Editor’s note: While these aren’t Independent Lens films of course, the Decline films are some of our very favorite music docs, make for perfect summertime viewing, and are finally all out together on DVD. Read on for critic Noel Murray’s exclusive take on them, and a few more of his own favorites.
By Noel Murray
Each of director Penelope Spheeris’ three Decline of Western Civilization documentaries contains a moment where the various punk and metal bands featured in the films stand on the stage and read a disclaimer to the audience, warning them that by attending the show, they’re consenting to being photographed. Spheeris and her editors cut all the announcements together, being sure to keep in any moment where the men and women at the microphone insult their fans or mock the entire Decline project. These scenes are important, because they cut to the heart of what Spheeris’ films are all about: the flippant anti-authoritarianism of youth culture, the illusion that rockers and their fans are on the same level, and the disturbing awareness that being an anarchic rebel can only carry a person so far.
This week, Shout! Factory is releasing the three Declines in DVD and Blu-ray box sets, answering the demand from documentary devotees and music buffs who’ve been waiting for Spheeris to clear up any lingering rights issues and get her best work back out on home video. Watched in succession, 1981’s The Decline of Western Civilization, 1988’s The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, and 1998’s The Decline of Western Civilization III tell a story about 20 years of life in the Los Angeles music scene — functioning almost like a rock musical version of Michael Apted’s Up series. It’s not just the announcement montage that these three have in common. They share a point of view, and a generosity of spirit that gives their subjects the benefit of the doubt whether they’re begging in the streets or living in a mansion.
Below are key moments from each of the Decline films, which help define both what they’re about individually, and how they all fit together.
The Decline of Western Civilization I… Darby cooks (and bleeds)
The first Decline film is the favorite of discerning rockophiles, since Spheeris was around to capture some of the most vital bands in the early L.A. punk scene: Black Flag, X, Circle Jerks, and Fear (and, uh… Catholic Discipline). Some of the most important footage here, though, is of the late Darby Crash, the troubled genius who led Germs before dying of a drug overdose December of 1980, a few months before The Decline of Western Civilization was released. In between the performances by and interviews with future punk legends, Spheeris has conversations with fans, who talk about what the music and the scene means to them.
But when Spheeris talks to Darby (while he’s in his kitchen preparing a meal, similar to Ozzy Osbourne in a famous moment from Decline II), the Germs singer really doesn’t seem that far removed from the people who came to see him play. They all come across as equally damaged — especially when Darby talks about how many times he’s harmed himself or let the audience harm him during a show. Spheeris contrasts the low-key offstage Darby with the intoxicated, barely coherent animal he became while performing, and thus exposes some of the limits of adopting a nihilistic persona.
The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years… Chris drinks in the pool
Though punkers felt a little betrayed when Spheeris made her second Decline about the Sunset Strip’s much-loathed 1980s hair-metal scene, The Metal Years is actually the best documentary of the three — and among the best of its decade. Similar to the first film, the second explores the dynamic between bands and fans, except that this time many of the latter are musicians themselves, and have bought into metal’s celebration of excess. Where the punks of Decline I stood ready to resist the encroaching materialism of the Reagan era, the aspiring headbangers of Decline II refused to believe they could ever fail. Not just a rock-doc, The Metal Years is a sensitive, heartbreaking critique of its time, highlighted by a devastating scene where rich W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes gets drunk in his pool and talks about how much he hates himself, while his mother looks on.
The Decline of Western Civilization III… Flea looks back
The third Decline was barely released, playing mostly on the festival circuit, and because it’s about a depressing subject — homeless teens — and features not-so-well-known bands, it’s not talked about as much as its predecessors. But in a way, The Decline of Western Civilization III is the key to understanding the other two. A lot of the rebels and dreamers of the earlier films gravitated to their scenes because they felt like outcasts from their families and neighborhoods. In the third film, literal runaways take center stage, sardonically insisting to Spheeris that when they turn up dead in a few years, “You won’t miss us.”
Meanwhile, for contrast, Spheeris talks to a few of the survivors of the early 1980s punk scene, including now-mega-successful Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, who still considers his roots to be L.A. punk. It’s striking to see the contrast between someone who once played a homeless kid in Spheeris’ 1984 melodrama Suburbia and the actual street-punks of the late 1990s. But the Flea interview also completes the Decline circle in a way, showing how a wealthy rock star has his own “wannabe” complex, for which he borrows credibility from young people who’d love just a little taste of what he has.
Plus five more essential rock documentaries
Gimme Shelter (1970)
Three of the greatest documentary filmmakers of all time — Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin — collaborated on a movie that changed the conception of what a “rock doc” could be. While following The Rolling Stones on their 1969 American tour, the Maysles and Zwerin took stock of the state of the nation at the end of a turbulent decade, and delivered a pessimistic conclusion by ending on the image of a Stones fan being murdered in front of the stage at the Altamont Free Concert. More than just a repository for live footage, Gimme Shelter is an inquiry into how art and culture feed on each other so rapaciously that sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s consuming who.
The Kids Are Alright (1979)
The structure of Jeff Stein’s film about The Who is so simple and useful that it’s a shame more music documentaries don’t rip it off. Basically, Stein collects scattered festival performances and TV appearances, adds a few colorfully staged new interviews, and voila! He creates something that gives Who-lovers exactly what they want: lots of music, and a good sense of the personalities of the people who behind it. The Kids Are Alright is also essential viewing for fans of the rock mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, which directly parodies several images and scenes from Stein’s movie.
Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage (2010)
Most documentaries about musicians fall into the category of “fan docs” — fawning, once-over-lightly films more valuable for their clips than for their insights. But Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen’s Beyond the Lighted Stage does justice to a band that for years had a massive following but little critical cachet. This is the kind of movie that can make even the indifferent into full-on Rush fans, as Dunn and McFadyen paint the trio as smart, hardworking guys, pursuing their muse even when it led to mockery by the mainstream rock press and push-back from prog-metal purists. Beyond the Lighted Stage is the rare documentary that makes a group of millionaires look like underdogs — and credibly so.
We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen (2005)
As a companion-piece to Beyond the Lighted Stage, look to We Jam Econo, which is about power-trio that was very different from Rush in terms of style and level of success, but not that different when it came to work ethic and artistic integrity. Tim Irwin’s film looks at the way-too-brief existence of San Pedro punk legends Minutemen, whose run was cut short when singer/guitarist D. Boon was killed in a van-wreck. Irwin tells an inspiring story of three blue collar dudes who ignored the rigid codes of musical conduct in the Los Angeles hardcore scene, and wrote snappy little songs that touched on funk, jazz, and classic rock. Like Spheeris’ Decline docs, this is a movie about how people can find a home within a cultural movement while also using it to their own ends.
Tom Dowd and the Language of Music (2003)
Some of the best documentaries about music in recent years have looked at the unsung heroes of rock and soul: the backup singers, the session players, the songwriters, and the engineers. Mark Moormann’s Tom Dowd and the Language of Music celebrates a technician who signed on at Atlantic Records in the label’s jazz and R&B heyday, and then stuck around long enough to have an impact on the sound of records by the likes of Ray Charles, John Coltrane, the Allman Brothers, Aretha Franklin, and Otis Redding. In the film’s best scene, Dowd sits at one of the mixing boards he helped design and build, and takes Moormann through the process of assembling Derek & The Dominos’ rock classic “Layla.” By the time Dowd’s through, he seems every bit as much of a genius as guitarist Eric Clapton.
Noel Murray is a freelance writer who contributes regularly to The Dissolve, The A.V. Club, The Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone. He lives in Arkansas with his wife, two children, and a TV that is never off.