Penelope Spheeris’ vivid series of documentaries, examining three distinct facets of LA sub-culture across two decades, have taken on an almost mythic status over time. Partly, that’s down to their unavailability – until now that is – on DVD; but the reputation of The Decline Of Western Civilisation (Parts I-III) ultimately rests on Spheeris’ candid, and highly contrary, depictions of the hardcore punk movement and the emergence of hair-metal
Filmed between December 1979 and May 1980, Part One features a scrum of hardcore bands – Black Flag, Germs, X, Circle Jerks, Catholic Discipline, Fear – and the chaos that surrounds them. It’s a fascinating, if gruelling, insight into a nihilistic world of fierce noise, crowd violence and its attendant characters. Germs singer Darby Crash (dead from a heroin overdose before the film was released) cuts a fairly pitiful figure, be it loaded on stage, frying eggs in his squalid apartment or playing with a pet tarantula. Exasperated Germs manager Nicole Panter likens her job to being a mother of three-year-olds: “Sometimes I want to batter my children.”
The punk scene itself appears to have very little direction, cohesion, or, it has to be said, sense of community. Lee Ving, for instance, incites a full-on riot at a Fear gig, hurling homophobic insults at anyone within spitting distance. It’s a formless form of aggression that finds an echo in interviews with some of the fans, including a skinhead called Eugene and a chain-wielding character with an ‘X’ shaved onto his scalp. LA hardcore proved to be hugely influential, but at this point it merely seems intent on burning itself to the ground.
By contrast, The Decline Of Western Civilisation Part II: The Metal Years (1988) is a hedonistic romp through the heavy metal milieu of the Sunset Strip. It’s a place where rock‘n’roll and sex are twin pursuits, peopled by bands with names like Wet Cherry, Sex and Dirty Dawn. As Kiss frontman Paul Stanley puts it, while reclining on a bed with three doe-eyed groupies in various states of undress, rock‘n’roll is “made by people who think with their crotches.”
It’s also a realm where comedy (often the unintentional kind) flirts with tragedy. From beneath vast canopies of hair, the rhythm section of Poison, a band who went on to sell 45 million records, collapse in giggles rather than say anything remotely meaningful. They make Beavis and Butt-head look like Harvard professors. Elsewhere, Ozzy Osbourne, in leopardskin robe, makes bacon and eggs in the kitchen and moans about his lot. Wizened club owner Bill Gazzari comperes his annual ‘Miss Gazarri Dancer’ contest, wherein scantily-attired girls gyrate on stage, while a panel of poodle-haired judges hoot encouragement. “It’s a classy place,” says the 18-year-old on Gazarri’s arm.
The film’s most memorable moment, and its most tragic, involves W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes. Floating on an inflatable pool chair while glugging vodka from a bottle, he admits to being “a full-blown alcoholic” and “piece of crap”. At the same time he blithely boasts about shagging four groupies at once in Salt Lake City, while his mum, sitting poolside, offers a stoic half-smile. …The Metal Years didn’t deliberately set out to demean the genre, though it did highlight both its vanity and absurdity.
1998’s The Decline Of Western Civilisation: Part III, made after Spheeris turned her back on a Hollywood career that peaked with Wayne’s World, is the most human film of the three. It focuses on the homeless gutter-punks of late ‘90s LA, most of whom weren’t even born when Spheeris shot the first documentary. These are runaways from broken and abusive homes, reliant on each other for communal ballast and united by both their outlier status in society and a devotion to neo-punk bands like Naked Aggression and Final Conflict.
One of their number, an 18-year-old who lives in his van, is killed in a fire while drunk. Nearly all of them admit to starting each day with a drink and no one knows where they’ll be in five years’ time. Many are convinced they’ll be dead. It’s a profoundly moving piece of work and one that directly led to Spheeris becoming a foster parent. And, like all three of these extraordinary films, it’s a remarkable portrait of both a musical climate and recent social history.
EXTRAS: Bonus disc includes two Q&As with Spheeris and extended interviews. Each disc also comes from extras: footage of Fear, X and Germs, audio commentary by Spheeris and Dave Grohl, interviews with Lemmy, Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, Ozzy, Gene Simmons and more. (7/10)
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