The Resurrection of ‘The Decline of Western Civilization’: Director Penelope Spheeris’s Definitive L.A. Music Trilogy Is BackSHOUT! FACTORY
It’s not just that Penelope Spheeris abhors nostalgia. Looking back actually wrecks her nervous system. “[It’s] psychologically, brutally devastating,” she says, letting out a quick, nervous laugh. “I just like to keep going forward.”
If you recognize Spheeris’s name, it’s probably as the director of the most excellent SNL adaptation, 1992’s Wayne’s World, by far her most successful film. Before that, Spheeris spent two decades cycling through various careers: pioneering music video director; producer for Albert Brooks’s first feature, Real Life; respected underground documentarian; ’80s B-movie auteur; story editor for Roseanne. Wayne’s World made Spheeris an instant millionaire, but for the remainder of the ’90s, she was unhappily typecast as a maker of broad comedies that either derived from television properties (1993’s The Beverly Hillbillies and 1994’s The Little Rascals) or served as vehicles for TV actors (1996’s Black Sheep). Her greatest talent as a director — conveying the excitement of live music on film — was wasted.
Spheeris, 69, deflects the past like her camera once fought off pogoing punks — it’s tunnel vision born of both professional obligation and spiritual preservation. But if she must have a legacy, she’d prefer that it be the Decline of Western Civilization series, a trilogy of documentaries that chronicle the punk and metal scenes in Los Angeles between 1979 and 1997.
While the movies are linked by setting, some overarching themes, and, of course, Spheeris’s guiding hand, they otherwise couldn’t be more different: 1981’s The Decline of Western Civilization is considered the definitive cinematic portrait of nascent L.A. hardcore, with incredible live footage of iconic early adopters like Black Flag, Circle Jerks, X, and Fear in their fire-breathing primes; 1988’s Part II: The Metal Years is basically the real-life This Is Spinal Tap starring Poison, Kiss, Aerosmith, Ozzy Osbourne, and legions of bands who tried and failed to be those guys; and 1998’s Part III begins as a return to L.A. punk and winds up as a searing depiction of the city’s population of homeless, alcoholic teenagers.
Long adored by cultists, the Decline movies haven’t been available via legal channels for decades. Bits and pieces — particularly W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes’s legendary interview from a pool — have become stray moments of YouTube cultural ephemera. The third Decline film — financed by Spheeris after a bad experience working with Bob and Harvey Weinstein on the forgettable 1998 Marlon Wayans comedy Senseless1 — wasn’t even formally distributed. But next week, the Decline series will finally get an overdue release as a Blu-ray and DVD boxed set.
The delay was due in part to Spheeris’s reluctance to revisit her past work.
“I think it’s the punk rocker in me,” she says. “I’m not good at selling out, and I’m not good at packaging product. I’m not good at selling myself.”
But going back is also painful — the first two Decline films were controversial upon release. Former LAPD chief Daryl Gates supposedly sent a letter to Spheeris demanding that the first Decline not be shown in the city, while Part II was widely viewed as a snarky piss-take on Sunset Strip hair bands. This dismayed Spheeris, a metal fan who turned down an offer to direct the actual This Is Spinal Tap because she didn’t want to disrespect the genre.
It was hard enough for Spheeris to get respect in the music business as a female music video director in the ’70s and ’80s. With hair as big as any L.A. glam rocker’s, Spheeris cut a strong, imposing figure. But ignorant men in power positions nevertheless stifled her livelihood.
Spheeris can still recall the time a metal band took one look at her and said, “Uh-uh. No chick’s going to shoot our music video. Please leave.” Never mind that Spheeris started Rock ‘N Reel, L.A.’s first production company specializing in music videos, way back in 1974. She filmed everyone from Funkadelic to Fleetwood Mac to Foghat years before MTV launched.
“I don’t know how much more blatant about sexism you can be. [But] I was kind of used to putting up with shit, you know?” Spheeris says. “I felt really bad — mostly because I needed the money. I was trying to support me and my daughter.”2
Beyond the indignities and lost business opportunities brought on by the era’s prevailing misogyny3 were threats of bodily harm, like when Spheeris says she was assaulted by an employee at a major record company.
“He was drunk in a hotel room. We were supposed to be talking about doing a music video for a certain well-known artist — I can’t even do details on that — but you know, the guy yanked off part of my clothes,” Spheeris says. “When I left the Beverly Hills Hotel, I thought, How do I deal with this guy? I had all of these revenge things in my mind, like pouring sugar in the gas tank of his Porsche — shit like that. But I never did any of them. You have to just kind of suck it up and move on.
“This is what I learned: If you do nothing, they destroy themselves. I was driving down Santa Monica Boulevard 10 years later and I see this dude sitting on a bus bench. His hair’s all disheveled, his beard is all grown out, his clothes are all dirty. I pull up, and I go, ‘Is that you?’ ‘Yeah, what’s up? What’s up, Penelope?’ He was just this drunk guy on a bus bench now. I swear that’s the truth. It’s karma. Whatever.”
Spheeris’s karma is on an upswing. No matter her early misgivings, restoring the Decline movies was an “incredibly profound, psychologically cleansing process,” she says, as has been hearing from so many people about how beloved and influential the films are.
“Here’s the thing with my mom: She has no idea who she is,” Spheeris’s daughter, Anna Fox, tells me.
“I was the one that was saying, ‘Listen, you have to get these movies out. You have no idea how many people want to see them and want it done right,’” says Fox, who coproduced the boxed set. “When somebody says something really positive or nice like ‘You influenced my life,’ she’s like, ‘Wow, really?’ She’s just completely surprised all over again. It’s hilarious.”
Along with making important historical documents of L.A.’s musical heritage accessible to a new generation of viewers, the Decline boxed set should also burnish Spheeris’s reputation as an all-time chronicler of rock and roll bands on celluloid. Give Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme their respective props for The Last Waltz and Stop Making Sense, but nothing quite matches the mix of exhilaration and dread that accompanies watching the first Decline film. It is quite simply the most kinetic — at times chaotic — music documentary ever made. You never know when a song will break out in the middle of a fistfight.
Amid the maelstrom of bodies and spit, Spheeris and her small crew place the camera directly in the center of the action, capturing every last bit of fury for posterity. As a result, the power of Decline I hasn’t been diluted by the passage of time. The feral energy of Black Flag’s Ron Reyes, the malevolent stare of X’s John Doe, and the unrelenting obscenity from Fear’s Lee Ving are still bone-chilling and absolutely riveting.
“This guy named Steve Conant, he was the guy I got to be the main shooter on the first Decline. He used to work for the Lakers — I figured if he could follow the ball, he could follow the punks,” Spheeris says. “And I shot second camera. It was pretty rough in there. He asked me for a shark cage one time.
“But Steve was really good at it,” she says. “He said to me, ‘I’m really sorry, but when I’m down in the pit, I’m getting knocked all over the place. I can’t hold [the camera] still.’ And I said, ‘Roll with the punches, dude. Because that looks great on film.’”
Part III is a bookend for the first film, following a new generation of punks that resemble the original iteration, but under much direr circumstances. Watching the Decline movies in sequence crystallizes a surprisingly cogent narrative arc — it’s like Michael Apted’s 7 Up series, where a lifetime’s accumulation of hard times and disappointments leave scars on the face of a city. While the title of the first movie was intended to be sardonic, the Decline series does ultimately chart the dissolution of a community, from the relative optimism of the late ’70s and early ’80s to the neglect and hopelessness of late-’90s L.A.
“When I do a documentary, it never is what I think I’m going to make. They have a mind of their own,” Spheeris says. “I thought with the third Decline it was going to be, ‘Oh, let’s go have fun and party with these cool-looking kids and have some great times.’4 Well, it turned out that it wasn’t really about partying and music; it was about homeless kids and how terrible this problem is in this country. So, it was just hard reckoning that.”
Spheeris ranks Part III as not only her favorite film of the Decline series, but of her whole career. (“I just think it has the most potential for doing some good in the world,” she says.) After that comes Part I, and then it’s Part II, “my ugly stepchild — not redheaded, because I love redheaded kids.”
Unlike the other two Decline movies, Spheeris didn’t have complete creative control over The Metal Years. She would’ve rather focused on the grittier parts of the local metal scene, but the film’s producers instead implored her to zero in on L.A.’s skeeziest, most party-oriented groups. Spheeris obliged, but not without exposing the abject poverty many of the scene’s musicians were living in while waiting for their big break. While Parts I and III are direct, The Metal Years is about delusion — about drugs, about the growing prevalence of AIDS, about the possibility that anyone can become C.C. Deville if you just want it hard enough. Nobody in the movie seems like they will be able to leave the party unscathed.
This push-pull between the film’s slickness and Spheeris’s impulse to demythologize gives the movie its power, though Spheeris still isn’t totally happy with the result.
“At the risk of sounding unappreciative of the great work Jon Dayton and Valerie Faris did, because they really were great producers,5 I will say that they had a perception of the scene that was a lot more skewed toward comedy and hilarity than I did,” says Spheeris, who seems nonplussed by my enthusiasm.6 “It’s so frivolous on a lot of levels. Thank god it got a little deeper with Megadeth and Chris Holmes, but you know, all I cared about was being able to document a certain point in history so future generations could see it.”
Spheeris says she was also personally unhappy when she started making The Metal Years. “My daughter was going out with Nikki Sixx from Mötley Crüe, and I was feeling really old and ugly,” she says. According to Fox, she was 17 when she dated Sixx, and “he told everybody I was 15 — I guess he thought that was cooler than 17.” Fox added that Sixx used to pick her up from Catholic school on his Harley, which sounds like the plot of a Mötley Crüe video.
While the first Decline is highlighted by intensely intimate live performances, the second Decline is distinguished by unwittingly revealing interviews. Spheeris let her subjects choose where they wanted to be filmed — before they open their mouths, they’re giving themselves away. Gene Simmons of Kiss opted to be interviewed in a lingerie store, because of course he did, while Lemmy from Motörhead is shot at dusk on a hill with L.A. on the horizon, like a world-conquering Viking.
When I interviewed Kiss’s Paul Stanley in 2006, I asked about his decision to be shot while lying on a bed with three scantily clad models clinging to his assorted appendages.
“I thought people would see it more as a skit,” Stanley replied.
“I was the director and he wasn’t,” Spheeris counters, cackling. “He ain’t in the editing room, you know what I mean?”
The most famous sequence in The Metal Years features W.A.S.P. guitarist Holmes, who talks to Spheeris from a floating pool chair and appears blackout drunk while consuming multiple bottles of vodka. At the pool’s edge sits Holmes’s mother, forlornly watching her son drown in booze and self-pity.
“I felt like we got nothing,” Spheeris says now of the scene. “When the interview was over, I told the [director of photography], Jeff Zimmerman, ‘We’ve got to figure out some way we can get some money to shoot this again because we didn’t get it.’ I cut it together out of desperation and hoped that it would be OK. I never in the editing room went, ‘Wow, this is a major statement.’ And the weirdest thing is that’s the part of the movie that everybody talks about now.”
I sent an email to Holmes in the hopes of talking to him for this story. Catherine Holmes, Chris’s wife and manager, sent this reply: “I asked Chris about it and his answer was, ‘They didn’t pay me for the interview in the movie and nobody contacted me or asked about the release. My wife learned about it by Facebook. Apparently they don’t give a fuck then. I don’t really have nothing to say about it.’”
Spheeris does, but she admits that she has since stopped going to clubs and listening to punk and metal. (She prefers “very Zen and ethereal” meditation music these days.) But she’s forever connected to the Decline movies. Like her subjects, Spheeris has always been an outsider looking for her own place in the world. Not everybody survives the journey. But Spheeris, steely as always, is still here and still curious about flawed humanity.
“What I’m interested in more than the music, honestly, is human behavior,” she says. “If you can get that from the movies, then I’ve accomplished what I was trying to do.”