The Decline of Western Civilization Collection sees three cult music documentaries directed by Penelope Spheeris (known largely for Wayne’s World these days) finally get a UK DVD and Blu-Ray release. I must admit, when I was offered the set to review I went for it largely on a whim. I had a vague recollection of the title being mentioned somewhere and the writeup made it sound interesting. I’m very glad I did take up the offer though as I was treated to an exceptionally good trilogy of films. In this age of blockbuster sagas being churned out by the dozen, it’s refreshing to see a set of documentaries show us how a film series should really be done.
The Decline of Western Civilization
Director: Penelope Spheeris
Screenplay: Penelope Spheeris
Starring: Alice Bag Band, Black Flag, X, Fear, Circle Jerks
Running Time: 100 min
BBFC Certification: 18
The first of Spheeris’ documentaries, The Decline of Western Civilization, saw her explore the burgeoning hardcore punk scene of her native L.A. around 1979-80. Speaking to a number of bands such as Black Flag, X, Circle Jerks, Fear and The Germs as well as some of their fans, she gets to the heart of the lifestyle as well as the music. Speaking of which, a number of live performances run throughout proceedings, acting as an anchor to the interviews.
Spheeris adopts a ‘warts and all’ approach, throwing the viewer in without a safety net. After a brief introduction we jump straight into the mosh pit (or whatever it was called in that era). The aggressive, sweaty atmosphere is captured perfectly and it’s easy to get caught up in the energy of the performances. I’m not a huge fan of punk rock, but the film sells it very well. Yes it looks violent and dirty and the music is loud and offensive, but through the kineticism of the action on screen and some occasional subtitles revealing otherwise hidden depth to the lyrics, you can really appreciate why these people are so dedicated to the genre.
The subjects’ passion towards the lifestyle is clear too. I must admit I’ve dismissed punks in the past as daft-looking trend-followers, but the ‘don’t give a f*ck’ attitude is infectious here and many of the speakers come across as sharper than you’d expect. There are a few drug and alcohol damaged individuals too of course, but I felt more sympathy for them here than I usually would. Living rough and certainly not living the glitzy rock lifestyle of mainstream bands, the groups here only just scrape together a living but get by on the thrill of performing alongside any extra stimulants they can get their hands on.
In adopting an observational approach, spending time with each group rather than flitting between talking heads, the film loses a little momentum as it goes on. I found my concentration waning a little towards the end, but at the same time I really admired Spheeris’ more natural style. It really felt like I was being thrust into the hardcore punk scene at the time. The movement is perfectly captured here and it’s an exhilarating place to be, despite the many rough edges. The lives of those on screen can seem harsh and sometimes depressing, but the music brings them together as a collective that aren’t going to put up with the sh*t being thrown at them.
The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years
Director: Penelope Spheeris
Starring: Joe Perry, Steven Tyler, Gene Simmons, Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy, Alice Cooper
Running Time: 93 min
BBFC Certification: 18
The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years moves away from the punk scene and looks at heavy metal and its followers. Shot in the late 80’s, hair metal was the music that pissed off your parents and gave birth to new ridiculous fashions and hair styles. The film interviews a mixture of big names like Alice Cooper, Aerosmith, Ozzy Osbourne and Lemmy alongside up and coming bands and plenty of wannabes.
Comparing these extremes seems to be the key factor here. Hair metal stars were known for their hedonistic lifestyles and some of them earned vast amounts of money which they would blow on Jack Daniels and cocaine. This wild and crazy lifestyle is what the young hopefuls Spheeris interviews seem to be alluding to. Few of them admit to craving the financial benefits, but most of them are keen to brag about how hard they party or the number of groupies they’ve slept with.
The latter boast plays a big part in the film. The male-dominated band members (as opposed to the more evenly spread bands in the other instalments) are obsessed with sex and their lewd comments cast a nasty shadow on proceedings. This is accentuated by Spheeris also spending a lot of time in a seedy rock club where the elderly owner hosts a ‘dancing girl’ contest.
The dark edge to the film grows as it goes on, reaching a climax when an interview with Chris Holmes (W.A.S.P.) descends into a disturbing display of alcoholism. As the big, supposedly ‘hardcore’ stars follow this with some surprising anti-drug comments, you realise that Spheeris has been slowly turning the film from a celebration of the excess of the movement to a damning of it. This is fairly subtly done though and there’s no real finger wagging as such, she just lets the sexist comments and depressing realities do the talking.
This makes the film sound quite bleak and depressing, but actually it’s probably the most fun of the three. The editing style is punchier and it’s slicker than the first film, with interviews and concert footage more carefully lit and technically proficient. Although comments can be offensive at times, the interviewees are generally very amusing too. Surprisingly, some of the bigger stars like Alice Cooper and Ozzy Osbourne are the more eloquent ones. Shot after he had got over his serious problems with drugs and alcohol, Ozzy is particularly grounded and against encouraging his young fans to follow in his footsteps. The only big names that don’t come across as totally honest and natural are the two Kiss members interviewed. Shot in ridiculous situations surrounded by semi-naked women, their contributions are a bit out of place and hard to swallow.
It lacks the raw edge of the first film and the first half can feel a bit like a straight forward rock doc, but by gradually twisting the image of contributors from boastful and brash to revealing problems with sexism, drugs and alcohol, Spheeris once again demonstrates her skills as a documentarian.
The Decline of Western Civilization: Part III
Director: Penelope Spheeris
Starring: Stephen Chambers, Flea, Gary Fredo
Running Time: 86 min
BBFC Certification: 15
The final part of the trilogy, The Decline of Western Civilization: Part III, begins like a straight follow up to Part 1, but takes things in a whole other direction as it goes on. A decade after Part 2, a new punk scene had developed and Spheeris once again turns her camera on the bands and fans. However, as she delves into the lives of the young people listening this powerful music, she discovers a community of ‘gutter punks’ living on the streets of L.A. Although a few are simply embracing the punk ethos of sticking their middle finger up to society, many of the homeless teens are actually victims of abusive parents who have been forced out to fend for themselves and developed drug and alcohol problems along the way.
Although this might sound like a departure for the series, it actually fits perfectly with the other two. The music may play a lesser part, but it’s still there and more importantly Part III shows the films are more about disillusioned youths finding not only an outlet for their frustrations, but a network or community to share them and support each other.
The difference with Part III is that the situation the subjects are in is more severe and the way out can seem almost impossible. This makes for quite a bleak watch, but an undeniably powerful one. Once again though, through the passion for the music and the strong personalities on display, it’s easy to get caught up in the film and feel part of the movement.
The young people may be in dire straits, but through their friendships surrounding the punk scene they generally remain in high spirits and their banter and mischief is hard not to enjoy. Things turn sour towards the end though and a climactic disaster is heart breaking. Following this is a double gut punch of final revelations provided by captions at the end, making for a moving and occasionally harrowing watch.
The film is a brutal, unvarnished, yet poignant look at the lives of lost, forgotten homeless youths, brought together through the punk scene. Whether they’ve left home due to abusive or unloving parents or simply because they wanted to detach from society, they stick together and survive as best they can, despite the odds. It’s a powerful, uncompromising documentary which tops off an outstanding trilogy of films.
The Decline of Western Civilization Collection is out now on DVD & Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Second Sight. I watched the Blu-Ray version and the picture quality is great. Yes the film looks a bit grimy, but in the best possible way. There’s a decent amount of detail without losing the film/video look and the colours come through naturally. What makes the quality particularly special is that the original negative of the first film was lost, so this print was taken from other sources. The audio is strong too, with the music powering through in a 5.1 or stereo mix, depending on your preference.
They’ve not skimped on the extras either. You get a huge number of extended interviews across all discs, some of which are from rough source material (due to the original stock being lost) so look ropey, but they’re often great to watch. Ones with the musicians will be of particular interest to fans of the bands. I enjoyed listening to Lemmy, Ozzy Osbourne and Alice Cooper in more detail on the second film’s disc. There are plenty of extra live performances to watch too, meaning fans of the trilogy’s music will be in heaven.
There are a few commentaries too, with Spheeris chatting over the first two films alongside her daughter Anna Fox (who was in charge of putting this set together) on part 1 and Nadir D’Priest on part 2. I haven’t listened to the latter yet, but the first chat track is pretty good. The pair spend too much time saying how much they love everyone and lamenting all the deaths, but their natural chemistry makes it an easy listen. Also included with the first film is a commentary from fan Dave Grohl, which is something few DVD releases can boast. I found it a little disappointing though as Grohl goes quiet a lot and doesn’t have much of value to say about the film. It’s listenable enough and his fans will still be keen to hear it, but it’s not the most enlightening of commentaries.
There are also a couple of interviews with Spheeris about the films, which are all worth watching, even if they’re quite short. More lengthy are two panel discussions covering all parts. These see Spheeris and some of the stars reminiscing and praising the films as well as chatting about some of the politics brought up in them. They’re a nice addition to the set.
There’s no substantial ‘making of’, but there is a short sequence of behind the scenes footage from part 3 with a Spheeris commentary. This may be brief, but it’s eye opening. It shows Spheeris to be quite pushy and controlling, but effectively so, coming across as a strong-willed mother figure to her subjects rather than a rude dictator type. You can see that some elements of the film are more set-up than you’d expect, but the bond she’s formed with the young people is clear and what they tell her still sounds natural and honest.
There’s a smattering of other extras too, which all help to create an exhaustively expansive set which fans will be rejoicing over. You can spend days going through everything and I can thoroughly recommend making a purchase. The films alone are good enough, but with a set like this, you’d be a fool to miss out.