The greatest rockumentaries ever made are a series of films that you may never have heard of. Even if you have heard of them, it’s unlikely that you’ve seen them all. Thankfully, as of August 31, that’s set to change. Directed by Penelope Spheeris – who went on to shoot Wayne’s World – The Decline of Western Civilization trilogy is getting a long-awaited boxset DVD release, despite the fact that the films were originally released in 1981, 1988 and 1998.
The eye-opening and, at turns, heartbreaking and hilarious documentaries focus on different cultural and sonic movements in Los Angeles. The first is a brutal look at the nascent hardcore scene, featuring powerful performances from the Germs, Black Flag, Bags, X, Circle Jerks and Fear, as well as interviews with snarling teenage fans. The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years is a rather more flamboyant affair focusing on hair metal, with Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, Kiss, Ozzy Osbourne and a somewhat out-of-place Lemmy – pictured above with Spheeris – while The Decline of Western Civilization III is something of the outsider in the trio, concerned with the exploits of homeless street punks in the 1990s.
We took a look at the films with Spheeris and her daughter Anna Fox, who served as producer on the extras-packed new boxset.
THE REASON BEHIND THE RE-RELEASE
Spheeris was oblivious to how much people were clamouring for a DVD release of the films until she began to work with Anna. “I’m not 24/7 on the internet and Facebook, but Anna is and she goes, ‘Mom, you have no idea how much people want these,’” explains the director. Up until now, there have only been old ratty VHS tapes of the films. “Then there were these terrible bootlegs and, for the last four years, Anna has been taking down [from YouTube] the crappy bootlegs because, as a filmmaker, I don’t really like seeing stuff look like that.”
DAVE GROHL GETS INVOLVED
The Foo Fighters frontman loves the documentaries so much that he’s contributed an audio commentary on the DVD for the first film, which features a baby-faced cameo from current bandmate Pat Smear in his first band, the Germs. “When he did [2013 Grohl-directed documentary] Sound City, he asked to use some footage from The Decline… for fun and then when he did [HBO series] Sonic Highways he wanted footage again, so we decided, ‘Hey, let’s ask him if, in exchange for the footage, he’ll do a voice over,’” explains Anna. “He was ecstatic about it.” Grohl, it transpires, was put on to the film when he was a kid by his rock’n’roll-loving cousin. “She was a lesbian girl who lived in Indiana. He went to see her one year and she was all punked out. She introduced him to The Decline… and he said it changed his life.”
CRASH AND BURN
Fresh out of film school, Spheeris began shooting local bands in 1979, using equipment borrowed from her day job at a music video production company. “I didn’t know it would have such a lasting effect,” she says. Back then, the punk scene was so small that everyone knew each other. “I knew the Germs’ manager, Nicole, so I asked her, and I went down to a Black Flag show and asked Greg Ginn – above – if he would do it. Even though there was no social media or cell phones, we all knew each other so I would shoot whoever was performing.”
Spheeris made a habit of hoping in moshpits to capture the bands’ intense gigs, causing herself more than a few injuries in the process. “You get knocked around a bit, you get stepped on and you learn to wear steel-toed boots. And you pick up the teeth from the floor and hand them back to whomever they belong.”
Germs frontman Darby Crash – above – is the first film’s most intriguing character. “He was really, really smart and extremely creative, and extremely innovative, and extremely charismatic,” Spheeris says. “Everybody that was around Darby was like, ‘Oh my God, I am in the presence of someone really, really special.’” Crash committed suicide by intentionally overdosing on heroin at the age of 22 in 1980 – the day before John Lennon was murdered and before the film was released.
The second film boasted not only a budget five times larger than the first, but bigger hairstyles too. Packed to the brim with iconic scenes, the documentary features Ozzy making himself an breakfast in a leopard-print robe, Lemmy towering over a dramatic LA skyline and a casually goth-ed up Alice Cooper – above. Naturally, Gene Simmons from Kiss suggested he be interviewed in a lingerie shop while Paul Stanley from the same band choose to be filmed in bed surrounded by scantily clad ladies.
“When we got there for the thing with Paul I told him, ‘These are the ladies that are gonna be in the bed with you,’ and he goes, ‘Ew, they’re not very attractive, I don’t want them to do it.’ So I said, ‘Well, I don’t really have any extra beautiful women around, sorry.’ So he called the Playboy Mansion and got those babes to come down.” So Playboy actually delivered you women? “Yeah, exactly – it was like pizza.”
Chris Holmes, guitarist of WASP is interviewed while wasted in a pool, as his concerned mother looks on. Like Darby Crash from the first film, he casts a truly tragic figure, but thankfully didn’t meet the same fate. “I didn’t really realise it was gonna be so scary watching him. You’d imagine he wouldn’t be alive today, but he’s alive and kicking and doing very well,” says Spheeris.
In their own way, all the films are about escape and none more than Decline III, which tackles the gutter punk lifestyle and features hardcore bands Final Conflict, Litmus Green and Naked Aggression. It’s Spheeris’s favourite of the three, but why? “Well, because I think it has a message that could help us,” she says. “It turned out to be about homeless kids and I didn’t really know that was gonna be the focus when I started making it. It was really life-changing for me; I met my boyfriend when I shot that film. He was 18, and had been homeless for 10 years before I met him. Smartest guy I’ve ever known.”
Penelope and Anna aren’t giving away too much about the next instalment in the Decline… series, but they do confirm that there’s a new film in the pipeline. “We started it before we made our [boxset distribution] deal, so a few things got done on it but it’s not anywhere near completion,” reveals Spheeris. “Anna’s really the one that is in charge of that one because, honestly, I am getting too old and decrepit to do all this shit anymore!”