X bassist John Dow summarizes the ethos of Penelope Spheeris’s hardcore survey The Decline of Western Civilization and its two successors when he spots a fight break out during one of the band’s performances and shouts, “Altamont, all right!” The half-joking embrace of rock’s darkest impulses of cathartic self-immolation is a defining trait of the punk and metal acts chronicled in Spheeris’s trilogy, and footage taken from violent mosh pits and the squalid living conditions of underground musicians plays up the destructiveness of the music.
Nonetheless, the director swiftly reveals the tongue-in-cheek irony within the trilogy’s portentous title. She opens the first film with an interview with a young skinhead whose calm, articulate explanation of punk’s context as nothing more than a return to genre roots clashes with the uncomfortable starkness of her close-up, monochromatic framing, as if making a parody of the teen panic movies sold to conservative parents from rock’s inception. The punks undoubtedly reveal their narrow-minded social parameters; racial and homophobic slurs reinforce the inherently exclusionary policies of a scene of misfits. For the most part, however, the subjects come off like the kids they are, especially in a scene of Germs frontman Darby Crash, not long before his death by heroin overdose, innocently playing with his pet tarantula while his made-up bandmates cook breakfast behind him. Amusingly, the sleaziest characters in the film are neither the musicians nor their loyal fans, but the ancient promoters who hover around their venues, completely unconcerned with hardcore’s reputation for chaos so long as it gets them paid.
Ironically, those fossils outlast the young, and Spheeris’s 1986 follow-up, Part II: The Metal Years, seems to spring out of their skeeviest fantasies. In place of punk’s proud anti-commercial streak, the Strip now hosts the naked ambition of heavy metal, reconfigured from its hesher beginnings to a glammed, over-produced behemoth of squealing solos and skintight leather. Everyone dresses like extras in a porno, bands form on the spot to get girls, and the stars in the sky seem to be made out of platinum records. Everything is exaggerated, even the old promoters, now embodied by the leering skeleton that is Bill Gazzarri, “the Godfather of Rock n’ Roll.” With a nubile woman hanging off each arm and a Texas oil-baron outfit, Gazzarri is the blackened soul at the heart of the Strip’s money machine, and the more time Spheeris spends around him and his dollar-sign pupils, the more she deftly exposes the hollow rebellion these pop-rockers think they’re perpetuating.
If the first film’s comedy derived from its bright ruffians’ self-awareness and their ability to speak extemporaneously about their nihilistic worldviews, the sequel is funny for its subjects’ near-total obliviousness. Veterans like Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, and Lemmy offer the wisdom of those who’ve courted death and lived, but even experienced peers such as the members of KISS come off as buffoons, with Gene Simmons electing to be interviewed in a lingerie store while Paul Stanley lies on a bed with women piled on him like throw pillows. Scenesters are the worst of all, delusional wannabes and recent hitmakers who believe they’ll rule the charts for decades. The most endearingly inane of these dreamers are the members of local band Odin, who speak of wanting to be as big as the Beatles or Zeppelin. The notion that this fourth-rate collection of bandwagon-jumpers would reshape the landscape of popular music is hilarious, but their resolve is admirable, even if the band they most resemble is Spinal Tap.
If the promoters of the first film pointed the way to the capitalistic frenzy of the second, the notorious interview with a drunken Chris Holmes in a pool sets up the final installment of Spheeris’s trilogy, which checks in on a resurgent punk scene in the ’90s, only to find that the elective poverty of the first wave of hardcore rockers has now become outright homelessness and addiction. The kids that Spheeris shoots are too young to have been born when the first film came out, yet they spend their days panhandling for beer money, shuffling as a hive-mind between a handful of squats, and thrashing at underground shows. In-between, they relate horror stories of neglect, abuse, and abandonment. The humor of the preceding films is largely absent, save for a scene of some of the gutter punks begging with taunts like “spit on me for a quarter!” If the series title previously sounded ironic, here it fits, though the decline in question isn’t the result of the music. Rather, the music exists as the symptom of far more complex, interwoven social failures.
The final film may end the series on a tragic, ruminative note, but the Decline trilogy nonetheless stands out as an exemplary document for its combination of intimate placement and confrontational wit. Spheeris isn’t afraid to get into the mix with the fans, to the point that you can practically smell club floors sticky with years of spilled beer. The director also proves willing to challenge subjects, as when she listens to arrogant young metallers talking about using groupies not only for sex, but grocery money, and shames them into silence by asking, “What do you do for them?” Moments like the classically trained punk outfit Naked Aggression having a stressful band debate over whether to alienate purist fans by signing to a label are now common, but Spheeris’s ability to extract conclusions about not just a particular artist, but an entire musical ecosystem, lends timelessness to a franchise about specific moments in American culture.
The picture quality across the films is wildly variable owing to both the quality of stock used in each feature as well as the state of the original negatives. The first film naturally looks worst, given that its original negative was destroyed, but the print used looks clean enough. Instances of scratches and lines occasionally mar an otherwise solid rendering of 16mm film, with modest detail and bleeding color palettes a byproduct of shooting verité. The third film resembles the first, albeit with a clearer image, but the 35mm Metal Years looks best, mainly because the scene itself is so artificial and plastic that it looks as if DNR were applied to the buildings and people before director Penelope Spheeris even set up her camera. The original audio tracks come with each feature, but the new 5.1 mixes are great for the concert footage, adding to the visceral crowd placement of Spheeris’s shots with an enveloping noise.
Each film comes loaded with extended interviews and concert footage, while both the first and second films come with commentaries. The first has two tracks, one by Spheeris and her daughter, Anna Fox, and one by Dave Grohl, while the second film comes with a commentary featuring Spheeris and musician Nadir D’Priest. All of the tracks are informative and laidback, and Grohl’s inclusion as a high-profile fan befits a series as invested with how a kind of music affects its listeners as the music itself. A Henry Rollins Show interview between the host and Spheeris is chummy and nostalgic, while behind-the-scenes footage of the third film offers an even starker glimpse into the life of its subjects. A smattering of extra features fill out a bonus disc, from contemporary news reports to a retrospective roundtable conducted at the Los Angeles County Museum of Fine Art. Finally, a booklet is included with stills and an essay by Domenic Priore.
Penelope Spheeris’s documentary trilogy has been conspicuously absent on home video for decades, but Shout! Factory makes up for lost time with a lovingly assembled box set that confirms these films as some of the greatest of their kind.