Director Penelope Spheeris affected my life more than director other than Alfred Hitchcock, but it took me many years to discover that. Spheeris was responsible for Wayne’s World, one of my favorite films as child, the film that introduced me (and many others) to Queen, Alice Cooper, Aerosmith, and Jimi Hendrix. It’s still a source of disappointment that I didn’t realize my favorite film was directed by a woman. So when the Criterion Channel decided to feature her this month, I sat down to comb through her three documentaries charting the rise of punk, heavy metal, and the gutter punk lifestyle through the 1980s and 90s. The first of these is The Decline of Western Civilization, a documentary going deep into the hardcore punk scene in LA during the early 80s.
The Decline of Western Civilization—the title possibly based on in comment in the 1970 review of the Stooges’ Fun House by Lester Bangs, possibly totally fabricated, definitely the best title for a punk film—was filmed over 1979 and 1980 and comprises the beginnings (and endings) of some of the seminal hardcore punk bands of the LA scene. It encompasses talking-head interviews with fans, journalists, and musicians, a few extended scenes in the bands’ apartments and flop houses, and, most importantly, some kickass music. Bands featured include the Circle Jerks, X, Black Flag, Alice Bag Band, the Germs, Catholic Discipline, and Fear, with each performance wilder, more anarchic, and more incomprehensible than the last. It dives deep into the punk ethos and, for the most part, allows the bands to speak for themselves.
Unlike Spheeris’s second doc in the series, The Metal Years, which is often heavily critical of the music and musicians it covers, The Decline of Western Civilization has a deep and abiding love of the sneering, furious, genre-bending nature of pure punk. Many of the bands are just on the cusp of fame, pushing the boundaries of their music and their ethos in ways that would become legendary, but that at the time was either ignored or derided. The film doesn’t attempt much interrogation of the concept of punk, what it means or where it comes from, although the fan interviews perhaps most clearly reveal a youth culture steeped in raw anger and near-nihilism. The point is to push the boundaries of taste and of music itself—the rawest performances by the Germs devolve into riots, as lead singer Darby Crash can barely screech out lyrics, crawling on the ground, falling off of amplifiers, the audience scribbling on him in permanent marker. Spheeris’s camera comes in close to her subjects, reveling in the dirt and blood and grime.
But this isn’t a pure concert film. There are interviews with the groups and the journalists covering them for Slash fanzine. More illuminating are the explanations of pogo dancing, punk’s philosophical and historical underpinnings, and the violence that accompanies the music. Bouncers are told how to deal with audiences, including the difference between an actual fight and two punks having fun. As musicians, the bands run the gamut from accomplished performers in Black Flag and X to the near inability of the Germs to play their own instruments. Fear spends half of its time insulting the audience with increasingly nasty slurs and inviting their audience to spit on them, rather than actually playing music,
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When it was released, The Decline of Western Civilization was a glimpse into a subculture that had been largely ignored or lambasted. Now it stands as a seminal work of music history in a way that any documentary tackli g the subject after the fact can’t succeed at. Spheeris and her crew were really in the right place at the right time, able to capture an intensity and energy that would fizzle out fairly quickly. While the film is missing real interrogation of the political complexities of the scene – including the prevalence of swastikas and Nazi regalia that often split the punk community – that will be left for another time and place. The Decline of Western Civilization remains an essential documentary and one fantastically weird slice of life.
The Decline of Western Civilization is available to stream on the Criterion Channel and Tubi.