After years of only being available on VHS, The Decline of Western Civilization documentary series finally got the Blu-ray box-set treatment it desperately deserved. Focusing on three different eras of the underground Los Angeles music scene from 1979 to 1998, The Decline forced viewers to look past the spikes, leather, and spit and into a world of homeless teens, drug and alcohol abuse, and senseless violence. While the first installment of The Decline is definitely the most popular, all three documentaries stand the test of time. The new box set comes with a bonus disc featuring tons of outtakes, commentary, and unedited interviews, in addition to a booklet that expounds on the cultural significance of what director Penelope Spheeris (Black Sheep, Wayne's World) calls her greatest work.
In the Beginning
Punk rock has always been an easy target for the film industry (Repo Man, Thrashin', The Return of the Living Dead), but no filmmaker took the musical phenomenon seriously quite like Penelope Spheeris and her 1981 documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization. The film focuses on the early days of the Los Angeles punk world, specifically the scene that started at the Masque and then spilled into whatever clubs would host the unpredictable and often violent gigs. Quite simply, The Decline is the definitive source on the early days of punk rock and hardcore in Los Angeles, along with the Brendan Mullen and Marc Spitz oral history We Got the Neutron Bomb.
Spheeris shines the spotlight on groups like Germs, X, Black Flag, Circle Jerks, and Alice Bag Band and allows the editor of Slash magazine, Claude Bessy, aka Kickboy Face, to be the voice of his leather-clad generation in multiple captivating scenes. Spheeris also secured one of the last interviews with Jan Paul Beahm (aka Darby Crash), as the singer died of an overdose/suicide months before the movie premiered in Los Angeles. Other highlights include early footage of Fear front man Lee Ving's approach to crowd interaction and the Black Flag interview at their home "The Church," in which then-Black Flag vocalist Ron Reyes shows off the closet he calls home.
Heavy Metal Excess
The second documentary in The Decline series might not be the most bleak, but it's certainly the most cringe-worthy. Spheeris had a much larger budget for The Decline of Western Civilization: The Metal Years and enlisted the help of Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Lemmy Kilmister, Ozzy Osbourne, and Steven Tyler (among others) to explain the heavy metal phenomenon that took L.A. by storm in the mid-'80s. You can probably guess how the story plays out: groupies, cocaine and alcohol, more groupies, gallons of hairspray, and loads of money from record companies cashing in on a new style of rock-and-roll.
Paul Stanley is literally lying in a bed of groupies whenever he appears in the documentary (sans makeup, of course), and somehow Kilmister of Motörhead got the "voice of reason" role as he ponders the social significance of heavy metal while overlooking the Los Angeles skyline.
Yes, this documentary is as strange/corny as it sounds, but it's also extremely entertaining. While the other two documentaries in this series preach a mantra of social change, all of the subjects in The Metal Years just want to be rock stars, no matter how much of a long shot it might be. Tyler claims that he lost millions by "snorting up all of Peru," and, honestly, anything Tyler says during his short time on camera is worth the price of admission.
But it's not all fun and games and spandex in The Metal Years, especially when Chris Holmes of W.A.S.P. appears noticeably wasted and floating fully clothed in his pool, exclaiming that he's a full-blown alcoholic. He then confesses to drinking five pints of vodka a day before pouring a whole fifth of vodka on his face and sliding into the pool.
While The Metal Years might have some big-name cameos, most of the bands that perform in the movie (except for Megadeth) never made it big.
By the time The Decline of Western Civilization: Part III came out in 1998, Spheeris had a blueprint to work with. She'd already exposed the wayward youth of Los Angeles twice, whether she was focusing on the metal scene on the Sunset Strip or the dawn of punk rock in L.A. clubs like the Masque and the Whiskey. The Decline: III focuses on a group of outcasts known as "gutter punks."
While the punk rockers in the first Decline at least claimed to want to change their world, the street dwellers in The Decline: III just want to get drunk. Really drunk. Most of the subjects interviewed by Spheeris have either run away or been kicked out of their parents' homes, resorting to living in the gutters, on rooftops, and in squat houses of seedy downtown Los Angeles when they aren't taking part in delinquent behavior.
Though the bands featured in The Decline: III (Naked Aggression, Final Conflict, Litmus Green, and the Resistance) still preach social change, their audience seemed to be totally missing the point. With quotes like "I live for beer" rampant throughout the documentary, Spheeris perhaps captured a group of individuals not as interested in changing the world as they are in self-destruction.
While the first Decline captured the youthful spirit of a new social movement and The Metal Years captured the decadence and machismo of the '80s L.A. metal scene, The Decline: III doesn't find youth in revolt or with aspirations to be like the rock stars plastered on their walls. Instead, it finds youth in decay.