Mini Movie Marathons

Mini Movie Marathon: Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization Documentary Trilogy

There was a documentary series about the growth of divisive subcultures from the early ’80s to the late ’90s. Punk, Heavy Metal and Garage music were becoming more popular among young Americans within the two decades. The documentaries analyze the lives of the performers in part analyzing the music with interviews from their audience, the concert and club owners who hire them to play music and, third party people like management or their parents about the music. There were discussions of what the appeal of sex, drugs and rock and roll was to them and if they liked their decisions in the music industry and social expectations.

There were multiple documentaries that talk about similar topics about music with “corruptible” influences destroying our youths of tomorrow. A lot of them have Christianity as the basis of their films but not these films. These documentaries have been filmed with an investigative nature in mind with a keen understanding of the artistry creating something new.

The documentary film maker and producer is Penelope Spheeris. She is best known for directing Wayne’s World, The Beverly Hillbillies and The Little Rascals. But throughout her film career she has made punk-influenced features that take elements from the music genre and the musicians for the basis of her stories like Suburbia, Dudes, Senseless and The Boys Next Door.

All of these documentaries are available to watch on Tubi. There’s no screenshots of the documentaries. Also, there is some imagery and language in these documentaries that can be seen as highly offensive.

The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)

The movie is about the Los Angeles punk movement and underground music scene from late 1979 and throughout 1980. The title references a letter from Lester Bang, a freelance music journalist for Rolling Stone magazine and Cream, two-part 1970 music review for The Stooges’ quoting a friend saying the popularity of the Stooges signaled “the decline of Western civilization”.

The film begins with the bands reading a disclaimer that if they are in the room, they agree to be a part of the film that was filming in process. The singers just read the disclaimer. The disclaimer is read by the frontman. Some front man singers were annoyed or angered in some way. All of it just sets the tone to be very punk and very defiant.

The basis of the documentary was to focus on the punk movement that was usually ignored by mainstream music magazines. It explores the lifestyles, influences, beliefs and methods of making music within the scene. It also interviews the audience to get the feel of the crowd and why they are there in the first place.

Some of the musicians in the documentary:

  • Black Flag
  • Alice Bag
  • Circle Jerk
  • Fear
  • Germs
  • X

The interviews were of the artists and musicians that were very articulate in their passion for the music they were playing. The music tracks are a good introduction to anyone not aware of 70s punk rock. They talk about what makes a punk song when they discuss the speed, the political lyrics and sound distortion. The punk dancing is very grabby and almost violent, a glimpse of the original mosh pits. A lot of people in the crowd posturing as tough angry people with some in offence clothing beyond just chains and cut up leather clothes. It also goes with the offence things the bands featured say that can be seen as homophobic. It’s not right but it’s all a part of the macho posturing and revving up the crowd for more energy and interaction that the male band singers are doing throughout the documentary.

There are people drinking alcohol with discussions of drug use of some of the people in the documentary. There’s also a very slurred performance of a frontman very intoxicated. All of the interactions are very frank and to the point. Some of the conversations were serious in nature; but, when they weren’t posing as aggressive tough antisocial people.

This is the only film of the trilogy that was considered historically, culturally and aesthetically significant to the United States National Film Registry. The film looks like it was produced on a 45 mm film. There are still little scratches, dust marks and a slight blur even after the film conversion to a digital format.

The Decline of Western Civilization, Part II: The Metal Years (1988)

This is the follow-up documentary that examines the lives and fandom of the heavy metal scene in the Los Angeles area between 1986 to 1988. There are interviews with venue owners, musicians and producers about the lifestyle. All about the sex, drugs and rock-and-roll lifestyle that was played to excess. Some of the musicians are shown drunk and bragging about the multiple women they have had sex with. But a lot of them talk about how the lifestyle changed and what is it like to be on the road all the time.

This film doesn’t begin with the disclaimer right away but with Gene Simmons talking about how heavy metal fans are the best. The difference this time around is that it jumps right to the interviews with a better set and talking directly to management when the introductory music ends. The disclaimer is after some discussion about the music but is more tongue and cheek to how five band leaders read the disclaimer.

Some of the musicians in the documentary:

  • Aerosmith
  • Ozzy Osbourne
  • Alice Cooper
  • Motley Cruë
  • Motorhead
  • KISS
  • Poison
  • Faster Pussycat
  • London
  • Lizzy Borden

This documentary is the more popular of the three with more recognizable stars and some unfortunate scenes with drunk people on camera at their lowest moments. The camera doesn’t stop to not show you the life of these people during their metal years. The film quality itself is better than both of the films in the trilogy. There are more angles and a variety of shots of the people getting interviewed. It’s a very polished film.

There’s more of a discussion about burnout, branding and the music industry’s success than the previous film. They are more relaxed and laughing in the interviews. The majority of the discussions are about having a good time, partying, sex, burnout and how they are using their money and the type of women the men like to date. In short, there were a lot of short discussions of all the different elements of what made up the heavy metal scene with the questions leading the way.

They talk about the social differences heavy metal enthusiasts do for their music and to look different. Some people wore makeup, some people didn’t and they both had their reasons why and how all of it was a preference. The musicians of heavy metal discuss the progression and evolution of heavy metal music to rock-and-roll music. The fans and musicians discuss what makes a headbanger for heavy metal music. The answers are similar when they talk about passion for the music.

The film has a dark side with the on-camera drunkenness, discussions about alcoholism and drug addiction, and the horrible way they talk about women. The interviewer constantly asking the musicians, to clarify the younger acts, if what they are doing with their female fans would be considered to be prostitution with a lot of awkward answers. There’s a frank and semi-direct talk about drug addiction like the musicians were expressing across but it was from the older acts and offstage crew than the younger acts.

The film still features music but it’s like an ’80s Rolling Stone interview of the “It Bands of the 80’s.” Some of the musicians were all at the heights of their popularity. Some of the musicians (mainly the acts that were more flash in the pans) and offstage crew like a club venue owner seem like creeps. It is also a somewhat cheesy and not self ware end message that contradicts some of the messages throughout the whole film.

The Decline of Western Civilization Part III (1998)

Punk music and garage bands are mentioned in the documentary but there was a major shift from a music-focused documentary to talking about the street kid’s life in Los Angeles between 1996 to 1997. The documentary was filmed 20 years after the second film just to keep the distribution rights of the other two films, to discuss the decline of the quality of life in Los Angeles and lives of Los Angeles street punks known throughout this documentary as gutter punks.

This film looks more like a found footage film just without the wobbly camera only the focus being played with when she is filming on the street and inside garages. It has more of an independent film look than the first two films with the handheld VHS quality. But the whole film isn’t grainy or with thin black lines. This documentary has subtitles due to the audio. The speech is out of bounds and slurred.

The story is more about the lifestyles of the musicians and people who identify as punk rockers than the other films in the series. The film explores the lifestyle of the garage band, gutter punks and homelessness among the individuals.

This film has the disclaimer too. It’s similarly read like the first one but with more cursing and some don’t really read the whole disclaimer anyways.

Some of the musicians in the documentary:

  • Final Conflict
  • Litmus Green
  • Naked Agression
  • Fear
  • The Resistance

The progression of punk rock is more focused on the teenage market than before. It’s mostly of adults singing punk music to other adults with teens and preteens listening. The music became faster, louder looking more like the punk movement in the late 1970s. It follows up with 1970’s acts in the ’90s. The film discusses how the world [Los Angeles] became a harder place to live with society pushing people away especially the young. The political discussions moving the new wave of punk bands were political upheavals, war, religion, capitalism, racism and corruption.

In this documentary, the fans are mostly teenagers and twenty-somethings in front of a white wall with a hanging light bulb. They discuss about what makes a punk. The majority of the responses were about personality driven associations than makeup and material things.

Unlike the other documentaries, there’s very little music and the punk rockers come from a large range of backgrounds discussing their life. There’s a ten-minute section within this documentary where the homeless people asking for change. And another ten minutes with the interviewees just sitting around. There’s a lot of alcohol drinking in this documentary. The majority of the documentary is about the abusive life the people had before becoming punk rockers.

The venue owners are interviewed just like the other documentaries but they interview a cop at a Los Angeles station. The dress is more individualistic but eye-catching like leather, chains, hair dye, safety pins, piercings and tattoos. The teenagers are collectively all are against authority symbols like the police.

The documentary is punk rockers are mostly angrier, ruder and more jaded about the city, the music industry, their life or everything. Punk music was created to be more personal than to have mass appeal. It ranges from personal lyrics about the musician’s life to activism the musician cares about.

This documentary is grim and sad. The film is dedicated to Stephen Chambers, Squid, a punk rocker who was featured in the film. It ends with the director stating that all proceeds of the film will go to charities for the homeless and to help abused children.

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