“I was born a punk rocker, I am punk now, and I will die a punk rocker,” says Penelope Spheeris.
She may be laughing but she means it, man. Now 69, Spheeris has long been a groundbreaking figure in Hollywood, a rare female director and early pioneer of rock videos who went on to make mainstream comedies including Wayne’s World and The Beverley Hillbillies. In the meantime, she also shone a valuable spotlight on the punk and metal underground with her trilogy of much-loved cult documentaries, The Decline of Western Civilization.
Never given a full DVD release for years, all three films are now out in a lavish box set laden with multiple bonus features, extra scenes and audio commentaries, including one by Dave Grohl. Finally relenting to pressure from her daughter Anna Fox, who supervised the re-release, Spheeris has secured her legacy as a vital cinematic chronicler of underground rock subcultures. Here she chats to Classic Rock about the Decline trilogy and chooses some favourite scenes….
The Decline Of Western Civilization (1981)
An exhilarating document of LA’s embryonic punk scene featuring viscerally raw live performances by the likes of X, Black Flag, Germs, Circle Jerks, Fear and more. Spheeris haunted the city’s sleazy punk dives and gathered a priceless time capsule of a riotous, nihilistic, sometimes violent scene that would later help inspire the hardcore and grunge boom. She also captured for posterity legendary figures like Germs singer Darby Crash, who died of a heroin overdose shortly before the film was released.
“I was a punk fan when I shot that film,” Spheeris recalls. “I had already cut my hair down to one inch. I was definitely a fan of the music, and actually it was John Lydon who got me into it. I had sort of checked out of music previously to that because it was all disco and really uninteresting stuff. But once I got hooked into the Sex Pistols and started going to punk clubs here in LA, I converted.”
Key Scene 1: Interviews with the “Light Bulb Kids” from the LA punk underground
Spheeris: “It’s so hard choosing scenes, it’s like choosing your favourite child. But I love the pieces where I’m talking to kids. I just went to clubs and talked to the kids there, gave them a piece of paper and said: come to this address on this day and be in the movie. I adore Eugene. He lives in Germany now, and he’s a folk singer, he calls himself Euge from the Coast. He was 14 years old.”
Key Scene 2: Darby Crash and girlfriend Michelle laugh about finding the dead body of a house painter
Spheeris: “Some people are put off by that, they don’t get the joke, they don’t get that it was totally tongue in cheek. In the bonus features of the DVD, there is the extended story of what happened to the painter. But I just hope what I did preserves the memory of a very unique and talented and charismatic person, and that was Darby. I look at him like so many people who are just too vulnerable and sensitive to survive it all, like Sid and Janis and Jimi and all those people who we love, great artists who were overwhelmed by it all.”
The Decline Of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988)
The second Decline rockumentary is a comedy classic, though that was not the original intention. A decade after her punk movie, Spheeris threw herself into documenting LA’s late 1980s Sunset Strip glam-metal scene with a passion. Her daughter Anna, then 17, was even dating Nikki Sixx of Motley Crue at the time. Guns N’ Roses declined to be filmed but Aerosmith, Ozzy Osbourne, WASP, Poison, KISS, Lemmy, Alice Cooper and others all appear in their preposterous, booze-addled, trash-talking imperial pomp.
Ironically, Spheeris had previously declined the chance to direct This is Spinal Tap, but ended up making a real-life version instead. “I feel stupid for turning down Spinal Tap, but I didn’t do it because I didn’t want to make fun of heavy metal,” she says. “I respected the music at the time. I grew my hair out for that movie, or should I say that trend? You can see the interviews in the DVD extras, where I look totally ridiculous and ‘80s.”
Key Scene 1: a visibly shaky Ozzy spills orange juice over his breakfast.
Spheeris: “The orange juice part was faked, but he actually did cook breakfast. He didn’t know I was going to put that shot in, but Sharon’s pulled so many punches over the years, how can they complain? No bad feelings from me and I would hope not by Ozzy either. Actually The Osbournes TV show came out of We Sold Our Soul for Rock ‘N Roll, a movie I had worked on with Sharon and Ozzy that never got released.”
Key Scene 2: Chris Holmes of WASP gives a slurry, vodka-soaked interview in his swimming pool while his mother watches.
Spheeris: “When I shot that I thought I got nothing, I thought I had to shoot it all over again because I didn’t get an interview, he just sat there and goofed off. But little did I know, that would become a scene people would talk about. Was there water or vodka in the bottle? Well, the full story is on the DVD extras. But he keeps dipping the bottle in the pool and filling it up.”
Key Scene 3: Megadeth rock the end credits.
Spheeris: “Megadeth were a band that I really needed to be ending the movie with, because everything had been a little light and fluffy before that. I am by instinct a little more heavy duty, so I wanted it to be more substantial. Jon Dayton and Valerie Faris produced Decline 2 and they kept skewing towards comedy, because they thought it was funnier than I did, and maybe we were a good team because of that. But I love the Megadeth scene.”
The Decline Of Western Civilization Part III (1998)
Increasingly disillusioned with the Hollywood mainstream, Spheeris returned to her garage-rock roots with the third chapter in the Decline trilogy.
The project began as a snapshot of the new “gutter punk” music scene but evolved into more serious-minded portrait of the fans - mostly homeless teens fleeing abuse, living in squats, fighting the LAPD and skinhead gangs.
Inviting parallels with the first Decline film, this final chapter features interviews with Flea of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Keith Morris, formerly of Black Flag/Circle Jerks.
“Decline 3 is the favourite movie of mine that I have ever done,” says Spheeris. “Also, it’s a sister film to my first fiction film Suburbia, which was about punk kids living in squats. I wrote that in ‘82, ‘83, and it was almost like a prophecy for Decline 3, which is all about homeless gutter punks. I really hold that film close to my heart.”
Key Scene 1: Interviews with the squat punk kids.
Spheeris: “It was so heavy for me to go into the apartments where these kids were partying and see what kind of life they were living, so to call it a favourite scene is difficult. But I think the most emotionally powerful scene is again the light bulb kids, when they are describing how their parents abused them. To have to face that was just awful. I became a foster parent a few years ago as a result of my head getting twisted around by that movie.”
Key Scene 2: The Resistance Perform Squatterpunx
Spheeris: “I absolutely adore the song Squatterpunx by The Resistance. To me that is pure, clean, dirty punk rock. Ha! But I really think the key word for my films is sociological. I’ve always been a music fan, but really the human behaviour aspect is important to me. That’s what I love. The music is important, but it’s really an excuse to see how human beings behave.”
All three parts of the Decline Of Western Civilization series (opens in new tab) are available on DVD/Blu-ray now.