Viewed as a whole, Penelope Spheeris' brilliant Decline of Western Civilization trilogy is an inarguable contender for Most Crucial Cultural Document of the 20th Century. Even if you're not interested in punk, metal or teenage self-destruction, the films each masterfully captured a different moment in rebellion and our historical identity. And they're finally available to the public for the first time since the VHS era, with the equally powerful third entry seeing a home video release for the first time ever.
The initial — and most notorious — installment in the series (1981) delved into the fledgling LA punk scene, focusing largely on the era's indelible acts like Black Flag, X, Germs and Fear. But Spheeris rightly found it equally compelling to document the shows' attendees, and the film is packed with fascinating, sparse snapshots of youths spouting off alienation mantras beneath a bare lightbulb. The result is an unshakably engrossing portrait of an incredible musical/social movement that feigns complete disinterest in itself. When the first Decline premiered in LA, the local police force was terrified at the sight of the congregated punks and lined the theater block with cop motorcycles. Afterwards, police chief Daryl Gates famously forbid Spheeris to ever screen the film in his city again.
It'd be nearly a decade before Decline pt. 2 (1988) was unleashed, and in that time, the Hollywood Blvd landscape had transformed. LA had entered The Metal Years, and Spheeris' return to the scene found it drenched in hairspray and stale whiskey. The fans and focus had shifted to rock excess, with the main similarity to the first film being the droning observations from musicians and devotees. While the disaffected nature of punk is absent from the second film, a similarly kamikaze self-loathing is front row center. This is most famously visible in the form of Chris Holmes from W.A.S.P., who spends his interview toxically drunk in a swimming pool while his aging mother wrings her hands and silently begs God for forgiveness. While Ozzy stutters and struggles to properly pour a glass of orange juice, Lemmy from Motorhead and Alice Cooper provide much more eloquent conversation.
If the second Decline feels slightly lighter than the first, the barely-seen third film (1998) counters with a boot to the heart. With a tiny crew, Spheeris entered the world of LA gutterpunks, choosing to focus almost entirely on the semi-homeless denizens of the street rather than the bands they love. It's as much a spiritual sequel to her flawless 1983 punk drama Suburbia* as it is to her first two documentaries. What could have been a '90s pop-punk retread of the first film is instead an masterfully intimate investigation of troubled youth. Unlike the rampant Rancid worshippers of the era, Spheeris' subjects genuinely live on the brink rather than just idiotically dress the part. There are moments of levity — one of the crusties has "TACO BELL" tattooed across her knuckles — but even those are bathed in the hopeless no-future outlook of the teens onscreen. Unfortunately, some of them would fulfill that prophecy before editing was completed, and the where-are-they-now post-scripts accompanying the credits are truly devastating.
Which is among the many reasons that these films are so significant. We live in a time where punk and metal have become means of physical identification above all else, where denim and tattoos are the human equivalent of peacock feathers to display on online dating profiles. But when Spheeris and company first entered these squats, alleys and filthy backstage lounges, it was to unlock actual changes that were happening within global society, long before time and social detachment transformed it all into nostalgic fashion.
The people we encounter in the Decline trilogy are dissatisfied products of their time and surroundings, rebelling violently against inescapable frustrations. Some of these kids would change, some would triumph, and nearly as many would die. But all of them left an immortal mark when they turned to Spheeris' camera, and the authenticity of her unparalleled document is as fresh and shocking to our disconnected, overstimulated minds now as it was to terrified parents almost 35 years ago.
What I'm getting at is: Watch these movies or I'll kill a hippie.
* NOTE: If you haven't seen Spheeris' mighty Suburbia (no relation to the '90s one from Richard Linklater), it's the best film ever made. No hyperbole.
Spheeris is touring the Decline docs this summer, including some Texas screenings in August. Get more info here.