The highly celebrated and long-awaited trilogy known as “The Decline Of Western Civilization” will receive a deluxe box set release on June 30 from Shout! Factory. The four-disc set will be available in both Blu-ray and DVD formats, and will contain Penelope Spheeris‘s “The Decline Of Western Civilization” (1980), “The Decline Of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years” (1988) and “The Decline Of Western Civilization Part III” (1998), a 40-page book containing an essay written by rock historian Domenic Priore (“Riot On Sunset Strip: Rock ‘N’ Roll’s Last Stand In Hollywood”), rare stills, and bonus features, including extended interviews, a commentary recorded by Dave Grohl in February 2015, and more. This is the first-ever official Blu-ray or DVD release of the films.
“The Decline Of Western Civilization” box set features a new 2K high-definition scan of each film, supervised by Spheeris. In keeping with the spirit of the rebellious times in which they were shot, the vintage aspects have been respected, and the films retain their original feel.
“It’s my favorite movie I’ve ever done, because it says something,” Spheeris tells The Seattle Times. “I mean, what does ‘Wayne’s World’ say? ‘Party on, dude’? ‘Decline III’ says, ‘Please love your children, so this doesn’t happen.’ It was just life-changing for me to do that movie. I became a foster parent after I did that film because I wanted to actually do something.”
Spheeris added that she feels “gratified” that the “Decline” movies had such a significant impact on other people.
“That’s the thing I hear most often — ‘That movie changed my life.’ I’m, like, ‘Really?’ Well, if you can do something that does that — then that’s a reason to do it. That is the reason to live.”
Asked what the stumbling blocks were in getting the “Decline” movies released on DVD, Spheeris tells Film Comment: “I guess the biggest stumbling block over the years was just my reticence to look back, and to have to see the movies again, and go through all the outtakes, and go through all the things that would make the extras, and all that. It was just like looking back on my life.”
She continues: “I always had the DVD, home-video rights after the early nineties, maybe. Early nineties I got the rights back. None of them were ever on DVD, which is weird. I guess it’s… my mom was a hoarder. [Laughs] I think it runs in the family. I just put all this shit in a vault, and kept throwing boxes of stuff in there over the years. There were a few times when I started the process, but I got discouraged, and so I stopped. When I started with ‘The Decline’, the first time, I was putting together little pieces of film myself with the guillotine splicer because I don’t trust anybody else to do it. That was really an arduous task, I’ll tell you. Then there was another time when we started to do some interviews with people, and get extras together, but then I got discouraged because [my daughter] Anna [Fox] wasn’t working with me. She’s the one that actually made it happen, but she wasn’t working with me at that time. So I reached out to one participant. The person that hooked me up with them said: ‘Well, he says he’ll do it. He’ll talk to you, but you got to pay him three grand and you got to pay me three grand for hooking you up with him.’ And actually this was before all the social media and everything, where I could’ve found him myself. I kind of went: ‘Well, if I have to pay every participant six grand to hook this up, I don’t think it’s going to be possible.’ So, I just stopped again. There are too many people, and I want to be fair. Everybody had the same deal when we did it.”
In 1981 Spheeris was able to book only one midnight screening for the Los Angeles premiere of “The Decline Of Western Civilization”. Even though mainstream Hollywood didn’t get it, thousands of fans showed up, spilling onto Hollywood Boulevard, and over 300 policemen arrived on scene. “This was a 1,200-seat theater,” she remembered, “and they had to add another show at 2:00 a.m. to avoid a riot. Both shows sold out.” Police chief Darryl Gates wrote the filmmakers a letter banning further screenings in the city. However, times change, and in 2014 the three “Decline” films were restored by The Academy Film Archive, and screened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Part of the appeal of “The Decline Of Western Civilization” was its appearance in the midst of a backlash against disco, and slick, mainstream music films. The film garnered rave reviews from press, becoming one of the most written about movies of 1980. Perceived as shocking and outrageous, the film captured the essence of the punk scene, and provided a front row seat to the mosh pits, violence, humor and anti-establishment view of the world, as well as unparalleled access to some of the most influential and innovative musicians and groups of all time, including X, CIRCLE JERKS, BLACK FLAG, FEAR and GERMS. Largely unknown to the mainstream world at the time, many of the punk bands first seen here have become legendary.
The second in Penelope Spheeris‘ music documentary trilogy, “The Decline Of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years” (1988) takes a fast-paced look at the outrageous heavy metal scene of the late ’80s. Set in Los Angeles, the film explores fascinating portraits of struggling musicians, fans and star-struck groupies. Featuring Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, POISON, members of AEROSMITH, KISS, MOTÖRHEAD, and perfomances by MEGADETH, FASTER PUSSYCAT, LIZZY BORDEN, LONDON, ODIN and SEDUCE, this raucous and uproarious chapter also chronicles the lonely naiveté of the striving bands, and the endless flow of alcohol and drugs.
Legendary moments from the film include Ozzy Osbourne‘s straight talk about the pitfalls of the industry while he struggles to pour orange juice into a glass, an outspoken Chris Holmes of W.A.S.P. lounges in a pool and pours bottles of vodka on his head, a comparison of outlandish groupie stories, and LONDON setting a soviet flag on fire, all contrasted by a down-to-earth Lemmy offering some sage insight into the decadent rock lifestyle.
Vogue crowned Spheeris the Margaret Mead of headbangers, adding that the film works best “when these purveyors of white noise are dragged offstage and separated from their codpieces.” She was able to get to the heart of the musicians themselves, exposing what drives them with uncensored honesty.
In 1998, the last in the series, “The Decline Of Western Civilization Part III”, hit select theaters but was never released in any home video format. A disturbing social commentary on homeless youth who have often left home due to abuse or neglect, the film has themes of alienation and alcoholism.
Spheeris personally financed the film, bringing to the screen the real-life squatter lifestyle and angry rejection of mainstream society two decades after she wrote and directed the cult classic “Suburbia”. Sadly, there are plenty of tragic endings in this story, overdoses, a squat fire, and the murder of a kid named Squid, who was thrilled to be included in the film because he thought it might turn his life around.
A fitting last chapter in the “Decline” trilogy, this film includes performances by FINAL CONFLICT, LITMUS GREEN, NAKED AGGRESSION and THE RESISTANCE and won the Freedom Of Expression award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. In 1999 Spheeris went on to direct “We Sold Our Souls For Rock ‘N’ Roll”, which premiered at Sundance.
Capturing the zeitgeist of a movement or a time is an all-but-impossible task. And though the three movies in this collection are very different and reflect different times, one of the things they have in common is how adroitly they do exactly that. Compelling, revealing and ultimately moving, “The Decline Of Western Civilization”, taken as a whole, is an arresting look at who we were and who we are.
The experience of interfacing with homeless kids for “Decline III” instilled in Spheeris a desire to become a foster parent, and she now has her California state license.
* New 2K scan of each film supervised by director Penelope Spheeris
* Commentary by Dave Grohl
* Tawn Mastrey of KNAC interviews Penelope Spheeris
* Never-before-seen original footage, performances and interviews
* Mark Toscano of the Academy Film Archive interviews Penelope Spheeris
* Theatrical trailers
* 40-page booklet featuring rare stills and text by Domenic Priore
Pictured: Penelope Spheeris with daughter Anna Fox