The Decline Of Western Civilization – Penelope Spheeris Talks

Art & Culture

Despite its long unavailability – never released in the UK in the DVD era (or Blu-ray for that matter), only watchable on grainy VHS or some kind of dodgy bootleg – the Decline Of Western Civilization trilogy helmed by Penelope Spheeris has attained legendary status. 

From the early days of punk in America, all youthful exuberance and fuck-you to the man, of the first film, which charted the inexorable rise of punk in LA, through to the hair metal Spinal Tap-style excesses of assorted rockers, both aspiring and established  of the second outing, and the less well known younger sibling that is Decline Of Western Civilization 3, all nihilism and the grim realities of life for some very lost and troubled souls, the trilogy is, by turns, hilarious, inflammatory, and, ultimately, tragic. 

There’s so much to point out in each of them: there’s the breakthrough thrash of the first one, the extended middle finger to authority and us, the viewer, laughing at the punk rockers; in the second in the second it’s all about laughing at the sad, old rockers (Ozzy trying to make breakfast, that bloke from Kiss with some dollies hired from the Playboy Mansion) and wannabes (Odin?) until you witness Chris Homes from WASP falls apart in front of your very eyes, sitting swigging vodka on an inflatable in a swimming pool next to his dear old mum; and, in the last, a sense of hopelessness at the plight of the troubled kids, where No Future was more than a just a T-shirt slogan, rather a complete despair at the lack of opportunity…

And now, almost 35 years after the first, low budget film arrived unheralded at cinemas and on VHS in the UK, a quarter of a century after the second burst onto screens in a cloud of hairspray and bad spandex and 17 years since its homeless, hopeless dropouts ambled around Skid Row, hustling for change for beers, the trilogy is making its first appearance on both Blu-ray and DVD. 

Why, the first question you have to ask director Penelope Spheeris, did it take so long?

That is a big question,” says Spheeris, via a transatlantic phone call with her and daughter Anna Fox, who worked closely on the project, “It’s because I didn’t really want to go back and look at my life. 

I identify with the Decline series as my life’s work and I was afraid of not getting it right.

She would, she says, probably not have bothered other than pressure from Fox to get it out. Two years later, after the mammoth task of not just finding the right company but sifting through boxes and boxes of film, the package is ready for release. 

It’s been quite a job,” Spheeris laughs.

It’s not that there weren’t offers, “we were”, as she notes, “offered a couple of deals for Decline III, I don’t know, 18 years ago, but I would have to give up the rights to I and II.

She felt so close to the trilogy, which punctuated a career that included successful, although not entirely happy, dalliances with the man in Hollywood (most famously Wayne’s World), that she wouldn’t just hand her passion projects over to any Tom, Dick or Harry. 

The darker tone of the third part (“a far more serious and depressing film,” she admits) didn’t help. The third was rarely seen. “I sent out a few promotional VHS copies and it was bootlegged like I don’t believe,” she explains, “it looked terrible.

The emotional fallout from Decline III was much more marked too. “Decline III is my favourite film I’ve ever done. It was very life changing for me. It made me kind of realise that life, family were so much more important than making movies. I thought it was the most important thing but it’s not. 
It just spun me around. And I haven’t been the same since. It’s another reason why they haven’t been released as well.

Fox is still in touch with some of the major players through social media, although part of the fallout of the DVD production has been discovering how many have died, many through heroin and similar problems. 

I met my boyfriend of 18 years on that movie. He was homeless for 10 years before I met him,” says Spheeris, outlining the mental health issues he’s subsequently suffered from (they’re still close, although he is currently sectioned in Florida). 

Retreating from Hollywood, Spheeris has taken to fostering kids, adding “doing that movie spurred me on.”  

Fox drove much of the project in terms of restoration and sourcing the extras, she was a kid while the first was being filmed, as she explains: “The Decline films have been the soundtrack to my life. I was born in 1969, so for the first one I was nine or 10 years old, I didn’t go with her when she was filming, but socially she would bring me to a lot of shows, I learned the ways of the mosh pit. I worked on Decline II, in the office, at the age of 17.” She dated Nikki Sixx from Motley Crue and her fella has just joined The Cult and now, as she adds. “I’ve passed the tradition on, my daughter goes with me to Prince shows. It’s been a constant [in my life], the combination of film and music.

Was the intention always to make a trilogy? “It just kind of evolved, in the beginning never had the wherewithal, we barely made it through financing. I never thought there would be three.

Now, Fox and Spheeris hint, a fourth could be on the way, although they won’t discuss its subject. “I’ve assigned Anna the fourth one,” says Spheeris. “I’m checking out of the whole thing now.” Fox adds she’ll “find time between rescuing dogs” (another job of hers). 

Talk turns again to the impact of Decline III (it does have a powerful effect on anyone who views it). For this writer, it’s got the essential pointlessness of hardcore punk (that comedy Sid Vicious “sumfink to do, ain't it?” feel), but the inherent comedy is mixed with the tragedy of their lives – abused by parents, deserted by the system. 

The people in Decline 3 are my family, it’s in there,” concludes Spheeris. “Life is comic and tragic too. It’s not all fun and laughs, it’s not all tragedy. You can see that when they’re on the streets begging for change. They have a life of their own, you have to respect that. Maybe that’s why people seem to like the movies.” 

The Decline Of Western Civilization boxset is released on DVD and Blu-ray from Monday August 31 2015 courtesy of Second Sight.