Inside 10 Iconic 'Decline of Western Civilization' Scenes - Rolling Stone
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Inside 10 Iconic ‘Decline of Western Civilization’ Scenes

Filmmaker Penelope Spheeris looks back as her L.A. rock trilogy readies itself for a box-set reissue

Black Flag

Black Flag

Penelope Spheeris

"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.

Ozzy Osbourne

UNITED KINGDOM - AUGUST 02: Photo of Ozzy OSBOURNE and BLACK SABBATH; with Black Sabbath, performing live onstage, (Photo by Colin Fuller/Redferns)

Colin Fuller/Redferns

‘Decline II’: Ozzy Osbourne Spills the Juice

"We didn't shoot that at Ozzy's place – it was in the house of one of the producers – [though] Sharon did say 'This actually looks like our kitchen.' But he felt at home there and his robe was a prop, and I know you're gonna ask me about the orange juice, and yes I faked it. [Laughs] I'll cop to it right now. He had walked out of the room, and I had a grip or a dolly pusher or whatever pour the orange juice. 'Cause I remembered in the interview when he said 'We took a lot of valium and marijuana' that he was pouring orange juice, so I said, 'We'll just fake it here.' It gets a huge laugh. It's foreshadowing Wayne's World humor."


‘Decline III’: Eyeball Explains Life on the Streets

"He's talking about squatting. I'm always fascinated by the fact that I wrote Suburbia in 1982, and in 1997, people were doing exactly the same thing as those people in '82. And they look the same. I'm just fascinated by those squatter punks: They make their own families, and they really know how to survive on a can of beans and a Swiss army knife.

"This is my favorite movie of all the movies I've done in my life, and I think it's because it has some substance to it. It's very depressing; the movie really illustrates that there are so many parents that never should have had children. But if you look closely, it can teach a lesson about how we can try to help the kids that are out there. There are so many that are totally just out on the street and they're just teenagers still."


NEW YORK - AUGUST 1992: Musician Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers poses shirtless in his hotel room for a portrait, while holding his guitar and wearing a baseball cap which says "Cube" in August 1992 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Catherine McGann/Getty Images)

Catherine McGann/Getty Images

‘Decline III’: Flea Revisits His Punk Past

"The first time I ever saw Flea, he was 19 years old, and I was over at Lee Ving's house. Lee's a very good cook. You'd never think it when you look at him. But he's Italian, he made some lasagna, and Flea was floating around from house to house, doing the couch tour; he was gobbling the lasagna like he was so hungry. I looked at him and he smiled at me [with] that big crack in his front teeth, and I thought, 'You know, this kid's a star.' I put him in Suburbia and the Dudes movie. And then, God bless him, he went on to be what he is today. But he's a very, very generous and giving person. He's not an asshole like some of these guys are that do well. I have huge amount of respect for Flea.

"I credited him in the scene as 'Ex–Bass Player of Fear' because to me, that's what he is. He's a Red Hot Chili Pepper. Yeah? So what. He's a multi-millionaire? So what. He's the ex–bass player in Fear. That's where he came from. The first time I saw those guys, they were wearing socks at a strip club – that's all they had on, socks, and they weren't on their feet."

Keith Morris

INDIO, CA - APRIL 19: Singer Keith Morris of OFF! performs onstage during day 2 of the Coachella Music Festival at The Empire Polo Club on April 19, 2015 in Indio, California. (Photo by Scott Dudelson/FilmMagic)

Scott Dudelson/FilmMagic

‘Decline III’: Keith Morris Proves He’s No Longer a ‘Little Prick’

"The thing about this scene that I like is that if you if you think about the kids in Decline II who really had to make it or they were never gonna be happy, and then you see what Keith has done. . . You know, Keith is not at the level of, say, Dave Grohl or something but he's well known. He's done what he loves to do for his entire life, and that, to me, is what's important. It's not about making the money and having crowds chase you so you can't go out in public. It's about feeling good that you did the work and I think the great thing about Keith is that he's at peace with that. He's a really good example for kids to look at and say, 'You know, he's a real musician.' And he's still doing it with that band Off! I knew Keith when he was a little prick. [Laughs] He used to be a real jerk, to use a pun — but he has evolved. Of all the people, Keith Morris and Flea have evolved more than anybody I know in these movies."

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