Talking to Penelope Spheeris about time, rock 'n' roll, and The Decline of Western Civilization
'In my opinion, nothing lasts.'4
When director Penelope Spheeris finished interviewing Chris Holmes during the tail end of the 1980s for her documentary The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, she figured the footage was worthless. Plenty of the musicians she’d talked to around Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip metal scene were drunk while she filmed them, but Holmes was beyond obliterated. As Spheeris barked questions at him in the California night, the lead guitarist for W.A.S.P. spent the session floating on a chair in his swimming pool while still decked out in black leather. He poured a bottle of Smirnoff vodka on to his face and into his mouth, and punctuated his ramblings with farts noises, all while his mother sat behind him, almost wordlessly, her face shifting between concern and resignation. “I thought we’d have to figure out if we could get him back again,” Spheeris says. “I thought it was just trash.”
Spheeris salvaged what she could from the shoot and placed it toward the back of the documentary, after all the party boys and girls have had their chance to posture for the camera. The segment is hilarious and ridiculous, but underneath Holmes' antics is a world of pathos. "I work a job, and I'm a piece of crap," he says with a mirthless cackle. It has since become the most famous part of the cult classic film.
During the first two decades of Spheeris' expansive film career she would periodically check in with a loud-mouthed, comical, chaotic, and often out of control youth-fueled music scene of Southern California for her The Decline of Western Civilization documentary series. She always found something human and honest in her subjects, even as she got older and they stayed the same age. Spheeris says she tried to be non-judgmental in how she portrayed these communities. She knew that some would see the people she trained her camera on as buffoons or threats to society, while others would see peers and role models. And now-classic moments like Holmes' drunken interview would not have worked without that unfazed gaze. "That particular scene shaped my whole career, to be quite honest with you," says Michael Starr, the lead singer of comedy metal band Steel Panther. "At that point, heavy metal was at its peak. It was awesome to be drunk, floating in a pool. You knew you had a disease and you were going to kill yourself eventually, but that was cool back then. People just looked at that and said, ‘Wow, this guy knows how to party. Everybody knows how to party.'"
"It's been a year of pure hell."
On June 30th, Shout! Factory will release the entire The Decline of Western Civilization trilogy as a box set, marking the first time any of them have officially been on DVD or Blu-ray. The first installment of the series, which had previously only been available on VHS and LaserDisc, was released in 1981 and is all about LA's punk scene, with performance footage and interviews from crucial bands like X, Black Flag, and the Germs. The final installment, which never even got a proper theatrical release, much less a home entertainment one, was made in 1996 and '97 and focuses on the city's often tragically substance-abusing gutter punks, as well as hardcore bands like Final Conflict and Naked Aggression.
For decades, Spheeris has resisted giving the Decline films the archival treatment they deserve, mainly because she didn't want to revisit her past work. Then three and a half years ago, Spheeris decided she wanted her daughter Anna Fox to take over the family business of making movies and managing their rental properties around the city. Fox agreed, on one condition: that her mom finally release a collection of the Decline trilogy.
What followed was a labor-intensive period of work on all three movies at once. "It's been a year of pure hell," Spheeris says.
Spheeris grew up in trailer parks around the beach cities of Orange County in the 1950s and '60s. Her father owned a traveling carnival in the American South, and she describes her mother as "a trailblazing hoarder." When she was same age as the young teens that populate the Decline movies, she too was speeding around Southern California unsupervised, seeing concerts by surf rock kings like Dick Dale and the Deltones. "We'd go the [Rendezvous] Ballroom on Balboa Island, we'd go to El Monte Legion Stadium, we'd go to Cinnamon Cinder [in Studio City]," she says. "When I was 13 or 14 years old, I'd go in a car with a bunch of lowrider friends and head out to all the shows."
After getting her masters in film at UCLA, Spheeris began working as a producer for Albert Brooks, handling his pre-taped segments during the early years of Saturday Night Live and his first feature, Real Life. At the same time, Spheeris started her production company Rock ‘N' Reel, which made music videos for acts like the Staples Singers, Seals & Croft, and Funkadelic — years before MTV existed or most people even knew what a music video was. Though she earned a living from the work she got from major record labels, she wasn't into most of the music they were putting out. But after hearing the Sex Pistols for the first time, she went to a show at the Masque, the Hollywood club that welcomed many of LA's early punk bands, and became fascinated with the local scene.
Shot between 1979 and 1980, the first Decline of Western Civilization captures Los Angeles punk at a critical period, as the more art-influenced original bands from the city proper were being drowned out by the hyper aggressive hardcore bands from Orange County and the fans who followed them. Punk was also becoming increasingly stigmatized around the city, as cops would raid shows and certain acts got banned from most venues. It got to the point that Spheeris had to rent a soundstage to shoot the performances by the Germs and Black Flag for the film because there wasn't anywhere else they could play.
"You look at documentaries that have come out about other scenes and other moments in history, and Decline of Civilization holds up so well. You can still show that movie to someone and say, 'Here, this is LA punk,'" says Damian Abraham, the lead-singer of the Toronto band Fucked Up and the host of the Turned Out a Punk podcast. "A few months later a lot of those bands would break up. A few years later, a few of the key players would be dead. It's a perfect snapshot of this incredibly important moment in music history where people are only now realizing how important it was."
In the years since the first Decline's release, some from within the punk scene have criticized Spheeris for not featuring now marginalized bands like the Screamers or the Weirdos in favor of Black Flag or Circle Jerks. While Spheeris admits she was particularly drawn to the hardcore acts because they came from the same part of Southern California that she did, these were also groups that would go on to have a monumental impact on punk and DIY culture over the next 20 or so years, whether people like it or not.
And considering the underground subject matter, it's impressive Spheeris got much well-shot and intimate footage just as the era was cresting — oftentimes taking her camera right into the mosh pit. This was long before it was commonplace for up-and-coming musicians to post video to their various social media accounts, or to have camera crews from publications or brands come to their practice spaces to document their early phases. "[Spheeris] was in there filming Black Flag living in the Church," says Katy Goodman of La Sera and formerly of the Vivian Girls (who also admits to having a giant Germs circle logo tattoo on her butt). "It isn't just memories or reenactments or going back to old places. She's right there filming it as it happens, and that's what makes it so amazing."
Despite positive reviews, the first film didn't get much distribution during its actual theatrical release. (The hectic scene at its 1981 LA premiere also resulted in Police Chief Daryl Gates sending Spheeris a letter telling her to never show the movie in the city again.) Instead, the first Decline amassed fans through tape trading, bootlegs, and revival house screenings. Meanwhile Spheeris' interest in punk found its way into her narrative work — it's at the center of Suburbia, her first released scripted feature, as well as 1987's Dudes, a punk road movie starring Jon Cryer and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
In the mid-'80s, as her daughter was entering her teens, Spheeris used to take Anna to shows with her to make sure she'd be able handle herself at concerts once she got older. By the time Fox was 17, she was dating Nikki Sixx, the bassist of Mötley Crüe, one of the superstar bands of L.A.'s hair-sprayed and debaucherous metal scene. A new era of rock and roll had descended on the city, and as Spheeris began noticing the crowds of people jamming the sidewalks and spilling out onto Sunset Boulevard night after night, she got the idea to make a second Decline movie about this world.
When Spheeris turned her attention toward about metal, a genre that birthed platinum-selling bands, many of her friends from the punk years considered her a sell-out. But watching the two films back to back, you can't help notice some similarities between the two worlds. Sure, punk was nihilistic, but there was a still a shtick to it, even if it didn't involve smoke machines and tying scarves to your mic stand. In the first Decline, when Derf Scratch of Fear baits the hostile crowd with wisecracks about the similarities between girls and six packs of beer or how many punks it takes to change a light bulb, you can hear someone in the audience call out the punchlines before he can get to them. They've heard these jokes before.
But while the bands and crowd members Spheeris talked to for the first Decline were relentlessly negative, convinced that society was fucked beyond repair, there's a single-track optimism that defines most of the interviews in The Metal Years. The insistence of these aspiring rock stars that they are destined to be rich and famous is so unflagging that it can come off as desperate. And watching it now is an almost bigger bummer, considering that very few of them actually made it to where they dreamed they'd be.
In the early 1990s, Spheeris landed the directing job for the first Wayne's World film. It became a box office success millions and millions of dollars beyond what anyone expected. Though the movie is set in suburban Illinois, you can see that same naïve self-assuredness from the second Decline film in Wayne and Garth's "she will be mine, oh yes, she will be mine" convictions. But after the financial wellspring of Wayne's World, Spheeris passed on the sequel, and spent most of the rest of the decade making middling comedies like The Beverly Hillbillies, The Little Rascals, and Black Sheep.
One day in 1996 while driving, Spheeris noticed some punks hanging out on Melrose Avenue. She approached them, excited that the world she first encountered in '70s might still around in some form. (This is a very Spheeris move, it turns out: she first asked Fear if they wanted to be in Part I after driving past them on Laurel Canyon as they put up posters for an upcoming gig.) She imagined it would be fun to do a follow-up on the first Decline featuring kids who weren't even born when it came out, but she soon learned how many of them had run away from or been kicked out of abusive households, and had now turned into full-blown teenage alcoholics. Throughout the Decline series she had documented kids who were hopeless in many ways, but by the end of 1990s, she realized how bad things had gotten. "The title was [originally] meant to be ironic, but by the time I got to Part III, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy," Spheeris says.
"When I did Decline III, it was totally life changing for me," she continues. "I had no idea that shit was going on out there. At that point in my career I was really rich from being paid millions of dollars for doing studio movies, and I did not have a sense at all what real life was like. That's when I went out and got my foster parent license. I had five foster kids to try to help a little bit — we all should, because it's a fucking mess out there."
Using her paycheck from Senseless, a comedy starring Marlon Wayans and David Spade that she contentiously made for the Weinstein brothers (and which tanked miserably), she financed the third Decline on her own. "I showed it to my agent at the time. I asked if we could get distribution for it and he just threw his hands up and walked away," she says.
The distribution offers she did manage to get would have required her to give up the rights to the first two installments, so she passed, and the film was scarcely shown. Regardless, Spheeris remains connected to the film, which makes it all the more fortunate that more people will now finally be able to see it. "Decline III is my favorite movie I ever did, and the people in Decline III are my favorite people I have ever worked on a movie with," she says.
And perhaps for that reason she left the series at that. Nowadays Spheeris is dismissive of the idea of continuing with future installments of Decline. "I've been there and I've done that and I don't give a shit anymore," she says with a laugh. She says she's not interested in any new music, but it's a great game to imagine how she would have approached the Southern California scenes of this new century. Her take on Odd Future and other circa-2010 Fairfax Avenue rap acts fueled by streetwear and Tumblr could have been amazing. Anna Fox says Spheeris's 15-year-old grand-daughter now goes to shows by herself and is into the goofball garage rock world of Fullerton's Burger Records, a community through which Spheeris could have gotten back to her Orange County roots. Who knows — maybe at this moment some yet-to-be-discovered young filmmaker is picking up where she left off.
"In my opinion, nothing lasts. There's a beginning and a middle and an end to everything."
Of the stylistic conventions that link the three Decline movies — from the light bulb-lit interviews, to the montage of the bands reading the filming release, to somebody always making eggs for breakfast — perhaps the most telling is the quick text at the start of each movie that states the exact span of months during which it was filmed. Asked why she decided to note such a specific demarcation, Spheeris says, "In my opinion, nothing lasts. There's a beginning and a middle and an end to everything. And I mean everything. I mean my fingernails and I mean the universe. To have that little mark in time is important."