#255) The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)
OR “What’s the Matter With Kids Today?”
Directed by Penelope Spheeris
Class of 2016
The Plot: It’s 1980 and the L.A. rock scene has evolved into the first wave of hardcore punk. Filmmaker Penelope Spheeris chronicles the era on and off-stage with such notorious bands as Black Flag, Germs, Catholic Discipline, X, Circle Jerks, Alice Bag Band, and Fear. Each band’s anarchic attitude towards music, L.A., and even their own fans is on full display. Also featured are the owners of L.A. clubs Masque and Club 88 coping with their new clientele, the bands’ fans articulating their devotion to this scene, and the editors of “Slash”, the first punk rock zine. Come for the insight into this burgeoning subculture, stay for the kick-ass soundtrack.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “a bracing historical and musical record” of the L.A. punk rock scene.
But Does It Really?: Maybe it’s because I’ve spent the last year and a half watching classic Hollywood fare, but “The Decline of Western Civilization” was a breath of fresh air for me. Despite what others might say, punk rock was the music that actually broke all the rules, and this film covers the chaotic energy of early punk perfectly. At no point does Spheeris attempt to explain or contextualize the music; she lets her subjects be their unapologetic selves. “Decline” is a documentary where the cameras were rolling at the perfect moment, and a welcome addition to the Registry.
Everybody Gets One: Director Penelope Spheeris spent most of her childhood travelling the country with her father’s carnival, leading to her lifelong understanding of people on the margins of status quo. Spheeris was inspired to become a filmmaker by her cousin, Costa Gavras of “Z” and “Missing” fame. “Decline” was her feature debut.
Wow, That’s Dated: Besides the obvious dissection to the punk rock scene, this film references such ‘80s things as mullets, arguments about nuclear power, and the ancient art of editing a physical magazine.
Seriously, Oscars?: No Best Documentary nomination for “Decline”. The winner that year was “Genocide”, a film about the Holocaust. No room for mosh pits and atonal screaming at the 1982 Oscars.
- Full disclosure: The only bands I was familiar with prior to my viewing were Circle Jerks and Fear, and even then, I was aware of them in name only.
- The lyrics for some of these songs appear on screen. Everybody sing along!
- I learned about the punk dance craze pogo from, of all things, an episode of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse”. And who said that show wasn’t educational?
- How many of these bands hated this movie?
- Sadly, the main takeaway from this film is Germs lead Darby Crash, who died of an intentional heroin overdose at age 22. The film’s literal poster child passed away seven months before the film’s release, and the final cut is a telling look at the end of a tragic life.
- Germs had been banned from practically every L.A. club by the time filming began. Penelope Spheeris had to rent a studio to film their performance.
- Darby’s going for a Mick Jagger vibe, right?
- Either fashion has not changed in the last 35 years, or the early ‘80s punk look is making a comeback nowadays.
- Not a lot of screentime devoted to Catholic Discipline; probably because the group had already disbanded by the time the film was released. Also gone before the production wrapped was the fan zine “Slash”, which folded after their Summer 1980 issue.
- Of all the featured groups, X seems like the most approachable band. They’re rebelling against everything, but you can still come over to their place for a beer. Lead vocalists John Doe and Exene Cervenka were married (and divorced) shortly after the film was made.
- The club security meeting captured on camera is a bit rough, especially when they try to differentiate moshing with fighting. “She may be crying, but she may be into it.” Yikes.
- No matter how you slice it, punk rock is still 90% white people trying to dance.
- How cool can you really be when your name is Eugene?
- This film is delightfully bookended by Wayne Mayotte, then owner of Club 88, trying to explain what punk is. It’s like watching your parents describe flossing.
- The climax of the film is the Fear performance. They are every intense aspect of punk rock pushed up to 11.
- After an hour and change of these bands screaming their vocals, it turns out Fear lead Lee Ving can actually sing! Side Note: You know Lee best as Mr. Boddy in the film version of “Clue”, where he was dubbed for some reason.
- Right off the bat, this film was causing problems. Fights between fans broke out at early screenings, prompting LAPD Chief of Police Darryl Gates to ban future screenings.
- This is the first in a trilogy! “Part II” covers L.A.’s heavy metal scene in 1988, and “Part III” looks at homeless teens in the punk rock scene of 1998. Penelope Spheeris helmed all three, and was inspired during the third one to adopt one of the teens featured in the film.
- I cannot stress enough that Penelope Spheeris went on to direct the film versions of “Wayne’s World”, “The Beverly Hillbillies”, and “The Little Rascals”.
- Fear found a new fan in John Belushi thanks to this film. Belushi even managed to get them a gig at his old job, “Saturday Night Live”. Their infamous performance led to them being banned from SNL.
- The filming of the Germs’ performance was recreated for the Crash Darby biopic “What We Do Is Secret”. Shane West’s performance as Crash led to him touring with the surviving members of Germs in 2006.
- Of the featured bands, X and Fear are the only ones still performing with no interruptions. In addition to the aforementioned end of Catholic Discipline, Germs and Alice Bag Band both ended within a few years of this film’s release, Black Flag has reunited a few times, and Circle Jerks have been on hiatus since 2010.
Listen to This: None of the bands featured in this movie have made the National Recording Registry yet. Write to your congressperson.