What is it: Long before she directed Wayne’s World, Penelope Spheeris was known as a pioneering documentary filmmaker for her chronicling of the gritty reality of LA’s music scenes. Over three films from 1981 to 1998, she covered punk and metal stars and never-weres, fans and bands with an unsparing eye. The first of her movies, 1981’s Decline of Western Civilization, looked at bands like Black Flag, Germs, X, the Circle Jerks and Fear in squalid, sweaty detail, and it’s widely regarded as one of the best music documentaries ever made.
Why I never saw it: Despite its cult status, Decline and its two sequels were barely released and almost impossible to watch for decades. Long ago, when I worked at video stores and paged through ink-stained fanzines, I’d hear about these movies a lot, but pre-YouTube or eBay, good luck ever actually watching them. Finally, a few years back, the entire series was released on DVD with a bunch of cool bonuses, and I finally sat down recently to watch them. Can punk still shock more than four decades on?
Does it measure up to its rep? Music documentaries are one of my favourite genres, whether they’re behind the scenes concert footage, making-of histories, birth-to-death storytelling or day-in-the-life voyeurism. Decline is a little bit of all of the above. These aren’t superstars – X and Black Flag are probably the best known of the bands here, and this is a pre-Henry Rollins Black Flag at that. Even by 1979 and 1980, punk was a bit past its first wave, and so you’ve got a variety of fiery young bands trying to figure out who they are – whether it’s the bludgeoning rage of Circle Jerks and Fear, the angst of Germs and Black Flag or the more arty, performative work of almost-forgotten bands like Catholic Discipline, this is a snapshot of a moment in time but an anger that’s still understandable today. We see heaps of roiling, brutal men in mosh pits, slamming against each other in an intimate way that seems even more invasive in a pandemic world. Spheeris has a knack for capturing the propulsive motion of punk, with a visceral touch that makes you feel like you’re back in these crowded, grotty rooms decades ago. We see the bands off stage – Black Flag in an insanely over-graffitied squalid crash pad, The Germs’ doomed, mumbly lead singer Darby Crash cooking eggs and playing with his pet tarantula. (Crash would be dead at 22 of a drug overdose suicide before this movie even came out.) There’s a tinge of hopelessness to Decline, especially when Spheeris talks to the fans like nihilistic skinhead Eugene, but that’s balanced out by some incredibly passionate performances, like young Black Flag singer Ron Reyes screaming out “Depression’s gonna kill me.” It’s strange to think that now, 40+ years on, most of these angry young men and women are either nearly senior citizens – or gone. Unlike slick, polished reality TV versions of life, the squalor and power of Decline never feels fake.
Worth seeing? Decline of Western Civilization isn’t for those with gentler musical tastes – while some of the bands like X are excellent musicians whose snappy tunes still hold up well today, all of them are loud and confrontational. The Germs are barely holding a tune, with the chaotic power of their only album turned into a muddy, jagged roar. Spheeris closes Decline with a terrifying, mesmerising set by Fear, whose lead singer is shown as a bare-chested, swaggering Johnny Rotten on steroids spitting out homophobic and sexist taunts as the kids in the mosh pit smash into each other. It’s like a vision of Dante’s inferno, and it’s awful, yet at the same time, it’s amazing – the power of punk at its most primal, with a chorus screaming “I don’t care about you / F— you!” Fear’s thundering, cruel set seems to sum up everything that’s come before it. Punk could be awesome and it could be ugly and it could often be both at the same time, and Spheeris’ magnificent documentary captures it in all its complicated sprawl. I’m definitely moving on next to check out 1988’s equally cult but slightly more absurd hair-metal saga Decline of Western Civilization II and the reportedly even darker street kids-focused Part III, but the first Decline movie still packs the punch of a brawl in a mosh pit. It isn’t meant to make you feel good, but like punk itself, it’s meant to make you feel something.