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USA 1981/1988/ 1998
Directed by
Penelope Spheeris
99/90/87 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Decline Of Western Civilization: Parts I. II. III, The

The Decline of Western Civilization

Filmed from December 1979 to May 1980 Penelope Spheeris’s guerilla-style video portrait of the Los Angeles punk scene is an appropriately rough and ready but loving mixture of interviews and live performances and is a valuable social document chronicling, title notwithstanding, a chapter in rock’n’roll’s last gasp as the battle cry of disaffected youth.

Forget Iggy Pop and Blondie, you’ll see bands most of whom you’ll have never heard of unless you’re a dyed-in-the-wool punk fan, performing to small drunken crowds in basement dives. Black Flag, The Germs, Catholic Discipline, The Circle Jerks, Alice Bag Band, and FEAR give abrasive live performances of highly variable quality, which Spheeris intercuts with interviews with band members at home, venue owners, and contemporary chroniclers like staff members of Slant Magazine.

What results is both a vibrant and informative picture of a time and place in popular music history

FYI:  Darby Crash, lead singer of the Germs who we see playing with a very large pet spider, died of a drug overdose a few months after the film was shot.

The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years

If the title of  Penelope Spheeris' iconic 1981 documentary could be read ironically, with her follow-up study of  the ''80s “hair metal”  aka “cock rock” phenomenon it deserves to be taken literally.  Already comprehensively spoofed in  Christopher Guest’s 1984 mockumentary,  This is Spinal Tap (1984),  Part II: The Metal Years features a lot of preening young men in spandex tights and bouffant ‘dos crowing about their talent and the money that  they were going to make. Clearly getting laid would do formost of them although frankly the women available don't make this look too thrilling an option. 

It’s a cavalcade of depressing vacuity although mercifully there are a few words of wisdom from elders of the scene such as Ozzy Osbourne, Steve Tyler and Joe Perry from Aerosmith and Lemmy from Motorhead with a particularly pathetic appearance from  delusional W.A.S.P. member Chris Holmes as he floats drunkenly in his swimming pool downing bottles of vodka while his helpless mother looks on.

The Decline of Western Civilization Part III

The third volume of Penelope Spheeris’s loose trilogy of music documentaries returns to the LA punk scene twenty years after her first visit. Now labeled “gutterpunk” the scene is not, as the first film documented, grounded in the mythic power of rock’n’roll as a force of change, indeed has little to do with it, but has now degenerated  into a nihilistic sub-culture of vagrancy and pan-handling, with heavily tattooed and pierced kids,  having turned the Sex Pistols’ “No Future” from a defiant declaration of disenfranchisement into a program for (wasted) living

There are some performances from bands such as Final Conflict, Litmus Green, Naked Aggression and The Resistance but the emphasis here is much more on the flotsam and jetsam (“fans” is hardly a suitable moniker) who form their target audience.

Using a more stylized studio setting than previously, Speeheris documents the personal stories and world views of these kids many of whom weren’t born when her original film was made. These young self-styled guttersnipes, many of them the victims of unhappy and abusive upbringings, bond in their oppressive sense of estrangement, sometimes diffidently vulnerable, sometimes obnoxiously self-indulgent but, unlike the subjects of the first film, devoid of any sense of purpose. It’s a sad but revealing epilogue to the original film. One can only hope time will heal their wounds.

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