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Decline Of Western Civilization Collection, The
Penelope Spheeris, in her own words, will be remembered not for big time Hollywood comedies like Wayne's World, but for The Decline Of Civilization films. Though none of the three films that make up the series were ever given a DVD release, Shout! Factory has, finally, brought them all together in one extensive boxed set collection. But what the heck are these movies all about? For those who haven't seen them…
The Decline Of Western Civilization:
The first feature, from 1981, takes a look at the punk scene that was, at the time festering in the underbelly of Los Angeles. Spheeris, from off camera, interviews various participants in the scene from band members to fans to club owners and more. Spheeris really just turns the camera on and lets it roll, letting the interviewees go on various rants and cutting in live footage from a bunch of different punk bands, some more fondly remembered than others, in between the interview segments. It's a simple tactic to create what is essentially a simple movie but by being in the right place at the right time and by making the right connections Spheeris was able to create not only an interesting and entertaining look at a subculture as it was developing but also a film that would go on to become a very important document of the California punk scene in general. Seriously, they show this movie in museums now, and for good reason.
The interviews are interesting for various reasons. We get to see the late Darby Crash of The Germs and his girlfriend in their apartment cooking eggs and talking about why Darby has to get so stoned and/or drunk before each show and we get a guided tour of the closet that Black Flag's Ron Reyes called home at this period in his life, rented in an old church for sixteen dollars a month. The members of X ae a bit more coherent as they talk about their band while Slash Fanzine editor/Catholic Discipline frontman Claude Bessy gives his opinion on pretty much everything whether you want to hear it or not.
Of course, the live performances are a huge draw here too. Throughout the movie's ninety minute running time we get:
Black Flag: Depression/Revenge/White Minority
The Germs: Manimal/Shutdown
Catholic Discipline: Barbee Doll Lust/Underground Babylon
X: Beyond And Back/Johnny Hit And Run Paulene/Nausea
Circle Jerks: Back Against The Wall/Beverly Hills/I Just Want Some Skank/Red Tape/Wasted
Alice Bag Band: Gluttony/Prowlers In The Night
FEAR: Beef Bologna/I Don't Care About You/I Love Living In The City/Let's Have A War/Fear Anthem
All of the live material here is worth watching. Catholic Discipline vary from Black Flag who have at least a lead singer in common with The Circle Jerks who don't sound at all like X who don't sound at all like The Germs who aren't fronted by a woman like the Alice Bag Band are who don't draw nearly as much spit or vitriol from the crowd as the might FEAR manage to do. All of this stuff, even if it is judiciously edited, is gold for fans of late seventies/early eighties west coast punk rock. Even if the music doesn't move you, it's still worth checking out just for the insanity of it all. Case in point? Crash blasted out of his mind on stage letting audience members draw all over him with a Sharpie. Just say no, kids. Drugs are bad.
The Decline Of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years:
Made roughly a decade after the first film, The Metal Years is exactly what it sounds like: a look at the heavy metal and hair/glam metal scene of Los Angeles in the late eighties. Clubs had stopped booking punk shows as often and metal's popularity was absolutely on the rise. MTV was playing it, it was on the radio and it was fast becoming an important part of the world's musical culture.
With crew and camera in tow, Spheeris once again ventured out into the Los Angeles music scene to document what was happening and who it was happening to. Appearing on camera here are some interesting interviewees: Alice Cooper, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith (who talks about how much money he spent on dope), Ozzy Osbourne (who, like Darby Crash before him, cooks breakfast on camera in a scene that Spheeris has admitted was staged to make Ozzy look like he had the shakes), Megadeth's Dave Mustaine, Paul Stanley of Kiss (lying in bed with groupies all over him), Lemmy from Motorhead, lesser known/undiscovered bands like London, Odin and Seduce and then more interviews with signed bands like those conducted with Brett Michaels of Poison and members of Tuff, Vixen, Faster Pussycat and W.A.S.P.. It's that W.A.S.P. part that's best remembered… as Chris Holmes is interviewed while floating around in a pool while downing vodka as his aging mother looks on. Staged or not, it's a sight to see.
Again, live shows play a part in the movie. Look for Lizzy Borden doing Born To Be Wild, Faster Pussycat doing Cathouse and Bathroom Wall, Seduce doing Crash Landing and Colleen, London doing Breakout and Russian Winter, Odin doing Little Gypsy and 12 O'Clock High and Megadeth doing In My Darkest Hour.
There's a lot of emphasis in the interviews on the party hard lifestyle associated with heavy metal of this ere. Lots of talk of drug and alcohol abuse, playing around with groupies and what not but we also hear from some of these guys, Odin in particular, about just how bad they want to make it. In Odin's case they never did get all that big at all but by listening to the interviews here you'd be pretty convinced that they were determined to do whatever it takes. A lot of people will watch this one to laugh at the ridiculousness of the hair and the clothing and the dated eighties period ‘stuff' that's all over the film but there's more to this than that. Quite a bit of the music featured holds up well and the interviews, if never as earnest as what we see in the first or third movie, are interesting enough and sometimes pretty revealing.
The Decline Of Western Civilization Part III:
Making its official home video debut by way of this set is the third film in the series, released when Spheeris' love affair with Hollywood was over in 1998. Interestingly enough, this one starts off with a replication of the infamous ‘you agree to be photographed' legalese bit from the first movie, albeit with a new generation of band members and club owners doing it. We also get a great intro scene where Spheeris, always off camera, asks the kids in line at a punk show how old they were when the first Decline was released. Despite the fact that they're all wearing shirts representing bands of that era, most of them weren't even born yet.
Rather than rehash what the first movie had already accomplished so well, this time around Spheeris winds up documenting the lives of a group of gutterpunk street kids. She uses the same basic interview style that she used in the first one and again, asks them a few questions and just lets the cameras roll. Simultaneously humorous and heartbreaking we hear how these kids almost all came to be on the streets in an attempt to get away from some seriously dysfunctional and abusive home lives. They seem to have found the family they walked away from in one another, but are more apt to spend their days drinking and panhandling, very few of them seem all that interested in trying to find work. One, confined to a wheelchair after a drunk driving accident broke his back, is on disability and has an apartment, the rest either couch surf or squat in abandoned buildings or just live in alleyways or on the streets themselves. There's very little left to the imagination here. We see them doing their thing day in and day out, asking for spare change, drinking and hurting themselves to the point where a squat fire winds up killing one of their own and then, without spoiling the impact of the film's ending, even worse. An interview with an LAPD officer about how the police deal with these kids tells ‘society's side of the story' but for the most part, the movie lets the street kids, gutterpunks and squatters do the talking and it's all the better for it. Many of these kids are as bright and as funny and as intelligent and observant as they are messed up and lost.
There is some great live footage in here too. Bands Final Conflict, Litmus Green, Naked Aggression, and The Resistance all perform and various members are interviewed. It turns out that the vocalist from Naked Aggression was trained as a French Horn player and their guitarist once played classical. The singer for The Resistance talks about his life, the band's work ethic and who he's turned on by ‘chicks who can kick my ass' but all of this stuff comes secondary to the films documentation of the homeless youth.
The movie also features interviews with Keith Morris (ex-Black Flag/Circle Jerks, currently fronting OFF!), a completely burnt out and decimated looking Rick Wilder (The Mau Maus) and Flea (who was a one time member of FEAR and who starred in Spheeris' Suburbia before getting rich and famous with The Red Hot Chili Peppers). Each of these scene veterans talks about the differences between the punk scene of the late seventies and early eighties compared to how it is in the late nineties when this feature was made. The more things change, the more they stay the same: the kids are still hassled by cops and get into fights with skinheads.
Watched back to back, the three movies contained in this set map an interesting course for the Los Angeles music scene. We see the punk movement rise up to take it from the mainstream, we see the metal bands move in as the punks are forced out, and then we see that the punks never really went anywhere after all. Along the way we meet a host of fascinating characters, some more real and some more honest than others, and we see a lot of great live footage. This stuff isn't fancy in how it was shot or put together (thought the editing is far cleverer than you may at first realize) but it's definitely effective. You can get pretty wrapped up in the different interviews, the human interest stories, all laid out here while the rebellious and anti-social mores that inspired pretty much every band in each of the three entries still ring true today. There will always be plenty out there to be pissed off and fed up about and there will always be musicians wanting to voice their anger through their music. As long as there's music, there will be an audience and as long as there's an audience there will be plenty of opportunity to people watch. Spheeris movies let us do that, and to get to know some of those people we're watching along the way so that we never forget that as outrageous as some of these people are, they're still very human.The Blu-ray:
Press materials for this release state that "The Decline Of Western Civilization box set features a new 2K high-definition scan of each film, supervised by Spheeris. In keeping with the spirit of the rebellious times in which they were shot, the vintage aspects have been respected, and the films retain their original feel." That sums it up quite well, actually. Each film is presented in AVC encoded 1080p high definition, the first film in fullframe and the other two framed at 1.78.1 widescreen, all of which seems pretty accurate. Given that these never had legitimate DVD releases anywhere in the world the point of reference is going to be either old VHS tapes or bootleg DVD-Rs made from grey market sources and not surprisingly, the transfers here come out on top in a big, big way. Detail is quite strong in each film though thankfully it doesn't look like any tinkering has been done to the grainy, gritty aesthetic that has been employed. Minor print damage shows up in the form of some small specks but never to the point of distraction. Colors are reproduced quite nicely and contrast looks good (even in the occasional black and white sequences used here and there). There weren't any obvious compression issues noted nor were there any problems with edge enhancement or noise reduction. Parts of the third film are shot on video and they obviously don't look as good but yeah, overall this is a very nice presentation.Sound:
Audio options are provided in DTS-HD Mono and DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio with removable subtitles offered in English only. There's a bit of hiss and static in some scenes and it's been left there as that's just sort of how these movies sound. As to the surround mixes, they spread out the music and occasionally the crowd reaction in some scenes but purists will no doubt prefer the original mixes that are included here instead. Both tracks for each film sound good enough though. Dialogue is always crisp and clean and clear and the levels are nicely balanced throughout.Extras:
Extras are spread across the four discs that make up this set. For the first movie things kick off with an audio commentary with director Penelope Spheeris and box set producer Anna Fox (Spheeris' daughter). This is a scene specific talk that offers up some pretty interesting information about the movie (hey, Eugene is now a folk singer?), how and why the announcements were put together they way they are, Spheeris' impressions of the various people that she interviewed (not just the performers but the club owners as well), her thoughts on her relationship with the late Brendan Mullen, what went into putting the transfer together for the movie and why she took it upon herself to do as much work here as she did. She also talks about getting to know Darby and his mom, why certain angles were chosen for the live shoots, whether or not Billy Zoom is the coolest guy in the world, why some of the backdrops at the live shoots are just paper, and of course, that infamous footage of FEAR that closes out the movie and why they ‘went on last' in the movie. It's a pretty interesting talk, well paced and quite informative. If you dig the movie, take the time to listen to this.
The first film also includes a second audio commentary by musician/filmmaker Dave Grohl (if they were going to go with a Foo Fighter then Pat Smear would have made more sense, but I digress). This track is basically Grohl giving a ‘personal commentary' about the movie, explaining why it's a favorite of his and why the soundtrack album was so important as well. It's obviously not the gold mine of trivia and stories that Spheeris' track is but if you're a Grohl fan and want to know about how he connects to his movie and how and why it influenced him, you'll probably enjoy it. He talks about the honesty in the lyrics of the music featured in the movie, how kids got inspired by early punk to start their own bands, and just general observations about the movie in general.
From there, be sure to check out the Never Before Seen Footage where X sign their record contract (2:48 of what is basically X and their friends having a BBQ with Slash records celebrating their contract) and where we tour The Masque (a 7:56 piece in which Mullen shows us around and talks about the rise and then the fall of the underground dive club that he ran for a period of time). Probably even more awesome than that is the Never Before Seen Performances where we get more live footage from the shoot featuring FEAR (We Destroy The Family, No More Nothing, Waiting For The Gas, Fresh Flesh running 7:23 in total), The Germs (Lexicon Devil, Let's Pretend running 4:55 in total) and The Gears (Elk's Lodge Blues with a 2:08 run time). The FEAR footage in particular here is great, it's just as rowdy as what wound up being used in the feature cut of the movie.Extended Interviews section where we get to spend a bit more quality time with the members of Black Flag, The Germs, and X. Probably even more awesome than that is the Additional Performances where we get more live footage from the shoot featuring Fear, The Germs and The Gears.
The Additional Extras section contains a 5:06 minute piece from the Henry Rollins Show where he interviews Penelope Spheeris about the film. She notes here that she originally wanted him for the lead in Suburbia but that he was too busy with Black Flag at the time to take her up on the offer. It also has all of the Announcements (2:44) that are in the opening of the movie here in their original unedited form. Darby is even more unintelligible here than you'd think. The theatrical trailer is included in this section as well.
Rounding out the extras are some Extended Interviews segments that show the full length interviews shot with Black Flag (16:44, there's some interesting alternate footage here including a dramatic reading of the lyrics to ‘Depression'), Darby and his Girlfriend in the apartment (15:16, everyone is wasted but you probably knew that already), X (10:28, look for Spheeris in a rare on camera appearance in a great jacket!), Brendan Mullen (8:36, more of his thoughts on the music and the scene with the city behind him), The Germs' Manager Nicole (16:40, showing some cool split screen footage with her talking about The Germs and Darby doing his thing beside her) and the Light Bulb Kids (8:04, Pat Smear shows up here as do the two punk girls and Eugene and the rest), the latter being the punk kids interviewed against the light bulk backdrop in the movie. Animated menus and chapter selection are also on the disc.
Extras for The Decline Of Western Civilization Part III start off with an audio commentary from director Penelope Spheeris and Nadir D'Priest (of London). Like Spheeris' track on the first disc, it's a scene specific talk so she talks about things as they play out in front of us, including the mooning in the lineup featured in the early part of the movie. She talks about interviewing the different people that appear on camera, dealing with Gene Simmons when he wanted to ‘do something classy,' who was and wasn't drinking on camera, why Poison's interview really is funny, how Lemmy was the coolest guy in the movie and of course the fashions and trends that started in this period that have come back again. She notes how sex keeps coming up again and again during the interviews, when drugs are and aren't emphasized in the film, what was shot on a soundstage and what wasn't, trying (and failing) to get Guns ‘N Roses, and of course, the infamous scenes with Ozzy (who she describes as ‘clean and on top of things' and yes, the truth about the pouring of the orange juice) and Holmes (she talks about how much of the vodka was and wasn't real, how wasted he really was, and her thoughts on this infamous scene in general). Again, this is a solid track and quite an informative listen.
This disc also includes a selection of Extended Interviews (taken from B-roll footage, the only existing elements left) with Aerosmith (they talk about when they formed, playing smaller clubs and then large venues and their rise to success, 19:06), Alice Cooper (he talks about how metal has changed over the years, what makes metal special, his stage show and more, 18:41), Chris Holmes (what it's like to play in W.A.S.P., groupies, his mom making him take piano lessons, why he got all of his tattoos and more, 15:02), Gene Simmons (just hanging out being smug in a lingerie store, how he helped set the trend for the look of metal, what it was like in the early days of metal, the influence of metal on bored people, his thoughts on having a good time and his thoughts on drug use, 20:25), Lemmy (not caring what the media says and just playing Motorhead music, his thoughts on the band's fans, what he likes about the lifestyle, girls, the merging of genres in hard music, 14:42), Ozzy Osbourne (more breakfast cooking, his thoughts on substance abuse, how he became a living legend, the evil side of the business of music, the dangers of burning out, the greatest musician he's ever known, and what to bring to a performance, 21:44) and Paul Stanley (the theatrics in the early days of Kiss, why perspiration is the best inspiration, his thoughts on bands that were clearly influenced by his work, positives and negatives of the rock star life, 16:18). Rounding out the extras on for the second film are its original theatrical trailer, animated menus and chapter selection.
The Decline Of Western Civilization Part III has no commentary but it does include a bunch of extras starting with Extended interviews with Flea (how he got into punk rock, why he got into it, the trend towards drugs and alcohol more or less staying the same and how things are more fragile because people cares less than they used to, 6:19), Keith Morris (on growing up as a hippy, dealing with agents and getting screwed over, his substance abuse in his younger days, reaching a certain level of success, the importance of a work ethic, 9:12), Leonard Phillips (he talks about how The Dickies started in 1977, the revolving door of musicians that have been in the band, studying philosophy in college, how punk rock affected him and how The Ramones and the English punk scene influenced he and the rest of the band, 12:11), and Rick Wilder (how Spheeris wrote an article called ‘The Night Rick Wilder Died', how The Mau Mau's got their start, what some of his lyrics are about, and of course, substance abuse, 6:20). There's also some additional interviews with the Light Bulb Kids here (pretty much all of the kids featured in the movie pop up here, 9:18).
Also worth watching is a ten minute Behind The Scenes segment that show Spheeris and a small crew on the streets of L.A. shooting the homeless kids in their natural environment. She offers sporadic commentary here, noting that she comes across as pushy in the footage but also how she had a real affinity for these kids and even wound up getting romantically involved with one. Gutterpunks (2:13) is a quick piece showing the kids interviewed in the feature walking dramatically and to dramatic music through an alleyway (this is the longer version of the shot used in the feature). The LA County Museum of Art Panel: Decline I and III (20:59) is an interesting talk with Penelope Spheeris talking about the movies being shown in such a prestigious venue, the premiere of the original film and how a riot basically broke out and more. Later on she's joined by Mark Toscano of the Academy Film Archive, FEAR's Lee Ving, Greg Hetson of The Circle Jerks/Bad Religion and Kirsten Patches of Naked Aggression to talk about their experiences in punk rock and in making these movies with Spheeries. The Premiere/Movie Introduction (3:45) segment is footage from the film's premiere in 1998 with Spheeris providing a quick intro to it and with many of the kids featured in it in attendance. The Sundance Film Festival Interview With Penelope Spheeris (6:09) is, as it sounds, an interview with Spheeris shot at the festival about her work in the film industry, both mainstream and more indie like the Decline series and what makes the third film an important one. A theatrical trailer, animated menus and chapter stops close out the third disc.
Exclusive to this boxed set release is a fourth Bonus Disc that contains a bunch of extra content from throughout the three film series. First up are some Extended Interviews (1:18:35) with the bands from Decline II: Megadeth, London, Odin, Poison, Gazzari and Mega Crowd 87. There's a lot of material here it's in rough shape but some of it is quite interesting and it's different than the extended material included on the second disc in the set. The bands answer questions from Spheeris about their histories and their work but the real interesting stuff here is the Mega Crowd footage which is five minutes of Spheeris talking to people in line for a Megadeth show about the band and drinking and metal in general. It's kind of like a short version of Heavy Metal Parking Lot.
The Decline I News Report (2:45) is a Video West's Backstage Pass news report that talks up the movie and the punk scene of the time while Decline II: Cruising The Strip (6:50) is some great footage of Sunset Strip in all its tacky late eighties glory complete with random interviews with many of its inhabitants. The Decline Panel (6:53) is a panel shot in 2003 where Spheeris talks to people in attendance about how she got into shooting these documentaries, the films' legacy, and more. Tawn Mastrey Interviews Penelope Spheeris (11:05) from the MTV Cutting Edge Happy Hour ‘metal edition' is more of the same as she fields questions from the host about what it was like making the Decline films and why she made the Metal Years follow up. What makes this worth watching is some of the interviews with people just leaving a theater that was showing the movie. The LA County Museum Of Art Panel: Decline II (14:14) sees Spheeris alongside Nadir D'Priest, Riki Rachtman, Rikki Rocket of Poison and a moderator to talk about what it was like being involved in the heavy metal scene of the late eighties. Mark Toscano Interviews Penelope Spheeris (10:37) is a piece for the Penny Stamps Distinguished Speakers series that lets Spheeris talk about how she got into making music videos, her work on the Decline movies, shooting bands in L.A., and more. There are some cool archival clips from some of the videos she shot in here too. The Nadir And Lizzie Interview (16:11) lets Spheeris drill the two musicians about gunpowder and flashes and how to make flame pots, some of the problems that can happen when you use pyrotechnics, the lack of politics in metal and misconceptions about the intelligence of metal fans, getting handcuffed by the cops and more. We also get a theatrical trailer for Penelope Spheeris' Suburbia, some credits for the extra features on this release and some animated menus.
This set also comes with a full color booklet that includes a lengthy essay covering each of the three films in the collection written by rock historian Domenic Priore. All of this is housed inside a nice, thick, sturdy cardboard slipcover. The three main features are in regular sized Blu-ray cases, the bonus disc is in a slim case.Final Thoughts:
Shout! Factory have done a pretty fantastic job bringing The Decline Of Western Civilization Collection to Blu-ray in truly deluxe style. The movies look and sound as good as you'd want them to and the set is jam-packed with extras that are both interesting and often times very entertaining as well. The films themselves hold up well as cultural artifacts of their respective times. Anyone with an interest in punk, metal or just subcultures in general should seriously appreciate this boxed set and all that it contains.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.