DIRECTED BY

Penelope Spheeris

 

WITH

X

Black Flag

Circle Jerks

Germs

Alice Bag Band

Catholic Discipline

Fear

 

RATED

NR

 

RELEASED IN

1981

 

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 40 Mins.

The Decline of Western Civilization  

and go on to court the mainstream, to varying degrees of success. Another, Fear, would continue on but remain a very-acquired taste. (See their notorious stage-cudgeling on Saturday Night Live.)

 

Footage used for the film was shot through 1979 and 1980; through it do we see Spheeris traverse propulsive live performances from the aforementioned bands and riveting-to-banal interviews with its members. Which, in turn, are supplemented by stylized, talking-head interviews with fans, and even a visit to the headquarters of the hemmed-together Slash magazine, a short-lived fanzine integral in tying together the strands of the region’s then-most-furious music scene.

 

When Spheeris, then a burgeoning music-video director, made the documentary, few mainstream publications were covering the movement and these particular acts. So she took matters into her own hands. Wrote Spheeris, in a recent op-ed: “I was going to these clubs – The Mask, Blackies, Club 88, Cathay de Grand and the Cuckoo’s Nest – and I had the equipment sitting around from working on the music videos and I thought, ‘Why don’t I just start shooting this stuff? This is important.'”

 

Invocations of importance are on-the-money. Not only is The Decline of Western Civilization one of the few documentaries to capture the essence of a particular musical era in an authentic, sweat-on-the-skin-close sort of way — it also takes a rather ethnographic approach that’s at once visceral, of the moment, and still seldom seen. The movie would be pivotal, too, in helping fortify the names of many of its featured acts.

 

Sundry documentarians are able to take a step back but still get the content they need via archival footage and after-the-fact, face-to-camera conversations. Spheeris, in contrast, puts us in the center of the mayhem, whether we're getting slammed into the bodies of pothered fans moshing at a Germs gig or touring the sullied living space of Black Flag. The Decline of Western Civilization is great not so much because it packs a quasi-dramatic wallop in the same way a prototypical rock documentary might try to do. What helps it rise above is the access it gives us, which, even in an age where public figures are far more inclined to publicize even the most blasé of their day-to-day activities than ever, still feels novel.

 

The Decline of Western Civilization is the first part of a series. The second chapter, released in 1988, was less grimy, and highlighted, almost condescendingly, more affected hair-metal acts like Poison and WASP. The third did away with musician centricity. It spotlighted the lives of gutter punks, i.e. homeless youths whose ways of living follow the unsaid dogma as enlivened by the punk musicians they look up to. For decades, the Decline movies never received a bonafide DVD release, in part due to troubles with licensing. In 2015, though, the simultaneous notoriety and rarity ended: the trilogy finally saw a Spheeris-supported distribution through Shout Factory. Watch the first part of the saga now, which is both timeless and thrillingly of-its-time, you notice that The Decline of Western Civilization hasn't lost any of its endearing, all-access pass-like appeal. A

 

uch would change by the time The Decline of Western Civilization, a documentary about the Los Angeles punk-rock scene and its defining acts, premiered in the summer of 1981. Three of the bands on which the director, Penelope Spheeris, focused her attention — the Alice Bag Band, Germs, and Catholic Discipline — would be kaput. Another three — X, Black Flag, and Circle Jerks — would make debut albums,

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Exene Cervanka and John Doe in 1981's "The Decline of Western Civilization."

March 8, 2019