|1) Here is a great movie. Now, first of all, I would like to say that I wasborn in the early 1980s. I really never knew, up-close and personal, whattrue punk rock was. Watching this film was like a history lesson of sorts.The music was great, good vintage rock n’ roll from bands like Black Flag,Circle Jerks, X, etc. It seemed to me that with this film, PenelopeSpheeriswas trying to show people that these weren’t all just stupid kids who wereout to do drugs and kill people. Some of these punks really had somephilosophies that they were working at behind their music. This seems mostevident in the interview with Black Flag. I understand myself how a lot ofpeople might view these bands’ philosophies as under-developed and simple,but one must take into account that these were some pretty young people.Nowadays, as young as I still am, I find it refreshing to run into someonemy age who understands in any way philosophical thinking. In this movie,theyoung people may seem a little half-baked in their philosophies, but youmight keep in mind that most kids don’t even get that far. I’ve met manyfull-grown adults who have not progressed as far with deep thoughtcontextsas some of the punk musicians in "Decline". Another thing I loved aboutthismovie was how funny it got at times. Some of these kids were total idiots,while the story about the dead painter was devilishly humorous. Fear’sperformance at the end topped it all. Even if punk is dead, it was onceveryalive. All flaws aside, "The Decline of Western Civilization" was made forpeople who can tell the difference between some suburban wimp with amohawkand the truly intelligent individuals who were genuinely upset and pickedupmusic instruments as weapons against the forces of thecorporate.
2) When it comes to films on the L.A. hardcore scene of the late 70s/early 80sthis is as good as it gets! It’s very rare that cameras are around duringthe genesis of a music movement, and I will be forever grateful that MsSheeris was there to capture the beginnings of the LA hardcore scene thatwas growing out of the ideals and influences of the dying New York & Londonpunk scenes. I was living on the East Coast at the time this film came out,and back then the only way to see some of these bands, without going toL.A., was to see this film. It was a rare event when one of these bandswould pile into a van and head east on a tour, so to fulfill our love forthe L.A. hardcore scene my friends and I would go see this film every fewweeks. This is a great document of that time in music history. For peoplewho liked this era of punk/hardcore music, here’s a few other very similardocumentary films you might want to check out…
THE BLANK GENERATION – (70s New York punk – Johnny Thunders, Richard Hell,Ramones, Television, Patti Smith, etc…)
THE PUNK ROCK MOVIE – (70s British punk – Sex Pistols, The Clash, X-RaySpex, Eater, etc…)
PUNK IN LONDON – (70s British punk – The Clash, The Adverts, The Lurkers,Subway Sect, etc…)
D.O.A. – (70s American & British punk – Dead Boys, Generation X, Sham 69,Iggy Pop, etc… *contains a priceless interview with Sid &Nancy*)
UK/DK – (80s British hardcore – The Addicts, The Exploited, The Business, UKSubs, etc…)
3) One of the major successes to The Decline of Western Civilization, filmmakerPenelope Spheeris’ indie breakthrough, is that it can perhaps appeal tonon-punk fans as to the hardcore ones. More importantly, it captures amoment in history before the movement became completely "market-worthy",when bands would play (or, at the least, try to play in some cases) in dank,dirty clubs to an audience that had as much self-respect as they had respectfor the bands. For the fan, such as myself, there are precious interviewswith some of the quasi-legends of LA’s punk-scum, some dead, some stillliving and still hard-working in the scene.
Performances and interviews include the likes of The Circle Jerks, X, BlackFlag (in the pre-Henry Rollins days), Catholic Discipline, Fear, the AliceBag Band, and most memorable (in my opinion) being the Germs. While I knewof a few of the bands and performers in the film (The Jerks and Black Flagmostly), I had only heard rumors about lead singer (the late) Darby Crash,and from the footage in the film he seems to be one of the, if not the,epitomes of the punk movement. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, heloves to drink, sometimes when he speaks it’s complete gibberish, and theattitude he brings on stage is both funny and in a free-form wayexhilarating. A performer like that would probably scare Steve Miller andJackson Browne out of their skins.
Decline of Western Civilization may not turn on every non-punk fan thatseeks this film out (it’s hard to find on video), but it shouldn’tnecessarily turn them off either. Like a kind of anthropologist that’ssneaked into the party, Spheeris gets the behavior of these people down pat,their motives, their likes and hatreds, and the power that was their on andoff-screen personas. A few of them almost come off as normal, some don’t,but they’re only offensive to those who aren’t too open to things. On topof that, the film is a must-see to the kinds of kids that think they’re punkfans just because they listen to Good Charlotte and Blink-182: if you wantto get the real scoop on the movement and genre of rock you profess to love,give the pioneers a chance. A
4) The rise of punk music was scarcely documented on film and most peopletendto focus on the happenings of other cities such as London or New York.Penelope Spheeris managed to preserve a snapshot of Los Angeles circa’79-’81 which proves a vibrant and diverse art/music community had spawnedwhich rivalled any other. To some, the bands read like a who’s who of nowlegendary American punk; Black Flag, X, Circle Jerks, Germs, Fear. Puristsargue that vital bands were missed (Weirdos, Zeros, Flesheaters) and thatthe movie was the cause of an onslaught of suburban poseurs and machoviolence. However, the issues touched upon in the film remain relevant,theintensity of the music remains unmatched and the influence continues to beseen and heard in the cliques/fashions of today.
5) Spheeris debut must be one of the best music documentaries of all time. Andas far as I know it’s also the only one that focuses on the L.A. PunkExplosion of the early eighties. It’s all there: not just great, great bandslike Black Flag, Fear, X, the Germs, whose names may not mean much to youtoday, but whose influence on today’s alternative rock music can not beover-estimated, but also the promoters, the media and first of all theaudiences – the punks – all portrayed in a manner that makes you laugh,shudder and gasp with astonishment about the energy, the anger and the furythese youths put into their music. Where is that today? The eighties mayhave sucked big time when it cames to mainstream music, but the undergroundwas rocking. If you need a proof for that, watch Fear’s performance inDecline. Unmatched. Great film!How come this is not available on vid, LD or DVD?P.S. The follow-up Decline Pt. II is hilarious, too
6) Everyone who’s seen "Decline" knows how great it is. My favoritesegments are those featuring Black Flag and Fear, because they’re thefunniest and the most visceral. Still, all the bands that actuallySTARTED the Los Angeles punk scene, apart from the Germs, are missingfrom this film. Where are the Weirdos, the Screamers, the Dils, and theZeros? The Alice Bag Band is here, but they were better when they weresimply the Bags. The Germs’ segment is depressing. The very briefglimpses of Catholic Discipline were fascinating and make me wish thatthis band had at least recorded some demos. As a documentary, "Decline"is flawed…but it’s indispensable, too. To find out about the bandsthis film didn’t cover, read "We Got the Neutron Bomb" by Marc Spitzand Brendan Mullen. And to see what was going on in San Francisco rightaround the same time, get the much shorter(but equally brilliant)documentary "Louder Faster Shorter", directed by Mindaugis Bagdon. Thistwenty-minute burst of pure punk actually *does* feature theDils–along with UXA, the Avengers, the Sleepers, and the Mutants.
7) Kind of a guilty indulgence nowadays, this used to be required watching wheni was in high school. It really is a great illumination of the burgeoningpunk scene in LA in 1980. As the bands play, Spheeris prints the lyrics insubtitles, which is of course necessary if one really wants to know what theguy is screaming into the microphone. But also it turns the camera’s POVinto that of tourist, passing through this alien world. The band interviewsreveal an honest approach to the music that really doesn’t exist anymore.Then again, it’s not as easy to come by $16/month former-church closets likeChavez of Black Flag does. How many unheard of bands do you know that aren’ttrying like the dickens to get a record deal? These guys just didn’t care.And who can’t love the commentary of the little French dude who used to bethe "singer" for Catholic Discipline (of which Phranc was a member). Hisgritty voice delivers one of the best soliloquies ever captured on film: "Ihave excellent news for the world … there’s no such thing as New Wave."Whew! What a relief!
Before she made Wayne’s World, Ms Spheeris documented the LA Punk scenewiththe kind of dead pan perspective that makes this the all time classiccommercial punk rock documentary. Of course Target Video’s concert footageof the Dead Kennedys or the Mutants live at a home for the insane are muchbetter, but unless you live near Leather Tongue Video in San Francisco, youprobably won’t find those, so this one will have to do.
Best Irony: Members of a famous X-Punk band tattooing each other on adirtycouch while apparently under the influence of some processed opiate aretalking about how pot makes hippies so pathetically passive that someonewould come in and kick the shit out of them and all they’d say is "Bummermaaan." And then going on to a completely deadpan unemotional account offinding a dead guy in the back yard.
Definitely the best insight into the whole era. Sure The Great Rock andRoll Swindle is fun, but this one shows the whole scene unflinchingly fromaneutral angle. The camera is on and everyone becomes an actor on their ownstage.
9) If I assume that you know what this film is about, I am also forced toassume that you've come to this review knowing that you will probablywatch it regardless of what I say. If all this rings true – read on -you are likely to find some consonance with at least part of thisreview. If you're undecided, or not really entirely certain whathappened in the late '70s and early '80s in the urban and suburbanyouth music culture, you should probably read one of the reviews whichpretends to be objective instead.
Although I didn't grow up in California, the American punk scene wasthe first music scene I ever truly lived in. At the height of thehardcore I was immersed in from about 1979-1981 everybody had a bandand the only common denominators between bands and indeed members oftheir audiences were:
* the rejection of conformity
* tolerance and enjoyment of difference
* a desire to have fun – hard and fast
Hairstyles, politics, dislike of authority figures, and violentslam-dancing were not integral to what I experienced, though there werecertainly cliques or factions who tended to be intolerant of those whodid not dress, speak or act "punk" enough. And there was often acertain amount of unearned credit extended from some of these cliquesto those who tried really hard to live down to the fascistic paradigmof anarchic, self mutilating, angry young cop-haters.
Although the interviews with audience punks in Penelope Spheeris'excellent Cal-Punk documentary "Decline of Western Civilization"present a very narrow view of the subculture some of us enjoyed, theinterviews with the bands, club owners, promoters and even the securitypeople are much more representative of at least my own perspective andmemories of 'the scene'. nevertheless, it is possible for those whoapproach this with prejudices about what punk is to experience thisfilm without having their preconceptions challenged. Unfortunate asthis is, the blame for it rests solely with those who promote, believein or feel comfortable with stereotypes – Not the film-makers. Don'tblame the messenger.
The music presented here is not going to be for everybody – nor evenmost. It's not the most crude stuff out there, but it's loud,obnoxious, fast, and less concerned with technique than with rawenergy.
For me, seeing early Black Flag with Ron Reyes singing, X, Fear and theCircle Jerks was worth far more than the cost of this hard to obtainfilm. As much as I like The Germs, seeing Darby Crash for the mess -and the nice guy – that he was left me a bit cold. Nevertheless, thescenes of Darby playing with his pet tarantula while "Shut Down" dronedon and on in the background were precious. The X interview is alsogreat.
Spheeris' straightforward documentary style is supplemented by wildpans and zooms during the musical segments. During the interviews,framing is used very nicely to provide context for whatever is beingsaid. Considering her experience and the budget, Spheeris did as wellas anybody could have with this film.
Recommended for those who appreciate what this film is actually about,and for those who have forgotten those few years of fun, honest,direction-less rebellion before Amaerican punk was co-opted into yetanother flow within the musical mainstream and the stereotypes becamemore important than the basic philosophy.
10) Let start off by first saying that I have been a punk fan most of mylife. I always kind of had a lack of respect for the LA scene of theearly 80’s, which The Decline of Western Civilization documents, withthe exception of X and Black Flag, being more of New York and Englishpunk guy. After I saw this movie that completely changed. The peopleshown may look like a bunch of idiotic, strung out kids who think theymight accomplish something beyond street-Cree through their lifestyles,but it is a great display of hedonism at it’s best, coupled with somefun, loud rock n roll. One of the best scenes, and actually mostinsightful, is the interview with Claude Bessy of Catholic Discipline,or ‘Kick-Boy’ as he was known to Slash magazine readers. Originallyfrom France, he rants about punk like a dirty old Frenchman and cluesin viewers to many aspects of the punk, or DIY, attitude to music,politics, and life in general. Darby Crash of the Germs comes off as acomplete idiot most of the time, but the Germs’ performance of Manimalis pretty decent, complete with a young Pat Smear. Black Flag’sperformance with Chavo Pederast on vocals (it was filmed a couple ofyears before Henry Rollins joined the band) is decent, and X and FEARgive the best performances in the movie. Look out for the interviewswith the young punk kids. You’ll hear some of the funniest things youhave ever heard in a documentary. Highly recommended.