Saturday, November 07, 2015

The Decline of Western Civilization

Written and directed by Penelope Spheeris, The Decline of Western Civilization is a film that documents the Los Angeles punk rock scene from 1979 to 1980. The film explores not just the bands of that scene that include the Germs, the Circle Jerks, Black Flag, Fear, X, and other acts but also the people in the scene and their disdain for the authority and the upper-class in Los Angeles. The result is one of the most compelling and fierce films about the world of punk rock.

Shot from December of 1979 to May of 1980, the film chronicles the punk rock scene in Los Angeles at its peak along with the emergence of the hardcore punk scene that the Circle Jerks and Black Flag would be a part of. The film doesn’t just explore the culture of punk but also the bands at the epicenter of this movement at a time when Los Angeles was transitioning out of the singer-songwriter, country-rock sound that defined the 70s. Along with bands like the Germs, X, and Fear as well as a couple of obscure acts like Alice Bag Band and Catholic Discipline, director Penelope Spheeris captures a scene that is violent, unruly, and exciting.

Among these elements are the bands where they play loud and fast with very little regard for structure or anything that is traditional though a band like X are able to show more than what they can offer within the genre. While these bands do get a following, Spheeris reveal that they don’t live comfortably as the members of Black Flag reveal that they live and rehearse in an abandoned church where vocalist Ron Reyes pays $16 for rent as he sleeps in a closet. It shows that these bands would have to spend money to promote themselves while some like Black Flag and the Germs would have difficulty getting gigs where their performances are in studios as opposed to clubs due to notoriety they’ve done at the clubs.

The film also showcases the scene itself where its audience are unruly yet these are kids who come from broken homes or feel like outcasts as they need something to let out their aggression. Spheeris, along with cinematographer Steve Contant and sound recordist Alan Kutner, would capture these moments as they’re in the mosh pits and having the camera be at the center of the action as well as on the stage. Though some of the bands encourage the violence while the most notorious is Fear and its front man Lee Ving who antagonizes the audience with anything he says. Another aspect of the scene that is shown is the Slash fanzine that is run by Catholic Discipline vocalist Claude Bessy about punk rock and the scene itself where it would later become the famed record label that would expose not just the bands in the film but also other notable alternative acts like Los Lobos, L7, Failure, and the Violent Femmes.

With the help of editor Charlie Mullin, Spheeris would capture the moments that occur offstage in the interviews with some of the bands with Germs vocalist Darby Crash being among one of the most interesting in how he would often be loaded in his performance. The interview with other band members and some fans as it’s shot in black-and-white doesn’t just reveal why they’re part of the culture but also reveal the tension they have the LAPD. Especially as it relates to these kids and their disdain for authority as the LAPD were quite brutal at the time. What Spheeris succeeds in doing is not hold anything back as she isn’t seen on camera though her voice is heard in the interviews where there are some revelations to a music scene that just wants to be different from everything else that was happening. Even if it is unruly and chaotic where it would set the stage for an emerging subculture in the history of punk that would spread all over the country for much of the 1980s.

The Decline of Western Civilization is a remarkable film from Penelope Spheeris. For anyone interested in the L.A. punk scene of the late 70s should see this as a look of that scene and the bands from that era. Especially the ones that would create a legacy and those who didn’t last long but did offer something that was important. In the end, The Decline of Western Civilization is a sensational film from Penelope Spheeris.

Penelope Spheeris Films: (Uncle Tom’s Fairy Tales) - (Suburbia (1984 film)) - (The Boy Next Door (1985 film)) - (Hollywood Vice Squad) - (Dudes) - The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years - (Thunder and Mud) - (Wayne’s World) - (The Beverly Hillbillies (1993 film)) - (Little Rascals (1994 film)) - (Black Sheep) - The Decline of Western Civilization III - (Senseless) - (Hollyweird) - (We Sold Our Souls to Rock N’ Roll) - (The Kid & I) - (Balls to the Wall)

© thevoid99 2015


Chris said...

In terms of music, I'm immersed in the year 1980 at the moment, so this documentary sounds like a must-see. From what I can tell from your reviews, the trilogy reveals what life was like for smaller and bigger bands.

thevoid99 said...

This film is a must-see as bands like X, Circle Jerks, the Germs, and Fear are essential for anyone that wants to look into the world of punk rock in the 1980s. I would also recommend American Hardcore which is just as important since it covers the many bands and scenes in the American hardcore punk scene and why it was such a big deal in the early 80s.