The Decline of Western Civilization, Penelope Spheeris’s notorious portrait of the Los Angeles punk scene during the late ’70s and early ’80s, has had a history as storied as the legendary subjects it depicts. Upon its 1981 premiere, numerous fights broke out amongst members of the scene depicted, and the L.A. Chief of Police wrote to the director asking that the film not be screened again in the city. In the years following, Decline and its two sequels were only available on VHS tapes with limited circulation, thereby turning the series into something of a cult object with copies passed around and worn down as a result of exhaustive and enduring interest in these time capsules of alt-music scenes gone by. Thus, The Decline of Western Civilization acquired an underground cred over the years. And like anything that carries this hard-earned distinction, the documentary was accompanied by myth and hyperbole, with stories of its calamitous premiere colored with ever more extreme detail while unfounded rumors of a litigious rights nightmare surrounded the film’s long-stagnant commercial availability.
In short, the history of The Decline of Western Civilization’s fraught and cherished relationship with audiences is as anti-commercial, unconventional and community-forming as the subjects depicted. But like punk itself, the era of Decline’s elusive availability is dead, the result of a years-long restoration project undertaken by Spheeris’s daughter, Anna Fox. Now available as a box set from Shout Factory, all three Decline titles have been packaged together on Blu-ray and DVD from 2K transfers and are loaded with special features including deleted scenes, interviews, and numerous commentaries. The wide-eyed historical clarity with which this set now presents this trilogy could not be further from the found-object quality of Decline’s circulation history — one that mirrored the exclusive corners of the scenes it depicts. And while there might be some loss to the aura of a cult object emanating from those worn VHS tapes, the Decline trilogy feels no less a discovery in its new premium presentation, with the stuffed box set serving as an encyclopedic overview of the films and their subjects. This too is an object well worth finding.
Watching Decline as a series rather than individual films only enriches each entry, contextualizing these separate titles as an ethnographic portrait of various L.A. music scenes over two decades. Separately, each Decline depicts subcultures at their idiosyncratic margins, attempting to make clear the rules, values, and styles as described by those who take part. But altogether, this set constitutes an ambitious study of how urban youth cultures form and fade away — how they build upon or negate one another, attempt to one-up or erase what’s come before, and change according to numerous conditions visible inside and outside the music scene, whether they be economic, social, or political. Where punk and hair metal were often a subject of fleeting curiosity, fear, derision or moral panic within the mainstream — when visible at all — Spheeris uses the power of filmmaking earnestly, giving her many musicians and scenesters a microphone with which to express and explain themselves, many for the first and only time in their life.
The first Decline of Western Civilization lives up to its tongue-in-cheek title, depicting a radical style of rock music that cared not to explain itself. In the wake of the counterculture’s failed ideals, punk espoused a philosophy of contrarianism, a powerful stance against all revolutionary pursuits and ideas. The end and the means were shock, and shock served as a vessel for living completely outside societal norms of work, responsibility, morality, individuality, etc. Hell, punk didn’t even abide by the presumed “norms” of rock ’n’ roll — traditional notions of musical skill and rock stardom are largely nowhere to be seen in front of Spheeris’s cameras, even though many of the bands on display here have since become icons of the genre.
Spheeris’s depiction of the L.A. punk scene is hardly homogenous. The older art school influences of Catholic Discipline meld with the relative accessibility of X, which somehow co-exists with the dedicated anarchism of Germs, whose lead singer, Darby Crash, tragically died of an intentional heroin overdose by the time of the film’s release. A shared sense of play and danger pervades the film to the point where the viewer gets both a tangible sense of the immediacy of the punk scene and an escalating fear for the safety of Decline’s crew’s efforts to capture it.
The film’s subjects are surprisingly frank and responsive when answering Spheeris, who prods them with almost anthropological queries (“What does your band name mean?” “Why do you wear that?”), taking the position of curious outsider despite having been deeply involved in the scene for years before filming. The result is a remarkable degree of access that her subjects likely never would have given to the nightly news. Punk as a cultural practice has never been clearer: it’s both a lifestyle that must be authentically lived, and also a dedicated performance ready for the curious or offended onlooker. Whether capturing Crash making eggs or Lee Ving of Fear taunting an audience ready to erupt in violent revelry, the multifaceted practice of punk in clubs and elsewhere comes into full view.
Depicting L.A.’s glam/hair metal scene of the late ’80s, the status of The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years as a sequel would suggest some sort of assumed continuity with the punk scene depicted in the original Decline. While Spheeris uses a similar technique of balancing interviews and song performances, and while L.A.’s metal scene exhibits an emphasis on an extravagant and confrontational style, the subject matter could not be more different. Shot while several of the first film’s subjects were off making their own films (see: Border Radio), The Metal Years would seem to suggest that the original punk scene evaporated into something more fitting with the commercialism of prior rock ’n’ roll. Instead, the film focuses more on the intoxicating aura of rock stardom and the enthralling excesses of a truly odd and briefly very popular music scene.
Balancing mainstays like Ozzy Osbourne and Kiss with struggling acts like Odin and Seduce, The Metal Years treats hair metal as a scene fit for the era of Reagan and the superficiality stereotypically associated with L.A., all despite the fact that such music was seen as a prime enemy to the moral police of its day. With gender-bending styles brushing up against compensatory machismo, hair metal was loaded with fascinating contradictions. Without ever venturing into parodic Heavy Metal Parking Lot territory, Spheeris’s depiction balances the comic (see Kiss’s Paul Stanley interviewed on a bed of silent women and Ozzy struggle to make breakfast) and the tragic (rampant sexism, alcoholism and deluded pursuits of fame).
The Decline of Western Civilization Part III would seem to pick up where the first film left off, but the mid ’90s L.A. punk at the center of this doc is strikingly different from Spheeris’s initial entry. Depicting politically minded punk acts like Naked Aggression and Litmus Green, L.A. punk now has specific targets for its aggression: sexists, homophobes, organized religion and capitalists. “Society” bears names and institutions to rail against, and music serves as a means for forming community, acting out aggression, and pursuing activism. Slurs are now replaced by language that welcomes the oppressed and marginalized, and anti-Neo-Nazi tattoos overwhelm whatever swastika shirts remain.
But Spheeris is less interested in the music this time around than she is in a specific community that thrives on it: L.A.’s so-called “gutter punks,” homeless teens who have formed a close community against the forces of poverty, stigma, addiction and abuse. While Spheeris delves deep into the often difficult conditions that have brought these disparate outsiders together, she never pathologizes their behavior and instead offers her camera as the conduit for giving voice to kids who most often spend their days asking money from people who are doing everything they can to ignore them. The film inverts the knee-jerk propensity to treat these subjects as a social plague by focusing on how this community has, through abject conditions, somehow found what the rest of us lose so easily: a selfless value in community, a propensity for survival and a restless sense of imagination. By the end of her trilogy, Spheeris offers not only a means of understanding difficult subcultures, but she also depicts the depth and worth of radically alternative ways of life — the value of living against civilization.
The Decline of Western Civilization Box Set is now available on Blu-ray and DVD via Shout Factory.