The Decline of Western Civilization caused a sensation, and almost a riot, when it premiered in Los Angeles in 1981.
An overflow crowd of zealous punk rockers and other curious onlookers packed the streets around the theater before the midnight show. The venue's 1,200 seats weren't enough. The theater had to add a 2 a.m. screening. After that, Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates demanded that the film not be shown again in L.A.
You shouldn't expect that kind of fervor this weekend when all three parts of what became the Decline trilogy show at the Texas Theatre, but the screenings promise to be raucous nonetheless. A multitiered time capsule of punk and metal from the late 1970s to the late '90s, the Decline project has taken on a cultural history dimension over the past 34 years. It's a truly mosh-worthy achievement.
"All three films are music-based, but they also make a social statement about human behavior," Decline director Penelope Spheeris says by phone from her Los Angeles home. Spheeris, best known in the mainstream for making the first Wayne's World movie, will attend Friday and Saturday to discuss the films.
The films are all part of the same vision, but each has its own defining personality. Part 1 is galvanizing. Part 2 is hilarious. Part 3 is heartbreaking.
Los Angeles punk was just a blip on the cultural radar in the late '70s, but Spheeris was all over it. She was drawn to the underdog spirit, political edge and DIY ethos of loud, hard and fast bands like Black Flag, the Germs and X. She became a regular at their gigs, and decided she had to share their energy with the rest of the world.
The public response to the film, aside from fans and some rapturous reviews, was outrage. Many took the title quite literally.
"It's like Garth says in Wayne's World: We fear change," says Spheeris, now 69. "Anything that's too different is scary to people. Punk rock back then was a major shift, and people were afraid of it."
1988's The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years is a different, much shaggier animal. Spheeris dove headlong into the L.A. hair metal scene, including some known commodities (Kiss, Poison). But she focused mostly on glammed-out journeyman dreamers, high on the girls and deluded aspirations of fame.
At times, The Metal Years plays like a film that Spheeris turned down the chance to direct, This Is Spinal Tap. (She didn't want to make fun of heavy metal.) We see Ozzy Osbourne making bacon and eggs as he discusses the hazards of the heavy metal lifestyle. Paul Stanley of Kiss is interviewed with a bevy of lingerie beauties lying on his bed. W.A.S.P.'s Chris Holmes is captured in a full-on alcoholic stupor in his swimming pool as his mom looks on in horror.
Spheeris didn't initially see the humor, but producers Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, who went on to direct Little Miss Sunshine, couldn't stop laughing at the footage. Spheeris' response at the time: "Well, what's so funny? These people are just doing what they do. Stop laughing."
If The Metal Years is a comedy, 1998's Decline of Western Civilization Part III is a tragedy. To make this chapter, Spheeris embedded herself with L.A.'s gutter punks, largely homeless teens and young adults who panhandle on Hollywood Boulevard and drink away their spare change. The film is less about music than nihilistic hopelessness. Many of the featured subjects face the camera and say they expect to be dead in five years. Some of them are.
"I didn't know who was going to live and who was going to die," Spheeris says. "You just never know that. I always say, God's in charge of life and death. I just felt like I wanted to help." (Spheeris was recently recertified as a foster parent.)
For the restoration and revival of the Decline films we can thank Shout! Factory, which just released a Blu-ray box set that includes a bonus disc, and Spheeris' daughter, Anna Fox, who worked behind the scenes to get the films restored and repackaged.
They had the foresight to realize Decline has only ascended in stature after all these years.
Plan your life
The Decline of Western Civilization shows at 8:30 p.m. Friday at the Texas Theatre. Part II: The Metal Years shows at 9 p.m. Saturday. Part III shows at 7:15 p.m. Sunday. 231 W. Jefferson Blvd., Dallas. Q&A sessions follow the showings Friday and Saturday; Friday's event is moderated by Dallas Morning News digital managing editor Robert Wilonsky. 214-948-1546. thetexastheatre.com.