Director Penelope Spheeris began filming The Decline of Western Civilization, a documentary about LA’s raucous punk community, in 1979. That film, released in 1981, spawned a trilogy connected by name, location, and music, but the songs that play in each film don’t exactly mesh. The first follow-up, 1988’s The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, focuses on the glam-metal scene that turned the Sunset Strip into a magnet for gaudy hairballs; the final chapter, 1998’s The Decline of Western Civilization III, lightly touches upon politically conscious hardcore bands, but mainly focuses on the lives of a gaggle of teenage crust punks as they panhandle and get wasted.
The third Decline never got any sort of formal distribution, and all three documentaries have been particularly hard to find since their initial releases. I vaguely remember having to use the Interlibrary loan system at Brandeis University to borrow a VHS copy of the first movie—mind you this was in 2007 or 2008—and I could never seem to find a copy of The Metal Years, but heard it spoken of rapturously throughout the years. Now fans don’t have to go to through such a laborious process (or, you know, if you prefer downloading, an illegal one) to see any of the Decline chapters. On Tuesday Shout! Factory releases a Blu-ray and DVD box set with all three films, and Saturday night Spheeris will host a screening of the first two parts at the Music Box.
In today’s era of surplus crowdfunded music docs filled with static shots, rotating casts of talking heads, and lots of lofty monologues about the importance of an obscure or underappreciated musician (or label head or manager or et cetera), the Decline series remains a visceral viewing experience. Spheeris recently told Grantland writer Steven Hyden that she doesn’t react well to nostalgia and prefers to “keep going forward,” and all three Decline movies have a sense of forward momentum. The concert footage still hums with energy, and Spheeris’s tight shots of Black Flag, X, and the Circle Jerks (among others) in the first Decline pulsate and thrash.
The Decline films are fascinating snapshots of these peculiar subcultures, but they’re not terribly comprehensive. The movies are more focused on capturing personalities than the nuances and intricacies of the subculture—the scenes of the Germs’ Darby Crash, in which he’s either talking about getting strung out or he’s barely singing onstage while strung out, are slightly depressing when viewed with the knowledge that he would wind up overdosing at the end of 1980. There are plenty of ugly moments in the first Decline, with punk fans spouting off racist comments with appalling nonchalance. In the final scene hardcore group Fear—who went on to infamously wreak havoc on the set of Saturday Night Live in 1981—provokes a crowd with prolonged streams of homophobic taunts that make the group’s short, nihilistic songs seem compassionate.
The second Decline film focuses on a genre that’s more sterile than the germinating hardcore in the preceding film, and yet the sleaziness that pervades The Metal Years comes off as cruder and ruder. It can also be funny, given the cartoonish bombast of hair metal and its musicians, who adhere to its fashion while failing to live out the rock-star dream. Many of the unknown aspiring musicians Spheeris interviews talk about making it big some day but also admit to borrowing money from women they barely know to, say, print flyers for a concert.
Spheeris gets help contextualizing hair metal from people who influenced it—Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, and Kiss’s Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, the latter of whom discusses his band’s legacy while lounging in a bed and getting caressed by three models. Many of the interviews in The Metal Years feel as if they’re more performative than informative. The film’s most infamous interview is with W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes, who at one point drunkenly pours a bottle of vodka down his throat and over his head while reclining on a floating chair in a pool as his mother watches from a nearby chair. Holmes seems the most earnest, if only because his inebriation predisposes him to be honest; his scene strikes a balance between pity and amusement, though the latter depends on how you might feel about the gaudiness of what Spheeris has honed in on.
The last film in the Decline series is characteristically out of step. Some of the hallmarks from the first two films are repeated, including the spliced-together footage of bands reciting the consent form for being filmed before their respective performances. These moments increasingly feel like distractions from what becomes the film’s focus: the lives of young homeless punks. The bands that do appear in the last Decline are pushed to the margins as Spheeris opens the floor to teenagers who struggle to scrape together enough money to buy booze to make it through the day; some of her subjects sought a life on the street because they couldn’t keep living in a household filled with abuse. Spheeris shows great empathy toward kids who can’t see much in the future for themselves, but as with the previous Decline films she doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of the community. The kids party in the apartment of the one teenager in their circle who actually has a place to live, yet they don’t treat the place with anything resembling respect.
The lives of the teens Spheeris films in the third Decline are unremittingly bleak. One dies in a squat fire during the course of the film. Another, who goes by the name Squid, was stabbed to death after Spheeris wrapped up filming, but before the movie was completed (his suspect also appears in Decline). And yet for some reason the lives of these gutter punks feel less sad than some of the hair-metal devotees in The Metal Years. When Spheeris asks many of the big-haired wannabe musicians where they’ll be in five years all of them declare that they’ll be on top of the rock heap—and they say it with the conviction of someone who knows it’ll be impossible to fail at that goal. If such a shallow lifestyle is the only thing those folks strived for, then I’d hate to see where they wound up.