Given the current climate, there is an appetite for immersive documentaries. People are seeking films that take a subject and explore it with real depth and fullness. This week, Top of the Docs turns to Penelope Spheeris’ trilogy The Decline of Western Civilisation, which might be the most comprehensive look at counter-culture in America translated into film. Shot over the course of three decades, the film is split into three parts, Part 1 (1981) looking at the Los Angeles punk scene, Part 2 (1988) on the city’s heavy metal scene, and Part 3 (1998) looking at gutter punks.
Controversial from the moment of their release, the trilogy explores the explosion of alternate music scenes in America from the late seventies onwards, featuring bands such as Germs, Black Flag, X, Megadeath, and Final Conflict. What makes the different parts so interesting is that, rather than simply interviewing the icons of these scenes and allowing them to be their mouthpiece, Spheeris immersed herself within the subcultures. She talked to punks and metalheads alike about their lifestyle, how they would define their culture, and what they stood for.
It is worth remembering that, despite widespread depictions of punk in popular culture today, this was not the case in 1981 when Part 1 was released. The Decline of Western Civilisation offered an insight into one of music’s most exciting subcultures, at a time when coverage from the music press was minimal. This is emphasised with the film’s title, thought to be a reference to Lester Bangs’ review of The Stooges’ Fun House for Creem Magazine, in which a friend of Bangs’ is reported to have said that the rise of bands like The Stooges signalled “the decline of Western civilisation.”
Another interesting facet of the film is the gaps between the releases of each part. By the time Part 3 was released, the revolutionary notion of Part 1 (the depiction of punk on screen) was far from revolutionary. During the course of the 1980s, and arguably even by the time Part 1 was released, punk had been largely canonised. Much like the artists featured in the film would have many imitators, Spheeris would see imitators abound attempting to capture “The Scene” on film. However, Spheeris was always one step ahead. By Part 3, Spheeris was documenting a subculture that has still only received documentation through her film, the internet, and an odd sketch on the series Portlandia. The subculture in Part 3 is the gutter punks, a subculture of homeless punks who were most prominent during the late 1990s in Los Angeles.
LA is, of course, central to this film. The Decline of Western Civilisation acts as a document of the evolution of music culture in LA. Like many films centred around the LA, the film roots itself in a subversion of the glamour the city is famous for. This is no rock n’ roll trip down the sunset strip. Spheeris takes you to the depths of the city to uncover what was really going on and in the process has managed to alert the world to some of America’s most lasting subcultures.