Penelope Spheeris is a quirky and talented director whose films include The Boys Next Door and Suburbia. Her feature filmmaking career really started with a 1979 documentary called The Decline of Western Civilization.
Aside from being a potent look at punk music and something of an almost-underground classic, that film set Spheeris up for a sequel that would have an even funnier title. That sequel is here, and it is called The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years.
Needless to say, the ore of the title is mined from the term “heavy metal,” the head-banging, hardrocking music that stakes out rock’s noisiest territory and frightens the bejeepers out of parents everywhere. As in her earlier movie, Spheeris mixes performance footage and interviews.
She talks to some of the heavyweights in the metal world, such as Alice Cooper, Steve Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of KISS, and Ozzy Osbourne. But she also pays attention to some of the up-and-coming young metal groups in the Los Angeles scene.
Spheeris is a savvy filmmaker, and the result is a lively and wittily made slice of hard-rock life. Her visual sense is strong, both in the busy movement of the film and in the interview set-ups (Gene Simmons comments from the showroom of a lingerie store, while Alice Cooper speaks lucidly as he perches next to one of the blood-spattered mannequins from his stage show).
One attraction of the movie is, obviously, the fact that its characters look like refugees from This is Spinal Tap, but without intending to be funny. There are any number of hilariously boneheaded sentiments, among them the beer-soaked members of the group Odin opining that they expect to be remembered for generations.
But Spheeris clearly likes music and young people and rebelliousness too much to ridicule the scene. Some of the people in the movie are quite endearing, including a straightened-out Ozzy Osbourne (who no longer bites off the heads of doves, but is shown preparing a suburban plate of bacon and eggs). Some of the more disturbing aspects of the music are also on display, such as the rampant contempt for women and the abuse of drugs.
Decline obviously has a limited audience, but it’s a very well-made movie. Remember, as someone in the film says: “If your parents don’t like it, it’s good.” They surely won’t.
First published in the Herald, 1988
Spheeris is one of those filmmakers – you wonder what kind of projects she didn’t get to make along the way, and what those might have been like. Odd career. I interviewed her once, I think for The Boys Next Door, and she was a cool character. Now where might that interview be?