes off as the most eager to please and the most unpretentious. Also, weirdly coherent. I mean, WTF? Spheeris later documented Ozzfest in the film We Sold Our Soul for Rock and Roll and has said that she adores Ozzy. It’s easy to see why. He’s clear and conversational here, a regular guy surrounded by insanity. Plus, he’s really funny and charming. I’d do him.
Other notable interviews feature Lemmy from Motorhead, Dave Mustaine from Megadeth, Faster Pussycat, Poison (in total glam makeup), and a couple of bands like London, Odin, and Seduce that I’ve never heard of outside of this film. Probably for a reason.

Like the first film, the second installment doesn’t shy away from the sadder aspects of the lifestyle and the cold bucket of reality that most of the aspiring musicians had coming. In one scene, Spheeris asks “What will you do if you don’t make it as a rock star?” No one is prepared to answer the question. It’s one of those moments that can’t help but make you sad because we have the benefit of hindsight and we know what happened.

Probably the most talked about scene in the film features an innebriated Chris Holmes, the guitarist for W.A.S.P., floating in a pool chair at night, drinking vodka while his mom looks on from the edge of the water. It’s the most impactful few minutes in the movie and easily sums up the entire movie.

Kudos to Spheeris for asking tough questions, not just in this scene but also throughout both films. She’s a classy lady and she put herself in some really bizarre situations to get some of these interviews. Add in that these movies are more or less her pet projects and she’s even more of a hero. She follows her own path, which I dig. Side note: she even intended to direct a full-length documentary of the making of the 1999 Full Moon movie Blood Dolls and had the full cooperation of Charles Band and his employees but the project was never completed. What was completed is on the Blood Dolls DVD. All I’m really saying is that I am totally into the same things Penelope Spheeris is into.

I wish I could talk about the third installment, which was released in 1998 and covers the gutter punk lifestyle of homeless teenagers who live outside of society. At least that’s what Wikipedia tells me, which is unfortunately all that I have to go on. VHS copies of the film are fetching a minimum of 50 dollars and that’s not what my economics professor would have called a “good business decision.”
And really, that’s the same problem with all three films in the Decline of Western Civilization trilogy. You can’t find them and you can’t see them. YouTube is a beacon of hope for so many out of print films and cult movies but it isn’t any help here. There are clips of the movies there, but to my knowledge there is NOWHERE you can go to see these movies if you don’t already have them.

A couple of years ago a website popped up at that seems to have the involvement of Spheeris (who now owns the rights to the movies themselves) and promised that DVDs of all three films would be available soon. There’s been no forward movement in at least a year. The music rights are holding up the releases because all the songs have to be cleared, which seems to be a problem. All those songs cost money. I don’t know if the audience is big enough to justify the expense.

So that’s where things currently stand. These movies have been known to play on IFC, but that’s not the same as purchasing it. If you have about three hundred bucks you can buy some old VHS tapes from Amazon or you could take your chances with the bootleg vendor in the heavy metal parking lot. I’d tell you to go to a video store and try to rent them but most of those are gone, taking gems like this along with them.

It’s a tragedy that these movies are unavailable and have become nonexistent to an entire generation of movie fans. The further we get from the time period featured in each film, the more I come to appreciate how special the moments they capture are and they deserve to be seen. They’re a sociological snapshot of brief moments in our culture that will never happen again; they don’t belong in a vault. Like all movies, these films were made to be seen. Hopefully they won’t languish in obscurity any longer than they already have and we can all see them soon. From what I’ve read, Penelope Spheeris agrees.


  1. Come over and watch my laserdisc of the first one. Still the best quality available!

    1. *heads to the car*

      I'll bring Chex mix.