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By Daniel Lammin
1st November 2015

Documentary filmmaking can perform two functions - one is to look back into the past, and the other is to document the present. The latter records what it sees then and there, and since history and popular culture move at deceptively lightning speeds, they become time capsules we can later open and examine. There’s probably no greater example of this kind of documentary filmmaking than Penelope Spheeris’ startling and epic trilogy ‘The Decline of Western Civilization’, a series of films preserving in the moment the punk and heavy metal movements of the 80s and 90s. I will admit, I have very little interest in punk or heavy metal music, but the great surprise of Spheeris’ films is that the music is simply part of a wider tapestry, the films as concerned with the culture surrounding the music as it is with the music itself. Seen now as important historical documents, the films have been put through a new restoration and released in a tremendously impressive Blu-ray package worthy of their cultural importance.

Released in 1981, 1988 and 1998, the three films capture their subjects with startling immediacy, Spheeris taking her handheld camera right into the bars, mosh pits, homes and alleyways where these fascinating countercultures exist. Part I looks at the punk movement and bands in Los Angeles in the early 80s, while Part II (more commercially-minded after the independent cult success of Part I) focuses on the more theatrical heavy metal music scene. The final part, released ten years later, removes the musical focus altogether and returns to the punk movement and a generation of kids living in poverty to escape family abuse and embrace their love of anarchy and disorder. Together, the three films create a tapestry of worlds that are so easily dismissed or misunderstood by the more conservative member of the population which, even decades later, still have the power to thrill and shock.


Spheeris is a remarkable documentarian, which is a far more appropriate title with these films than "filmmaker". The technical skill of the three films is secondary to the conviction and dedication to the subjects - they are neither glorifying or damning, but instead celebratory of everything that comes with them. What she films is spontaneous and immediate, especially because the people that populate her frames could do anything at any second. The first film, gritty and fiercely independent, begins with brawling moments of violence while bands like Black Flag pour their ecstatic vitriol into their music. In all three films, the subjects are both defiant of the existence of the camera and totally embracing of it, not holding anything back. As the three films progress, Spheeris’ interests morphs from the music to the people, so the most engaging material becomes the interviews themselves, whether it be icons like Steve Tyler or Alice Cooper, or kids living on the streets, their days defined by the opening and closing times of liquor stores. The second film, though the most entertaining of the three, suffers a tad from a bit too much spit and polish, having lost some of its texture because of its studio funding, but that quickly returns with the third film, easily the finest and most harrowing of the three. The first two films capture the seething, forward-moving anger at the heart of punk and heavy metal, but Part III develops an anger of its own for the plight of these forgotten and mistreated misfits. Spheeris illicits out of these broken kids a frankness and honesty that’s almost too much to watch, but this makes it all the more important.

‘The Decline of Western Civilization’ is an incredibly vital historical document, a piece of musical anthropology that captures with startling immediacy a moment in time and the artists and fans involved. It’s deeply personal, defiant and exciting, all the while remaining as objective as possible. It’s not popular entertainment, it certainly isn’t always easily digestible and it lacks some of the grace of other music documentaries like ‘Woodstock’ or ‘The Last Waltz’, but that doesn’t make it any less important. Anyone with interest in film or popular culture must take the opportunity that they have with the restoration of these films and add them to their collection. Penelope Spheeris may have captured the most honest snapshot of these ecstatic countercultures we will ever get.

‘The Decline of Western Civilization’ is an incredibly vital historical document, a piece of musical anthropology that captures with startling immediacy a moment in time and the artists and fans involved.

This review covers the superb ViaVision Blu-ray release of ‘The Decline of Western Civilization’, but the Australian Centre for the Moving Image have announced plans to show the restored films during the summer months. Check for details.

All three films have been given a new 2k scan, which is the basis for the transfers on this Blu-ray release. They were never going to look amazing in 1080p high definition considering the low quality of the original sources, but it’s probably the best the three films have ever looked. Part II comes out the strongest, probably due to the higher production values, but the grittiness of Parts I and III are still intact, which is probably more important. These are historical documents, and its a credit to ViaVision that they’ve maintained that look. The films have also been given rigorous DTS-HD MA 5.1 remasters that give sound a great kick, though they also offer a DTS-HD MA 2.0 track for each that maintains their original theatrical presentation. This is certainly the best these films are going to look and sound, and for three independent documentaries on punk and heavy metal music, it’s pretty exciting that this amount of care went into them at all.

This is easily one of the most impressive packages assembled for a documentary, featuring hours of extra interviews, performances and material cut from the finished films. The first three discs house the three films, each accompanied by fascinating commentary from Spheeris (which not only gives insight into the making of each film but where the subjects are now), over an hour of extended and deleted interviews and music performances and vintage material from the release of the film. The fourth disc in the set adds even more deleted material from the three films, as well as some fascinating retrospective interviews and panel discussions about the film from recent years, as the series is now shown in a number of galleries and film festivals. This is an enormous set, and one that does exactly what a great Blu-ray release of a classic film should do - give us the context of the world it came from, and show us how important it is for the world now.

RELEASE DATE: 08/07/2015
RUN TIME: 4h 39m
WRITER/DIRECTOR: Penelope Spheeris
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