The Decline of Western Civilization

The finest cinematic distillation of punk ever made.

Western civilization declines inThe Decline of Western Civilization.

Still from The Decline of Western Civilization / Shout! Factory

“It’s not bullshit; there’s no rock stars now,” says a youngster named Eugene at the beginning of Penelope Spheeris’ 1981 documentary The Decline of Western Civilization. He’s speaking of the L.A. punk scene of the early 1980s, a musical underworld whose mythic iconoclasm has long since become, well, iconic, thanks in no small part to Spheeris’ landmark debut film. The Decline of Western Civilization is the finest cinematic distillation of punk ever made, not simply as music but as ethos. Featuring performances by X, the Germs, Black Flag, and the Circle Jerks, the film is frantic, caustic, electric, imbued with all the rage and love of a pogoing teen throwing punches at his friends. More than 1,000 fans showed up for the film’s L.A. premiere—after only two screenings (one at midnight and another at 2 a.m.), Police Chief Daryl Gates banned the film from the city.

After years of being unavailable on DVD, The Decline of Western Civilization is finally being released this week in a deluxe boxed set along with its two sequels, the nearly as legendary The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988), and the rarely seen Decline of Western Civilization Part III, which won the Freedom of Expression Award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival but never secured distribution. The 69-year-old Spheeris’ filmography is vast and eclectic, including the indie chestnut Suburbia (1984), the grunge-era blockbuster Wayne’s World (1992), and the Chris Farley vehicle Black Sheep (1996). But the Decline trilogy is her defining legacy, a sprawling achievement that places her among the great rock ‘n’ roll filmmakers of all time. When I spoke to Spheeris last week, she was quick to credit her daughter, Anna Fox, as the driving force behind the impressive set, which features a trove of bonus footage and a 40-page book full of photos and ephemera. “My daughter sat there like an art project and pasted it all together, says Spheeris. “I couldn’t face the challenge.”

After its auspicious if severely limited opening, The Decline of Western Civilization became a sensation, and established Spheeris as the foremost auteur of L.A. rock. And yet when she revisited the subject for Part II just a few years later, the scene had changed immensely. By the late 1980s L.A. was ground zero for heavy metal and all its aerosol’d offspring, and Decline II is a very different film than its predecessor in both tone and content. It quickly became a touchstone film in its own right, mostly for its depictions of absurd rocker decadence: Paul Stanley of Kiss addresses the camera while lying on a mattress surrounded by lingerie-clad women; Ozzy Osbourne holds forth on sobriety while struggling to pour himself a glass of orange juice. The movie’s most notorious sequence came courtesy of W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes, who conducts his interview on a float in his swimming pool while swigging from a bottle of vodka, drunk to the point of incoherence, all while his mother looks on from poolside.

The subjects of the second Decline have aged as poorly as the subjects of Decline I have aged sublimely, which is sort of the point: For all its memorable outrageousness, Decline II is a movie mostly about people whose 15 minutes are almost up, or who’ll never even get them in the first place. The lead singer of a band called Odin, interviewed in a groupie-filled hot tub while swigging Budweiser, announces that if his band doesn’t make it, he’ll kill himself. Countless others make similar pronouncements. “In the beginning, when I first started hearing that everyone wanted to just make it, I thought, ‘That’s cool, go for it!’ ” recalls Spheeris. “But then when all the interviews started stacking up, and I saw all these people who had that in their heads, I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, the numbers aren’t going to match up here.’ ”

If the first Decline was a film about people who made rock ‘n’ roll music from irreconcilable outsiderness—and there are few better places to make it from—Decline II is populated by people who just want to be cool, rich, and famous, people who’ve bought into the fiction that stardom is their birthright. When a member of yet another struggling band leeringly brags about his endowment and refers to groupies as “the fleas and ticks of rock and roll”—to a female filmmaker, no less—he reveals himself as just another angry white dude, the world’s most tiresome population.

The first two Decline films have endured as classics of their vastly different kinds, but Part III has rarely seen the light of day until now. Shot in 1996 and 1997, the film is a quiet revelation, a loving and powerful conclusion to Spheeris’ odyssey. Decline III follows the lives of Los Angeles “gutter punks,” homeless teens living precarious lives on the fringes of a city intent on spitting them out. Disturbing, warm, magnetic, and terribly sad, Decline III is the rare work of punk history that focuses on the people the music purports to speak for, rather than those who are making all the noise.

There’s music here, as bands like Naked Aggression, Final Conflict, and Litmus Green play for venues and crowds bearing no small resemblance to those captured by Spheeris nearly two decades earlier. But the real stars of the film are the kids in the audience, many of whom are homeless, alcoholic, and fleeing family lives marked by abuse. We meet young people with names like Squid, Eyeball, Hamburger, and Spoon, none of whom is sanguine about his or her future in this world but all of whom are proud and protective of their current station in it. “Decline Part III is my favorite film I’ve ever done,” Spheeris tells me. “I don’t want to be remembered for Wayne’s World, though I love the movie. I’d really like to be remembered for Decline Part III.

The first and third Decline films are clear companion pieces, documenting similar scenes almost two decades apart. The second film would seem to be the outlier: Save for sharing the same city, its subjects’ commitment to hyper-capitalistic excess is an affront to punk’s ethical universe. In many ways the three films offer a microcosm of the age-old duality of Los Angeles itself, a city whose greatest art has been made both by those drawn to its bright lights and by those living in resentment of them.

And yet the trilogy also coheres as a study of rock ‘n’ roll motivation, not simply the what but the why. “I’m interested more in the human behavior aspect than I am the music,” says Spheeris. “I love the music, I document it, but it’s mostly ‘Why are people behaving this way?’ ” Most music documentaries, even great ones, take the actions of their subjects for granted: We don’t really ask why the Stones or the Band or Talking Heads make music, we just assume they do it because they’re the Stones and the Band and Talking Heads and because we’re watching them. Rock stardom is born in this unknowable distance.   

The Decline trilogy asks why the music gets made and finds a variety of answers: Sometimes it’s for love, sometimes for money, sometimes for the sheer fact that no one wants to do anything else, which is as worthy a reason as any. As Slash Records founder Bob Biggs says in the first film, “They’ve gotta do something with their time, and it’s the most fun. Nothing else is going on, it’s the only form of revolution left in the 1980s.” As new generations of kids watch these films, it’s likely none of them will grow up to be Black Flag, and none of them will grow up to be Kiss either. But they’ll keep trying, and there will be history in that as well. Hopefully someone as gifted as Penelope Spheeris will be there to film it.