“It’s something new and it’s just reviving like old rock n roll, and it’s like it’s raw and it’s for real, and it’s fun. You know like it’s not bullshit; there’s no rock stars.” These are among some of the first words spoken in Penelope Spheeris’ iconic punk rock documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization. The talking head is not some worn out punk rocker nor is it straight from the mouth of any notable punk musician. He’s just a scraggly, bald teenager named Eugene — almost still a child really. But were there no rock stars in punk? This is the question that Decline seems interested in addressing, even if it is not explicit — although the question becomes more explicit in the sequels. At the point of filming, Darby Crash — famed lead signer of the Germs — was already a sort of demigod in the community. A quasi punk rock cult of personality, women and men alike idolized Crash — the Germs burn (done with a lit cigarette), a sign of their allegiance.
Even if we are to believe Eugene, that punk is not about rock stars, what is it about then? Spheeris doesn’t answer this specifically; rather, she begins to pry at the conceptions of punk — often conceptions held by outsiders, but sometimes by those within the scene. Perhaps punk is the decline of the modern world; the banner unto which disenfranchised youth hide behind? Why else would the crowd of any given punk show feature so many broken, anti-social, and wayward youths?
If Spheeris wanted to make that film, she would have had more than enough footage to do so. Whether it is a nearly indecipherable Darby Crash fronting for the germs, interspliced with footage of him openly talking about drug and alcohol abuse over some morning eggs; Fear delaying their set while they bellow obscenities and slurs at a growingly angry crowd, culminating in a sort of momentary riot; or, simply, just a group of punks talking about their lack of focus, lack of desire, and lack of goals, there is simply no shortage of damaging footage. This is not the film that Spheeris wants to make, nor is it, in any way, the film that she made. The result is an evenhanded portrait of punk rock at a specific time and place. Fear’s belligerent disregard is contrasted with X’s determination or with Black Flag’s earnestness; Eugene’s apathy with Kickboy Face’s ambition (both at Slash magazine and fronting for Catholic Discipline). As a film interested in observation rather than analysis, there is no single answer given for the complex questions that her film raises. That they are not always answered, well, that’s what makes the film so rich.
Spheeris, who had been an active member in the LA punk scene, decided to use the film knowledge she acquired while working at SNL to document what she was witnessing in LA in the late 70s/early 80s. Because of her intimacy, her knowledge, she was granted an intimate look into the subversive, counter cultural movement at the height of its popularity. This wasn’t London, this wasn’t New York, it was LA, like no one has seen it before. The film, to date, still is one of the best documentations of Chavo-era of Black Flag, which only spanned during part of the year in which the film was made.
While the first film set the stage and placed Spheeris’s name on the map, Part II: The Metal Years is undeniably the most famous of the three films. It’s not hard to guess why. First off all, Spheeris was no longer interviewing down and out punks, her new subjects — Ozzy Osbourne, Kiss, Aerosmith, Poison, to name a few — were larger-than-life characters. They were everything that Eugene thought punk opposed; they were Rock Stars. Thus, most of what composes The Metal Years are questions of fame, wealth, success; all of the so-called perks of Rock Stars.
Most people have noticed that in the gloss and glamour of the second film, there is also an appearance of performing or acting. The candid attitude of the first is all but lost here, where the subjects not only seem aware of being filmed, they actually appear to be in control of it. In fact, they often were in control. Spheeris has commented that Paul Stanley’s famous interview — in a bed surrounded by a gaggle of scantly clad women — was all his idea. The ethical conundrum would dictate that the subject’s control over their environment and (potentially) the way they were depicted reduces the film to nothing more than a fluff piece, but is this the case? This criticism gives Spheeris short shrift. What The Metal Years does, and rather ingeniously, is to take the crass Star-idolatry, the superficiality, and the fronting that was rampant in the scene and compartmentalize it into film’s aesthetic.
Beneath the dangling earrings, scarfs, teased out hair, and bright pink lipstick, lies the very same approach that Spheeris crafted with the original film. Because, Spheeris doesn’t succumb to the shallowness — like some naysayers may believe —, she cracks open the scene’s façade simply by doing nothing at all to impede it. By willfully letting the subjects take control, she allows the very documentation to wear through their so-called confidence. As a result, their image deconstructs. In the film’s most tragic scene, Spheeris cuts together a wealth of Hair-metal-wannabes, each with a nearly identical, delusion opinions of their destined fame. They’re all going to make it. Why? Because they’ve got what it takes. They’ve got the looks, they’ve got the talent, and, most importantly, they have no doubt in the world of their promise. Thus, the flashy, sexy nature of The Metal Years is a necessary component. The biggest misstep of the film — one that can’t really be attributed to the reflexive style — is in the live performances. The real, fly on the wall feeling of the original film is gone. The performances instead feel staged, under attended, and — sadly — lifeless. Intentional or not, with so much screen time dedicated to their live acts, it severely deadens the film.
It should be said that not all of The Metal Years is fixated on the shallower Glam scene. Spheeris’s interview with Lemmy Kilmister (Motörhead) is one of the most sincere and candid that the legendary front man has ever given. Similarly, Aerosmith and Alice Cooper — not really worried as much with overcompensation or protecting their image — both offer glimpses into the oft-destructive nature of stardom. Finally, a pre-Reality TV star Ozzy gives a humorous, if not somewhat staged, performance that still offers viewers a sincere look into his career.
Beyond the hours of extra footage, the real exciting aspect of this box set is that it offers, really for the first time ever, a quality release of the third, and currently final, edition to the series — although Spheeris has hinted that she is at work on a 4th, but has yet to reveal its subject. This is not only important for fans but also for Spheeris herself, who has expressed that Part III is her favorite and most personal of the series. Part III is really the black sheep of the bunch, its not really a music documentary. There is music in it — Naked Aggression, Final Conflict, etc. — but for the first time, Spheeris takes spotlight off the musicians and places it in the proverbial crowd. This does have its roots in all of the films. Many have lamented that Eugene actually emerges as the most fascinating subject in the original film, despite only being on screen for a few minutes. In the sequel, the film begins with Gene Simmons declaring that metal would be nothing without the fans, and Spheeris does seem interested in them — although most of the non-famous subjects are not pure fans but rather Rock Star wannabes. But for Part III she inverts the model, the music serves as the backdrop for the scene it creates and, by doing this, Spheeris comes the closest to actually asking the question that seems on the tip of every one of the film’s tongue: what is it about this music that attracts destructive behavior.
I struggle to say that the film focuses on the “fans,” because it’s more than that. These squatters are punks, yes, but they are more interested in a way of life than a style of music. In this light, Part III is both a return to form for Spheeris and a complete evolution. Part III strips away the veneer and the gloss, and presents the most raw and honest depiction of youth gone awry. Though there are interviews with band members they are mostly forgettable — save a few lines uttered by Naked Aggression. This is a movie about squatters; squatters who just so happen to be punk. Neither the eccentric, anti-social subjects of the first or the delusional and misguided metal heads in the second film offer quite as tragic of a narrative as the lost souls in Part III. Spheeris, who throughout the series showcased a strong sensitivity to even the most absurd of interviewees, is clearly the most taken with this ragtag group of misfits. She is the most vocal in this film, and yet she still offers an honest, engaging journey into the life of a squatter — managing at all times to be both invested and partial.
I would love to tell you that everything I know about punk I learned from Decline of the Western Civilization, but that would be grossly inaccurate. In reality, the original film — along with its two sequels — probably did more to warn me against everything that I didn’t want to be. These are not informative documentaries. You aren’t going to be fed a prefabricated history or any sort of lineage to help define what punk was in the 70s, what Hair metal was in the 80s, and what punk became in the 90s. All you get is a chance to be there, be in the moment. Though she worked in many genres, Spheeris always (and continues) to return to these films and there is a reason: its what she does best. Despite outcries of potential exploitation or tampering, with these films Spheeris really does offer three of the most important music documentaries, proving that she is one of the unsung masters of the genre. Hopefully — now that Shout! Factory has presented each film fit with stunning high definition transfers — Spheeris’s importance as one of the most important documentary filmmakers will be fully realized.