The Decline of Western Civilization Collection (Shout! Factory, various ratings)

The-Decline-of 75Each film has extraordinary footage and standout scenes, but a lot of what makes these films work is for the vital moment in culture they capture.

 

 

 

 

The-Decline-of 500

Upon the release of this deluxe box set of director Penelope Spheeris’ three Decline of Western Civilization films, I wish I could assume that most people reading this review will have already seen the films, so that I could cut straight to discussion of the quality of the transfers, the special features, etc. But, that’s not how it works here; The Decline of Western Civilization films have been notoriously difficult to see, especially legally, since their initial releases. To finally have them easily accessible legally and in good quality more or less by default makes this the release to beat in terms of the best physical media release of the year.

The original Decline of Western Civilization was filmed in 1979 and 1980, then released in 1981, and covers the L.A. punk scene of the time—The Germs, Black Flag, Fear, The Circle Jerks, etc. The Decline of Western Civilization, Part II: The Metal Years was filmed in 1986 and 1987, released in 1988, and, as the title implies, covers the (mostly) L.A. metal scene, but features higher-profile, more established bands as well—Motorhead, Megadeth, Poison, Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, etc. The Decline of Western Civilization, Part III, which premiered at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, returns to the L.A. punk scene, but this time focuses less on the music and more on the lifestyles of gutterpunks, which is a collective term for a type of homeless punk rock teenagers who populated certain areas of the city at the time.

Generally I recoil from anything that appears to be hyperbole in movie reviews, both in others’ writing as well as my own. But for this release, it seems appropriate, and is meant sincerely, not as exaggeration: I would argue that the first Decline of Western Civilization film is the single best music documentary ever made. And The Metal Years isn’t far behind it. None of these are straight concert documentaries, and indeed Spheeris seems to get less interested in incorporating performance footage as the trilogy wears on, but I’d hold the films up to anything remotely comparable. Is Decline better than the Talking Heads doc Stop Making Sense, which film I’ve loved nearly all my life? Yes. Is it better than something like A Hard Day’s Night, which is not restricted by the tenets of documentary filmmaking? Yes. Is it better than some wide-reaching cultural document, like Woodstock? Yes.

Each film has extraordinary footage and standout scenes, but a lot of what makes these films work is for the vital moment in culture they capture. For example, one of the highlights of Part I is footage of The Germs playing live, followed by an interview with Darby Crash as he makes breakfast. Between the filming of these scenes circa 1980 and the film’s premiere in March of 1981, Darby committed suicide via an intentional heroin overdose, so this type of footage of him is unfortunately rare. In The Metal Years a clear highlight involves W.A.S.P.’s Chris Holmes, clearly already wasted as the interview begins, literally guzzling vodka straight from the bottle while floating in a swimming pool at night, with his mother at poolside looking somewhat uncomfortable. It’s extreme to the point that you’d be right to worry he might die of alcohol poisoning in front of your eyes. (Spoiler alert: He’s fine.)

Part III is the great unknown of this box set—despite my enduring love of the first two films, until the review copy of this set came in the mail I had never successfully been able to see Part III, as it’s never gotten any kind of substantial release before. And while it certainly is a worthy successor to the prior two films, its tone is a little different—it’s more of a social problem film, and the first of the three films to mean its title literally, instead of using it in a tongue in cheek way. There are still memorable scenes comparable to those referenced above—a montage of the gutterpunks panhandling a particular standout—but it feels different. In the end, Part III is a screed against parents, making clear that it’s their fault that an alarming amount of our youth have checked out of society, turning into homeless alcoholics before they’re even of a legal drinking age. (Spheeris often says that Part III is the best film she’s ever made.)

The Shout! Factory release of this trilogy is four discs, and loaded with content—two commentaries on Part I, one commentary on Part II (though none for Part III, for some reason), and, in total across the four discs, close to ten hours of extended interviews, deleted songs, panels, trailers, and whatever other elements Spheeris and her daughter, Anna Fox (a producer beginning with The Metal Years, and whom Spheeris credits with being the main instigator to get this box set into the world), could find laying around. These bonus features are of more interest than your traditional studio film featurette crap that we’ve all gotten used to, but if you’re expecting Criterion Collection-level contextualization and scholarly tracts, you’ll be a little disappointed. Most, but not all, of the unused materials were unused for good reason—the stuff in the finished film(s) is way better. The commentaries have interesting information here and there, but too often fall into the lackluster “this person’s really good at his job, you can find this thing in the special features, this person is really good looking” variety. The commentary on The Metal Years, featuring Spheeris and London’s Nadir D’Priest, is the best of the bunch, but expect it to dispel some of The Metal Years’ magic (for example, Ozzy Osbourne’s seeming inability to pour orange juice straight was faked). There’s an accumulation of information to be gathered from the disparate special features, though: Spheeris was apparently approached to direct Wayne’s World (her best-known mainstream film, and to this day the only Michael Myers vehicle I don’t hate) because she was the rare director who knew the metal scene, as evidenced in The Metal Years; she was approached to direct This is Spinal Tap, but it didn’t wind up happening; circa the 90s she was offered “millions” to make Part III about hip hop, but she didn’t know enough about it to feel like she could do a good job of it.

Among the three films, the special features for The Metal Years are the most substantial—they account for the most total time and also have the most worthwhile material. Sure, you have to endure way too much of the insufferable London (aside from D’Priest appearing on the aforementioned commentary track, there’s what feels like a good hour of interviews with the giggly and misogynistic band), and Steven Tyler and Gene Simmons are again proven to be truly repugnant human beings. But the extended interview with Chris Holmes is gold, and of course nothing bad can come from a long interview with Lemmy from Motorhead. (Q: What do you like about this job? A: Being able to look this way and keep a steady job.) A brief behind-the-scenes video from Part III with commentary from Spheeris is enough to make you wish she’d done a solo commentary on any or all of the films, as she clearly has plenty of interesting stuff to say, but is often distracted by her co-commentator (her daughter shares the track with her on Part I, and Dave Grohl has a solo track on Part I as well).

So if you’ve spent the past ten or twenty years watching and re-watching “Heavy Metal Parking Lot” or Anvil: The Story of Anvil, or reading books like Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me, you can finally fill in some conspicuous gaps in your knowledge of punk rock and/or heavy metal culture. But even if you don’t like punk or metal—it isn’t exactly my favorite—you can fill in some conspicuous gaps in your knowledge of modern American classic films. Though these movies reach back as much as 35 years, I doubt you’ll see more vital films this year, in the theatre or elsewhere. | Pete Timmermann

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