Disclaimer: Documentaries are, in my opinion, the absolute most difficult genre to write in-depth about. These are films about real-life people and scenarios that shed light on various times, subcultures, people, and events, both contemporary and throughout our history. They often have no narrative to speak of, have no performances to praise or pan, and far more subtle direction than feature-length narrative films. I’m writing about this trilogy because it moved me in ways that few films have ever done in the past, and because I’m hoping it will reach those who never would have heard of these films otherwise. These reviews are very much stream of consciousness, so I apologize in advance if that is a problem for you as a reader.
The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)
Directed by: Penelope Spheeris
Starring: Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Alice Bag Band, Fear, Germs, X, and Catholic Discipline
Thank the gods of film for Penelope Spheeris and her eye for documenting a subculture that nobody wanted anything to do with at the time. The Decline of Western Civilization is the widely acclaimed and highly influential punk rock documentary by one of the most influential female documentarian of our time. The film focuses on the Los Angeles punk scene of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, giving impromptu – but always entertaining and insightful – interviews with both influential and forgotten punk bands of the time, including Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, Germs, X, and Fear, along with fans of the genre, club owners, and those who adhered to the punk rock subculture of the time. The documentary is notable for covering a subculture that was widely ignored by mainstream press of the time, and treating them like any other group. These people have insightful and intelligent things to say, create brilliant (if chaotic) music, and aren’t afraid to speak their minds about injustices taking place throughout the Western world at the time.
Though the first film in the trilogy is probably my least favorite due to its impersonal nature and fly on the wall film-making (which isn’t to say it isn’t impressive or will leave an impression, I’m just more taken by more up-close and personal styles), there’s absolutely no doubting or underplaying the influence The Decline of Western Civilization had on music and documentary film in 1980’s America. The films subjects have a lot of terrific anecdotes, opinions that needed to be heard at the time, and do a great job of showing the world why they shouldn’t be ignored by the world around them. The music is loud, chaotic, and of an extremely personal nature, but that’s the beauty of punk music; it can either mean everything to you or sound like distorted noise. No matter what your opinion on punk music and the people in and around it, do yourself a favor and watch Spheeris’ film immediately; at the very least it will expose you to ideas and music you hadn’t given much thought to, and give you an idea of the social environment of the time. This film is absolutely recommended, and its sequels even more so.
The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988)
Directed by: Penelope Spheeris
Starring: Megadeth, Ozzy Osbourne, Steven Tyler, Alice Cooper, Paul Stanley, Chris Holmes, Motorhead, Faster Pussycat, Lizzy Bordon
Taking place five years after the documentary that changed it all, Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization Part II focuses on Los Angeles’ heavy metal scene, a much different animal than the same city’s punk rock scene in the early years of the decade. Though several jokes are made at the expensive of glam rockers of the time, the film focuses heavily on the glam metal scene, as well as speed and thrash metal. The documentary features incredible and highly memorable interviews with rock superstars like Ozzy Osbourne, Dave Mustaine of Megadeth, Lemmy of Motorhead, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, KISS’ Paul Stanley, and Chris Holmes of the band W.A.S.P. The second Decline of Western Civilization puts a huge amount of emphasis on getting into the minds of metal bands and trying to uncover why they live the way they live. The sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle is heavily discussed – and featured – throughout the picture, with many artists admitting to alcohol and drug problems, and telling stories of partying and debauchery.
Spheeris’ second part of the Western Civilization trilogy improves on the original in so many ways (in my opinion), getting much more up-close and personal with the artists, and uncovering why they are the way they are. The film focuses on established – and often tortured – heavy metal superstars as well as up-and-coming bands who will stop at nothing to stand next to the rock stars they adore and become idols to metal heads around America. The subjects and interviews through the film are much more compelling this time around, particularly in scenes with Ozzy Osbourne Steven Tyler recounting their less than glamorous moments as rock stars, and admitting to their many faults and vices. The absolute highlight of the film is Spheeris’ one-on-one interview with W.A.S.P.’s Chris Holmes (and his mother). Holmes floats around in a pool, talks about being a “full-blow alcoholic”, and pours vodka over his head, mouth, and body all while his mother looks on rather helplessly. If you’re at all interested in hearing these tales and seeing many now-famous musicians in a rather unflattering light, by all means watch The Metal Years immediately. It connected with me on a personal level, and managed to surpass the original film. I highly recommend this film, and would even call it the best film of the incredibly impressive trilogy.
Directed by: Penelope Spheeris
Starring: Final Conflict, Litmus Green, Naked Aggression, The Resistance
Though I just stated that The Metal Years was without a doubt the best film of the trilogy, Penelope Spheeris’ final film in the series, The Decline of Western Civilization Part III, is my personal favorite of the bunch. The film focuses far less on the music scene in Los Angeles (though it is still heavily featured and referenced) and more on the “gutter punk” lifestyle. The subjects of the film are mainly young adults (and teenagers in some cases), who adhere to the punk rock lifestyle, live on the mean streets of LA, are addicted to drugs and alcohol, and who have been abandoned by their parents and mentors. These “gutter punks” have no real goals in life, nor do they care about what society thinks of them; they’re on this earth to have a good time or die trying. The interviews with street kids and squatters are hilarious at times, and absolutely heartbreaking at others. How anybody could not love these kids is beyond me, no matter how “troubled” they may seem on the outside.
The subjects mainly go by their street names like Squid, Hamburger, Pinwheel, and many, many others, and are all funny, resourceful, and surprisingly insightful young people who you grow to adore over the course of ninety short minutes. By the time the credits rolled, I was begging for more time with them, and was left wondering what came of them in the years to follow. Spheeris is at her best throughout the film, interacting with and interviewing the teenagers, who seemed to have developed a genuine liking and appreciation for her style and brand of humor. Due to the nature of the film, I don’t have much more to say about it, but I do want to stress how incredibly fun and personal the third film is. I was genuinely brought to tears by the end of the film, and have developed a genuine appreciation for Penelope Spheeris and punks worldwide. See this film, see this entire trilogy if you can, I absolutely can’t recommend it enough.
The Decline of Western Civilization I-III are without a doubt some of the best films I’ve seen in the genre, and ones I’ll be returning to again and again for years to come. Highest recommendation.