The boxed set collects all three of Spheeris’ Decline of Western Civilization documentaries on Blu-ray, with an extra disc of outtakes and extended interviews. Coming into this viewing, I had seen the first film once or twice, Part II probably a dozen times or more, and I had never seen Part III, which was previously unreleased on video.
The first film focuses on the punk scene of Los Angeles in the late 1970s, with groups like Black Flag, X, and Fear. Penelope Spheeris documents a series of live performances from L.A. punk bands interspersed with interviews with the musicians and other punk fans. It’s the format that all three movies will follow. The focus of this first film is solidly on the music, the ideas behind it and the people who make it.
Popular culture these days often portrays punk as a revolutionary form of rock with musicians and fans who were on a mission to change the world. In some cases, certainly, that’s a fair categorization. The Decline of Western Civilization pulls back the veil a bit on the time period, though. While there are some musicians featured here that have big thoughts and ideas and really seem to have something to say, you also have groups of stupid kids making loud music. Like a great many musical movements, the majority are probably a little of both. Spheeris introduces us to musicians that we’d like to hang around with and others that we’d just like to smack upside the head.
The live performances are compelling, and really do capture the essence of what a club punk show might have been like at the time, with bodies flying and tons of energy. It offers a cool window on a revolutionary time in rock ‘n’ roll, and the unique way that punk bands and fans related to each other. For example, in the finale of the movie, Lee Ving of Fear incites the crowd to charge the stage in anger by hurling slurs and epithets at them before launching into one of the most ferocious sets featured in the film and taking that same crowd in the palm of his hand.
That brings us to the movie that I’m most familiar with – Part II: The Metal Years. I was truly looking forward to revisiting this memory of my youth after not having seen it for close to 20 years. What I was a little surprised to discover was how, from my current perspective, the film was much less a celebration of the times and music and much more an indictment of the shallowness and vapidity of that scene.
To be fair to myself and my fellow 1980s headbangers, Penelope Spheeris is focused on L.A., and in particular the glam scene on the Sunset Strip. We don’t really get a look at many of the other things that were going on in metal at the time. Though Lemmy and Ozzy are interviewed, there’s no real connection to classic British metal, and while Megadeth is featured at the end, the San Francisco Bay thrash scene is also largely ignored. It wasn’t all that dumb.
While some of the bands that Spheeris focuses on made an impact – Poison, and to a lesser extent, Faster Pussycat – most remain also-rans in the rock world, though you might recognize a few faces in the random interviews. Most of the unknowns don’t seem to be able to think past the end of their sexual organs in the interviews, but all are convinced that they’re going to be huge. Nowhere is that more apparent than with the singer of a band called Odin, who is confident his band will one day be as big as the Rolling Stones – and later tells us in a hot tub interview that, 20 years from now, people will recognize his face. Nearly 30 years later, I didn’t.
The more established acts, though, don’t really provide much more food for thought. Lemmy is his laid-back, not-giving-a-shit self; Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons put on their arrogant rock star personas and never let anything real show through; Steven Tyler and Joe Perry don’t seem to really understand why they’re there, and Perry looks downright pissed off through most of the interview; Alice Cooper has a few thoughts on the state of rock at the time, taking a swipe at bands who borrowed things from him, though whether serious or tongue-in-cheek, it’s hard to tell.
Two of the veterans stand out, though. The film gave us the first real look I ever remember seeing at the behind-the-scenes Ozzy, before he was completely addled. It’s funny because here’s a guy that scared the hell out of millions of parents, dressed in a leopard print bathrobe, cooking breakfast and cracking jokes with Penelope Spheeris. Hardly the antichrist figure that much of the parenting world saw him as in those years.
The other, though, is memorable for a very different reason. Spheeris interviews former W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes as he floats in his pool guzzling vodka in what is one of the most iconic scenes in any of the three movies. It was sad and pathetic at the time, and sad and a bit disturbing now. As his troubled mother looks on from poolside, Holmes offers up flippant answers to most of Spheeris’ questions and does his best to avoid anything resembling thought or introspection. When she asks him if he’s drinking to cover up pain, he cracks jokes, cracks a new bottle and turns it up over his head. As she presses him on the root of that pain, Holmes takes his bottle of vodka and plunges off the float and under the water to avoid facing it. It’s a stark reminder of where the party life played up by some of the other bands in the film can end.
Of course, you can’t have a movie about 1980s metal without someone preaching against it. In this film, that’s a probation officer with a program for “demetallizing” kids. Like most of the PMRC types, she spouts about symbolism and what things mean to the metal crowd. I think I speak for most metal kids when I say that it was complete bullshit – although some of it did seem kind of cool once they made the suggestion. Those people were ridiculous then, and they’re no less ridiculous looking back.
The Metal Years ends on a darker note, as Megadeth comes on the scene. Though founder Dave Mustaine is no less a prick than some of the acts that were previously interviewed, at least he’s not quite as shallow. The band delivers a rousing performance of “In My Darkest Hour,” which stands in stark contrast to most of the glitzy cock rock that had been featured to that point, and the ending of the film perhaps foreshadowed the fall of the glam style a few years before it actually happened.
Surprisingly, the most compelling of the three Decline of Western Civilization films ends up being Part III, which I had not previously seen.
It doesn’t start that way. When the movie begins, I was almost dismissive. It looked a lot like Penelope Spheeris was attempting to recreate the first film with the resurgent punk scene of the mid- to late-1990s. Like a lot of people my age and older, I viewed that scene with some skepticism. In early interviews, I guessed that many of the kids were probably middle to upper-middle class brats pretending to be punk and rebellious. As the film continues, though, the story evolves and a darker truth emerges. Rather than being the focus as in the first two films, the music becomes background noise for the story of these kids, these “gutterpunks.”
As their tales unfold, we discover that these aren’t kids living in a nice home, getting piercings and spiking up their hair on the weekends to go to a show. Instead, they’re broken people, hurt people, who are happier living on the streets than facing society and their pain. The kids profiled often seem happy and jovial, but it all hides a very dark side of their existence. Most come from abusive backgrounds. Most are alcoholics, some as young as 14 or 15. They spend their days panhandling for money or spiking up their hair and posing for photos with tourists for a few bucks, most of which they reinvest in alcohol.
Only one, a kid named Darius who is confined to a wheelchair following a drunk-driving accident, has an apartment, which he rents with his disability check. The others live wherever they can. On good days, they manage to squat in abandoned buildings. Otherwise, they’re sleeping in vacant lots, in bushes, anywhere they can find a spot. It’s a violent life as they’re often attacked and bullied, and most of them, when asked where they’ll be in five or 10 years, don’t expect to be alive.
At one point in the film, they’re all gathered in Darius’ apartment, where Penelope Spheeris provides them with a meal of hamburgers and fries. The kids rip into the burgers as if they’re the food of the gods, and in one memorable moment which kind of brought the situation home for me for some reason, we see one of the girls hoarding a pile of French fries and eating them off the floor. The dangers of their lifestyle hit hard during the filming of the movie, as well, as they lose one of their own in a squat fire, started by a candle in one of the abandoned buildings they’re living in. Too drunk for his friends to wake him up when they discover the fire, a kid named Stevie and his dog burn to death.
Shortly after the filming, one of the main characters (a mostly likeable guy who goes by the name of Squid) is stabbed to death. His girlfriend – known as Spoon, she seems fairly easy-going in her interviews – is jailed and accused of the crime. It’s just another reminder that sometimes the front the kids put up hides something darker. Spheeris does pull in a couple of veterans of the punk scene, like Keith Morris of the Circle Jerks and Flea. By the time Flea comes on screen in the latter half, though, the film has long since ceased to be about the music, so his part is brief and focused on the ways the city has changed and how it treats street kids.
Viewing the first two Decline of Western Civilization films again proved an interesting experience. My perception of the original was not much changed from the time or two I saw it way back when. But then, I was never a big part of the punk scene and didn’t relate as closely to it then or now. From the perspective of middle age, I came away with a very different take on The Metal Years, though.
I remember as a teenager thinking that the movie was fun and funny. As an adult, it was still enjoyable, but I kind of want to smack some of the bands, and I had to wonder if we were all that dumb back then. As much as I don’t want to admit it, probably a little bit. Most of the guys interviewed here take it to extremes that we didn’t, but I think most of us who grew our hair and picked up a guitar in the 1980s had similar dreams, and if I could talk to my 15-year-old self, I’d probably want to smack him, too.
It’s the third Decline of Western Civilization film, though, that makes the most poignant statement as it transitions from a story about the music to a story about the plight of these broken kids who can see no better future than sleeping in abandoned buildings, begging for change from strangers on the street to buy beer and ending up dead in the gutter at a young age. Of all of the people portrayed in Penelope Spheeris’ documentaries, these are the ones who seem to have the most right to be full of rage and anger, yet, on screen at least, they seem to be the most accepting of their lot and, if not exactly happy, at least content in a way.
Of course, as we find out, those exteriors often hide a lot of darkness.