"It's been a year of pure hell," filmmaker Penelope Spheeris says with a laugh. The director, whose credits include Wayne's World and Black Sheep, has finally emerged from the depths of turning her celebrated three-part hardcore-punk and heavy-metal documentary series, The Decline of Western Civilization, into a comprehensive box set.
The collection, which has been restored using 2K technology and includes commentary from Dave Grohl, extended interviews and more, marks the first time the films have been made available officially on DVD. "Making this was totally psychologically unnerving because I had to watch my whole life flash in front of me," she says. "But it's like, 'That's it, I'm never gonna be doing another box set in my whole life so I've got to get it right.'"
She did her films justice. As stand-alone documents, they respectively capture the nascent aggression of California hardcore, the poofed-hair pomp of Hollywood heavy metal and the squalor of life as a gutter punk. The original Decline contains rare footage of the Germs live and Black Flag at their squat, the second finds Ozzy Osbourne making breakfast and Aerosmith living soberly and the third focuses on smaller bands of homeless punks who somehow manage to meet up for practice. They offer definitive looks at turning points in underground music while showing both the upsides and downsides of fame – often with a sense of humor. For Spheeris, it's also a testament to how she grew up.
"I was always going out the clubs and seeing the punk bands," she says of how the first 1981 doc came about. "When punk started happening, I said, 'OK, this is it for me.' I had a music video company at that point, and I was working for the record companies doing videos for the Staple Singers, Funkadelic, Doobie Brothers and all kinds of old bands, but I learned how to shoot music from doing those music videos, way before MTV. I said, I gotta make a movie about this punk scene. So whenever I would rent the record equipment for the record companies, I'd go moonlighting out the clubs and shoot the bands that I wanted to shoot. Screw the corps, right?"
At a certain point, Spheeris started seeing "these guys with the torn-up jeans, bandanas and long hair with hairspray"; she and her friends would laugh at them, watching punks and metalheads brawl in parking lots. But eventually, as the Sunset Strip's version of metal ascended, she realized she had the makings of a sequel – 1988's The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. "It was pretty organic," she says. "I had to grow my hair out." And then she was similarly inspired for 1998's The Decline of Western Civilization III when she saw packs of kids walking down sidewalks in L.A. "I looked at them and said, 'Jeez, that looks like a whole other punk movement going on,' so I stopped them and said, 'What's up with you? I'm gonna make The Decline Part Three,' she recalls. "They said, 'No, Penelope has to do that.' I said, 'I am Penelope.' 'OK, cool, let's go get some beer.'"
Spheeris says that she's working on a fourth Decline film with her daughter, Anna Fox. "I have to keep the subject matter top secret because otherwise I'm vulnerable to other people trying to do something similar," she says, adding that it will be music-themed. "Let me just say I think it's gonna be kind of jaw-dropping."
But for now, the filmmaker is still reveling in the films she has made and how well they hold up now. With the box set slated to come out on June 30th, the director selected 10 clips from all three Decline of Western Civilization films and explained what they meant to her in the pages that follow. What's clear is how, even with years between them, they all add up to a bigger portrait.
"It turned out beyond my expectations," she says of the box set. "I'm not saying that as a selling point because that's not why we did it. But I like that it's done. It was a terrible burden to have, to have everybody asking for all these years. I'd ask my daughter to come to work with me and she goes, 'OK, but the first thing we have to do is the Decline DVDs.' And I'm like ah fuck, 'I can't do it man.'" She laughs.