Not an ordinary documentary(not that such a thing exists), The Decline Of Western Civilization was a focal point for controversy and youth rebelling against… well, the same thing they’ve always been rebelling against – authority. But Penelope Spheeris certainly attracted the attention of ‘the establishment’ with her vivid looks at counter culture throughout the 80’s and 90’s. Hell, in 1981 infamous LAPD police chief Daryl Gates wrote an open letter demanding theatres not show the film in his city. Of course that only solidified the first films notoriety and in essence helped it to become a cult classic.
Released on July 1st 1981, the first in the series was a look at the LA punk scene and featured Black Flag, Circle Jerks, X, Germs, Catholic Discipline and Fear. The movie poster accidently bordered on the macabre in featuring the Germs singer Darby Crash on stage with his eyes closed mere weeks after his death from a heroin overdose. The poster had been designed and printed before his death, but it certainly added to the hype surrounding the film.
The Decline of Western Civilization Part 2: The Metal Years was released in 1988 and took a close look at the excesses and contradictions found in the LA glam metal scene. While Spheeris admitted to faking a scene with Ozzy Osbourne that depicted him shaking and spilling a glass of orange juice because of alcohol withdrawal; the rest of the film came off as a horror expose about the futility and stupidity of her subject matter. While the first films youths were fighting for something, the second saw the hair metal kids fighting for fame and fortune… aka nothing in particular. Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine is on record declaring that The Metal Years was in part responsible for the fall of glam metal and the rise of thrash and grunge; hypothesizing that fans were disgusted by scenes of debauchery. In essence the film suggests that fans just couldn’t relate on any level to the real existence of these rock stars and their hangers on.
However, the final film in the trilogy, The Decline of Western Civilization: Part 3, is by far the scariest and most difficult of the films. Originally, the documentary was only released on the festival circuit and hadn’t any official release since its limited 1998 run. The movie follows homeless hardcore street punks known as ‘gutter punks’ who have ‘extreme’ anti-establishment beliefs. Despite this, the end result is a commentary on homelessness, alcoholism, abusive parents, and broken homes. After shooting the third instalment Spheeris would become a foster parent. Part 3 went on to win awards at both the Sundance and Chicago film festivals.
Whatever it was that kept a general release from taking place has just been settled and the trilogy is out now on DVD and Blu Ray. Thankfully my birthday is in a couple weeks so I think I’ll add it to my wish list.
The Decline of Western Civilization Collection was released on June 30th.