The Decline of Western Civilization Collection
Penelope Spheeris' iconic music documentaries finally arrive on DVD and Blu-ray in a complete set with a whole host of extras. This reissue (released in the US by Shout! Factory and the UK by Second Sight Films) is the first opportunity to own the films as a complete set with the 1988 sequel, The Metal Years, not widely available on DVD and the third film never commercially unreleased until now. To this day, The Decline of Western Civilization is a crucially important document in music history.
To introduce the series, the first film was originally released in 1981 causing controversy with its candid portrait of the LA hardcore punk scene, a relatively undocumented subculture at that time. Upon release and following riots and other unrest, the LAPD's Chief of Police Daryl Gates even wrote a letter demanding the film not be shown again. This was followed by the highly celebrated Part II: The Metal Years, which contrasted the grit and anger of the punk rock scene with the glamour and excess of the heavy metal bands of the 1980s. A decade later, Part III took a very different turn and explored the lives of LA's "gutter punks", focusing more on social struggle. As a complete set, the films transcend a number of music scenes, even eras, while portraying the search for identity and belonging in youth culture.
Featuring candid interviews and performances from some of the most influential musicians and bands of their time including The Germs, Black Flag, Fear, Circle Jerks, Alice Copper, Aerosmith, Kiss, Ozzy Osbourne and more, these cult films stand among the best in the music documentary genre.
Despite being known among mainstream audiences as the director behind popular culture hits like Wayne’s World, Penelope Spheeris is most proud of her work on these documentaries. The long hiatus leading up this re-release was out of choice and only agreed upon after her daughter encouraged her to dig back into the film archives and consider a reissue. She recently did a great interview with The Guardian about these films and the process revisiting them, which can be read here.
For me, alongside martial arts and movies, music is one of my biggest passions. I'm a major fan of many genres, with punk rock pretty much topping the list. Bands like Black Flag (featured prominently in the first film) and others remain some my biggest musical influences and first drew me to playing music. The original had a significant and profound experience when I first saw it around 10-15 years ago and the impact hasn't lessened...
The Decline of Western Civilization (1981) is undoubtedly the best of the trilogy, at least for me and my sensibilities. It gives an insight into a unique slice of music and cultural history... a window into a different era. The great thing about punk rock and hardcore is the rawness and reality factor. Even if you're not a fan of the music (it features bands like Black Flag, The Germs, X, Alice Bag Band, Circle Jerks, Catholic Discipline and Fear) the energy and ferocity of the music can't help but deliver an impact. From hard working, hard living local legends like Black Flag who would influence entire rock band generations, to the troubled lifestyle of The Germs' Darby Crash or the fired-up on stage antics of Fear, there are real and raw personalities throughout. In this reissue, the film is shown in its original fullscreen ratio and most of the dirt and blemishes from the VHS and older DVD transfer has been cleaned up. It's not worlds apart but it looks vastly improved and probably as much as a film like this needs, while maintaining its rough edge. Each film has extras, including additional concert footage and commentaries, plus a complete added disc of extras, which we'll cover at the end.
The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988) steps away from the punk rock scene and focuses on the growing heavy metal scene in LA that emerged from the roots of hard rock. Despite the enjoyment factor and the occasionally ludicrous hairstyles and clothes of the time, one of the biggest notes when rewatching the films sequentially is how all the grit of the first film has been replaced with the glamour and excess of the cliched rock 'n roll lifestyle. While bands of the first film may not all sound musically skilled (in fact many grew more musical in time), it was all about the music, message and camaraderie. By this point in 1988, everyone wanted to be in a band purely for the perks. There are some insightful interviews with the likes of Ozzy Osbourne and Lemmy, but many of the bands come across as incredibly shallow. The dream lifestyle image is pushed hard by most while the infamous interview with Chris Holmes of W.A.S.P. is pretty depressing and shows a darker side to all the excess. But as a musical and cultural snapshot, it's an interesting and entertaining documentary with plenty of great live footage. The film looks excellent transferred to widescreen and the quality is sharp and clean, definitely the best I've seen it.
The Decline of Western Civilization Part III (1998), released a decade later, returns to the initial vibe of the first film but portrays a darker side with hard living and homeless punks in LA. In this case, Spheeris talks to teenagers living on the street or squatting in abandoned buildings in Los Angeles which interweaves with the "street punk" culture and bands. Interesting to note is that the film was screened at festivals like Cannes and Sundance but never commercially released on VHS and DVD, so for many this would be the first opportunity to see the film and complete the trilogy. Compared to the earlier films, it's very bleak and makes for harder viewing, but Spheeris' style and DNA is present throughout and makes this a compelling documentary and extension of the series. Just like the second film, we have a great widescreen transfer, but nothing to compare it to since the film hasn't been released before. Still, it's been upscaled very well. There has even been talk of a fourth film but nothing revealed about what this could look like.
As well as an opportunity to own the full collection for the first time, there are many extra features spread across each of the discs and a bonus fourth disc...
Bonus Features include:
New 2K scan of each film supervised by director Penelope Spheeris
Never-before-seen footage, interviews and performances
Vintage interviews with director Penelope Spheeris
Audio Commentary with Penelope Spheeris
Audio Commentary with Dave Grohl
40 Page Book featuring rare stills
The bonus content is very enjoyable for any long time fans of these titles. In fact, the first film captured bands who were hardly filmed during their early careers, making this live footage all the more important. The commentaries, extended interviews and behind-the-scenes footage also provide a great deal of extra insight, context and some solid anecdotes along the way.
In closing, these films are essential for any passionate music fan, punk rock/heavy metal-head or simply those who enjoy a quality documentary. Having the full set restored and complete with the unseen third film, plus a diverse range of extras, makes this set an awesome slice of history far too good to pass by.
The Decline of Western Civilization Collection is available now on Blu-ray and DVD from Second Sight Films.