DVD Review: The Decline of Western Civilisation Box Set

Starring: Black Fag, X, Aerosmith, Alice Cooper
Director: Penelope Spheeris

decline 1Gathered together on one noisy, grungy box set, this trio of celebrated documentaries by Penelope Spheeris offer vivid, telling snapshots of the LA music scene over a span of three decades. Despite some similarities of approach – for example, a fondness for filming people making breakfast, whether that’s the lead singer of The Germs rustling up some tasty-looking bacon and eggs or Ozzy Osbourne trying (and failing) to poor orange juice into a glass – the films are as different in tone and style as the periods they portray.

The original Decline of Western Civilisation is a high energy, kinetic, intimate view of various LA punk rock garage bands in ’79-80. Even if you’re not into the music, the film’s picture of an underground sub-culture is fascinating. Black Flag are interviewed at home in a disused Baptist Church covered in graffiti and with bedding jammed into makeshift cubbyholes – they look like a coven of vampires, and you expect to see Buffy crashing in with a sharpened stake at any moment. Then comes riotous footage of a Germs concert, their lead singer pleading for beer and getting so drunk he forgets to sing into the mic. The camera gets right in there, the angles are brutal and in-yer-face, and the whole thing is infused with the bold, DIY aesthetic of the times.

With Part II: The Metal Years, we jump to ’87-88. Suddenly everything is glam and glitz. The whole texture of the film is more brightly coloured and glossy. The interviewees wear big hair and crystal bracelets. Concert footage is slick and garishly hued. There’s a feeling that director and musicians are all selling out in that breezily hard-hearted ’80s way. Except that Spheeris’ sympathies are always with the wannabes, so that while big names like Aerosmith and Alice Cooper line up to contribute, the majority of the movie is devoted to less starry metal acts like Faster Pussycat, London (who complain in a funny interview that members keep on leaving them and becoming famous) and Odin, whose lead singer goes bare-ass in chaps on stage. Revelling in the hairspray and guy-liner, Part II is great fun and easily the most accessible of these three documentaries, just the thing to show in a double bill with Spinal Tap.

By contrast, Part III, which revisits the punk rock scene in ’96-97, is by far the angriest of the trilogy. Here music takes a backseat to street style – lots of kids showing off their piercings, tattoos and fauxhawks – tales of gang warfare and racial tension and a general portrait of LA’s seamy underbelly. Not an easy watch, but serious, committed and a fitting end to a 30 year-long project. 7/10

Part I: Some impressively raw performance footage (7 min of Fear, 5 min of The Germs) plus other bits and pieces.
Part II: A bumper crop. Extended interviews with Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, Gene Simmons (in a lingerie shop), Lemmy, Chris Holmes (drunk in his pool), Ozzy Osbourne and Paul Stanley (on a bed surrounded by girls in their underwear), roughly 90 mins altogether. These interviews were used only very sparingly in the film, so there’s plenty that’s new here, with the guys from Aerosmith talking about drug addiction and Alice Cooper chatting about the roots of metal.
Part III: 30 mins’ worth of extended interviews with various veterans of the original LAdecline 2 punk scene, talking about changing times.

Further Bonus Material:
Vintage featurette on the LA punk scene and the LA strip. ~ 7-min Q&A from 2003 in which the director chats about making Part 1 with various old punk rockers. Slightly poor sound. ~ 11-min interview with Spheeris on an ’80s heavy metal TV show, the director looking very corporate with big hair and power suit. She talks about how the celebs chose the (sometimes odd) locations for their interviews. ~ 14-min Q&A from 2003 about Part II, with various characters from the film such as the lead singer of London and the manager of the Cathouse reminiscing about the ’80s. Nice audo and picture. ~ 10-min interview with Spheeris in which she talks, among other things, about how she got her start making music videos in the ’70s. ~ Another 80 min of interviews with London, Odin, Megadeth, etc – blurry picture, but with some interesting snippets, such as London talking about the business side of being in a band. 10/10


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