Shout! Factory has reissued a three-DVD box set of the ‘Decline of Western Civilization’ films by Penelope Spheeris, about Los Angeles punk rock and heavy metal. Spheeris’ daughter, Anna Fox, was the catalyst.
When film director Penelope Spheeris asked her daughter Anna Fox to come and work for her, Fox agreed — on one condition.
Spheeris’ best-known film is the wildly successful “Wayne’s World,” based on the Mike Myers/Dana Carvey “Saturday Night Live” sketch. But she began her feature film career with the acclaimed punk rock music documentary “The Decline of Western Civilization” (1981), which spawned two sequels, “The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years” (1988) and “The Decline of Civilization Part III” (1998), all of which had gone out of print. Fox’s condition? She wanted to reissue all three films.
The resulting DVD/Blu-ray box, co-produced by Fox and Cliff MacMillan (with an assist from Spheeris), “The Decline of Western Civilization” (Shout! Factory) led Spheeris to revisit a project that had a profound impact on her life and career.
The box features all three movies, a bonus disc and plenty of other extras, such as expanded interviews and commentary tracks (including one from Dave Grohl, recorded for the first “Decline” film). Theatrical screenings of the films in Seattle are tentatively set for the fall, with both Spheeris and Fox planning to attend.
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The films document the music and culture of Los Angeles youth over the course of two decades. The first “Decline” spotlighted classic punk acts like Black Flag, the Germs and X. “Decline II” showcased the slicker realm of metal, contrasting would-be hopefuls (London, Odin) with the old guard (Ozzy Osbourne, Aerosmith). “Decline III” looks at latter day L. A. punk, specifically the “gutter punks” who eke out a living hustling for spare change.
While music is a key element of all the films, the characters behind the music make the movies compelling. The cameras capture some remarkable moments, such as Germs lead singer Darby Crash, who died of a drug overdose before the first “Decline” was released, gently playing with his pet tarantula. Chris Holmes, guitarist with metal act W.A.S.P., is shown floating in his swimming pool while downing bottles of vodka and denouncing himself as a “piece of crap” as his mother looks on.
“The music was the excuse to make movies about human behavior,” Spheeris explained in a phone interview. “So for me, it’s really more about documenting a social movement that happened at those different periods of time. That’s what I’m more interested in, honestly, than the music.”
“Decline III” is the most downbeat of the three films. The punks in the first “Decline” staunchly reject the rock stardom the metal bands in “Decline II” strive for, but the homeless street kids in “Decline III” are just trying to survive. Not all do: the young man with multicolored hair known as “Squid” was murdered after filming was completed.
“It’s my favorite movie I’ve ever done, because it says something,” said Spheeris. “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.”
She said she’s “gratified” that people still find the “Decline” movies life-changing as well.
“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.”