Decline of Western Civilization Collection [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Shout! Factory
Review written by and copyright: Anthony Arrigo (19th July 2015).
The Film

When discussing the history of punk rock, most people would likely cite the groundbreaking acts coming out of England or New York City; the scene in Los Angeles has, historically, attracted far less attention from the media. And for that reason, director Penelope Spheeris embarked upon the making of her first true feature film, “The Decline of Western Civilization” (1981). Shot in and around Los Angeles, from 1979-1980, the film chronicles a movement most in the media chose to avoid all together. Spheeris takes a ground-level approach to the material, capturing not only live performances from the bands that helped shape the sound of Los Angeles’ burgeoning punk rock scene but also the lifestyle punk kids who attend the shows, understanding club owners and misunderstood conceptions. Raw and unvarnished, Spheeris delves deep into the growing punk subculture, cajoling answers out of these spiky street urchins like a therapist earning her keep.

It isn’t enough to know they’re into such abrasive music, or what they like about it; part of the rubric here is to understand the deeper connection that has brought such varied youths together. The answers may be worded differently but they all share the same themes – physical abuse, verbal abuse, drug use at a young age, self-esteem problems. It becomes apparent early on that the offensive clothes they wear, Liberty spike hairdos & mohawks, and intimidating-to-the-average-person personas are really just a big cover up for insecurities. Obviously not everyone in the scene back then shared the same difficulties, and if I have any jab at Spheeris’ movie it’s that these kids are almost presented a little too sympathetic. It wouldn’t have seemed entirely out of place had Sally Struthers popped up after the credits to solicit donations so that “you, too, can help feed and clothe a homeless punk rock youth”. No documentary is without bias. It’s clear Spheeris has a real affection for these adolescents (some more than others – she wound up dating one of the guys from the third film for years) and so she presents them as being a misunderstood group that displays surprising amounts of heart, brains and comprehension.

But enough about the interviews! Many of you have likely come for the music… I have not. My bread-and-butter growing up was metal – thrash, death, black, heavy, and even a little hardcore – but I have never been a fan of punk rock. Except for The Misfits and The Ramones, and that’s it. Still, as a fan of music and creativity and all things fun & slightly dangerous, this movie had appeal in so far as it presented to me a world of which I knew very little. Those who do love them some old-school L.A. punk rock will find performances from Black Flag, The Germs, Catholic Discipline, X, Circle Jerks, Alice Bag Band, and FEAR. Each group performs two-to-three songs, while Circle Jerks and FEAR each get five. None of the songs here won me over, but having been to so many metal shows I understood the energy of the crowd – and those circle pits – and this film does a great job of getting across that intensity.

Additionally, many of the musicians in the featured bands, and many who were not, are interviewed about their respective roles in the scene. The most memorable scenes center on the late singer of The Germs, Darby Crash, who makes breakfast while discussing his pre-show pick-me-up requirements. Later, he shows off his pet tarantula. Second to this is a quick clip with Ron Reyes of Black Flag showing off the closet where he sleeps for $16 a month. To say none of these people live an extravagant lifestyle would be a massive understatement.

Extravagance is just the thing in Spheeris’ second entry in the series, “The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years” (1988). A number of notable and not-so-notable metal musicians are interviewed here, discussing the excessive lifestyles and debaucheries that are part-and-parcel of being in a metal band in Los Angeles circa the mid-80's. The subjects are portrayed in stark contrast to the mostly-homeless, unmaterialistic punks of the previous film. Here, we’re treated to the teased hair and made-up faces of Poison (who look just ridiculous), a dude who looks like a fat Trey Parker with a teased mullet, Ozzy Osbourne attempting to make himself breakfast (some of which was staged), W.A.S.P.’s Chris Holmes guzzling vodka in a pool float - fully clothed - as his mom sits nearby, Steven Tyler’s proclamation that he “snorted up Peru” and blew a fortune, and, maybe best of all, Paul Stanley conducting his interview from a bed filled with half-naked groupies. This is everything the last film wasn’t, and then some.

As a big fan of heavy metal from this era, I can say with certainty that Spheeris’ film manages to perfectly capture the “sex, drugs and rock & roll” ethos by which virtually everyone here lived. Every single musician interviewed here is convinced they’re going to hit it big or die trying, with the obvious exception of those who were already on top of the rock world; however, there isn’t much of a discernible difference in attitudes between the haves and have nots. Everyone is living like a rock star – booze flows freely and scantily-clad women are around every corner. Surprisingly, the rampant drug use many of the Sunset Strip acts were known for is only lightly touched upon. In fact, many of the groups interviewed say they don’t use drugs at all, and others don’t even drink. Perhaps this was Spheeris trying to clear up some misconceptions about the L.A. scene. The main thrust of the picture is success – whether working to keep it or working to achieve it.

Despite a number of big names being interviewed, the performances are mostly made up of bands that either had modest success or very little with only one act – Megadeth – achieving a worldwide following. Aside from Dave Mustaine’s thrash metal headliner, acts shown here include London, Odin, Faster Pussycat, and Seduce. Not exactly the most inspiring collection of bands from that era, although some of that may have to do with reluctance to participate from top acts. It seems unconscionable Spheeris wouldn’t try for groups like Guns ‘N Roses or Mötley Crüe, though the likely excuse is they were just too damn busy taking over the world.

The trilogy wraps up with “The Decline of Western Civilization Part III” (1998), a film that returns to the L.A. punk scene to show how much (or little) has changed. Instead of focusing on the music, this time around Spheeris dedicates most of the picture to the “gutter punk” kids. The results are not dissimilar to the first film; the main difference being instead of showing the squalid conditions in which bands members live, now we see how these street kids get by. Most come from an abusive home, most have issues fitting in, all have a major problem with authority in any form and all of them live either on the streets or they squat in abandoned units.

Spheeris continues her style of launching questions and direction from behind the camera, this time asking about racism, tolerance, upbringings, issues with law enforcement and where they’ll be in five years (most common answer: “dead”). A good chunk of the film is dedicated to squatters, who inform viewers about how to do so. I learned how to make a “squat candle”, a skill I will hopefully never have to use in the field. In many ways this is like a real-life version of “Suburbia” (1984), which is itself practically a documentary. Hearing about the plight of these “gutter punks” lacks some impact, since the material was also covered in the first film to a degree, but it is definitely clear not one of these kids had much of a chance growing up and they have less of one now. Be sure to stick around until the very end of the credits for a total downer!

The first “Decline” seems to be the most celebrated of the trilogy, though your enjoyment will almost entirely depend on your musical choices. As a metal fan, I had less interest in the first and third film yet still found both to be at least intriguing in the sense they captured a time and a place that doesn’t exist anymore and that’s always fascinating (to me). What I most enjoyed was Spheeris’ ability to ask hard, sometimes uncomfortable questions that make her subjects shift in their seats with uncertainty. This isn’t some surface “news/sports/weather” interview meant to offer up some crude overview of a movement; these films all dig deep into their subjects and get them to reveal what’s hidden just beneath unconventional exteriors.

“The Decline of Western Civilization” film rating: B
“The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years” film rating: A-
“The Decline of Western Civilization Part III” film rating: B-

Video

Long unavailable on home video in any format – ever – Shout! Factory has brought the entire trilogy to Blu-ray with all-new 2K transfers and spectacular results. The first “Decline” sports a 1.33:1 1080p 24/fps AVC MPEG-4 encoded picture, while “II” and “III” are framed at 1.78:1. Although there are no previous versions to compare to this set, it’s very clear a great deal of work went into making sure this is the best all three films have ever looked. All of the prints used look to have been kept in good condition (even though no negative for the first film could be located), with very little dirt or scratches to be seen. Film grain is very evident on all three but not in excess, and in the case of the first film it really adds to the aesthetic. Of the three, “II” looks the most polished and cinematic, while the first and third films are fittingly “dirtier” in their appearance. Colors look accurate, contrast is solid and there are really no major issues worth discussing. Could these transfers be picked apart and scrutinized more closely? Sure, but why bother? These films were intended to look a little raw and rough and the presentations here nail that aesthetic.

Audio

All three features have two audio options - English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround sound (48kHz/24-bit) or English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo. The live songs benefit the most from the multi-channel tracks, adding fullness to the tracks and expanding the thin sound field. The first film is the only one that has any instances of hissing and pops, although again it seems fitting given the nature of the picture. Otherwise, the interviews all come across clean and level with no major issues. Subtitles are available on all three films in English SDH.

Extras

Now on to the motherload… Shout! Factory has packed these discs to the rafters, and each is chock full of audio commentary, interviews, live footage and more. Additionally, there is also a fourth disc comprised entirely of extra material for all three films, as well as a very slick booklet featuring lengthy essays and photographs emblematic of the time period.

DISC ONE: “The Decline of Western Civilization”

Director Penelope Spheeris and box-set producer Anna Fox deliver an informative audio commentary that expands upon the many interviewees seen in the film, adding anecdotes and bits of trivia that allow a more complete picture of that time period to be painted.

Next up is an audio commentary from… Dave Grohl? Yep, the Foo Fighters frontman is a massive fan of this film and he’s here to tell you all about why he loves it and what it means to him.

Never-Before-Seen Footage (SD) includes:

- “X Signs Contract” runs for 2 minutes and 48 seconds.
- “Tour of the Masque” runs for 7 minutes and 55 seconds.

Never-Before-Seen Performances (SD) include:

- “FEAR – We Destroy the Family/No More Nothing/Waiting for the Gas/Fresh Flesh” runs for 7 minutes and 23 seconds.
- “The Germs – Lexicon Devil/Let’s Pretend” runs for 4 minutes and 55 seconds.
- “The Gears – Elk’s Lodge Blues” runs for 2 minutes and 8 seconds.

Additional Extras (SD) include:

- “Henry Rollins Interviews Spheeris” runs for 5 minutes and 6 seconds.
- “Announcements” reel runs for 2 minutes and 44 seconds.
- Theatrical trailer (1080p) runs for 1 minute and 54 seconds.

Extended Interviews (SD) includes:

- “Black Flag” runs for 16 minutes and 44 seconds.
- “Darby’s Apartment” runs for 15 minutes and 16 seconds.
- “X” runs for 10 minutes and 28 seconds.
- “Brendan Mullen” runs for 8 minutes and 36 seconds.
- “Nicole Panter, The Germs’ Manager” runs for 16 minutes and 40 seconds.
- “Light Bulb Kids” runs for 8 minutes and 3 seconds.

DISC TWO: “The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years”

Director Penelope Spheeris delivers another audio commentary, this time joined by Nadir D’Priest, lead singer for London. Once again, this is another must-listen track for those who want all the additional dirt on the who’s who of the film.

Extended Interviews (SD) includes:

- “Aerosmith” runs for 19 minutes and 6 seconds.
- “Alice Cooper” runs for 18 minutes and 41 seconds.
- “Chris Holmes” runs for 15 minutes and 2 seconds.
- “Gene Simmons” runs for 20 minutes and 24 seconds.
- “Lemmy” runs for 14 minutes and 42 seconds.
- “Ozzy Osbourne” runs for 21 minutes and 43 seconds.
- “Paul Stanley” runs for 16 minutes and 18 seconds.

A theatrical trailer (1080p) runs for 1 minute and 34 seconds.

DISC THREE: “The Decline of Western Civilization Part III”

Extended Interviews (SD) includes:

- “Flea” runs for 6 minutes and 19 seconds.
- “Keith Morris” runs for 9 minutes and 12 seconds.
- “Leonard Phillips (The Dickies)” runs for 12 minutes and 11 seconds.
- “Rich Wilder (The Mau-Maus)” runs for 6 minutes and 20 seconds.
- “Light Bulb Kids” runs for 9 minutes and 18 seconds.

Additional Extras (SD) include:

- “Behind the Scenes” runs for 6 minutes and 41 seconds, with commentary from Spheeris.
- “Gutterpunks” reel runs for 2 minutes and 13 seconds.
- “LA County Museum of Art" panel – DECLINE I & II” runs for 20 minutes and 59 seconds.
- “Premiere/Movie" introduction runs for 3 minutes and 45 seconds.
- “Sundance Interview with Spheeris” featurette runs for 6 minutes and 9 seconds.
- Theatrical trailer (1080p) runs for 2 minutes and 18 seconds.

DISC FOUR: Bonus Disc

“Decline II Extended Interviews – London/Megadeth/Odin/Poison/Gazzari/Mega Crowd” runs for 1 hour, 18 minutes and 35 seconds.

“Decline I News Report” featurette runs for 2 minutes and 45 seconds.

“Decline II Cruising the Strip” featurette runs for 6 minutes and 50 seconds.

“Decline III Panel” featurette runs for 6 minutes and 53 seconds.

Tawn Mastrey Interviews Spheeris” featurette runs for 11 minutes and 5 seconds.

“LA County Museum of Art Panel – Decline II” featurette runs for 14 minutes and 14 seconds.

“Mark Toscano Interviews Spheeris” featurette runs for 10 minutes and 37 seconds.

“Nadir & Lizzy” featurette runs for 16 minutes and 11 seconds.

Theatrical trailer for "SUBURBIA” runs for 1 minute and 58 seconds.

Extras’ credits runs for 43 seconds.

Packaging

The four discs come housed in a sturdy, side loading slip-cover. The first three films come housed in standard Blu-ray keep cases, while the bonus disc comes in a slim case.

Overall

Spheeris’ trilogy finally gets the proper release it has deserved for over thirty years. Shout! really hit this one out of the park thanks to faithful video quality and an absolute wealth of bonus materials that have never been seen before. For fans of the series, this is as good as it gets and then some.

The Film: B Video: B- Audio: B- Extras: A+ Overall: B+

 


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