Until four years ago, three esteemed music documentaries were sitting in a vault, untouched. They existed in outdated formats, including recorder tape that would disintegrate at the touch and VHS tapes locked cold into place. Director Penelope Spheeris asked her daughter, Anna Fox, to work for her, and Fox accepted, with one condition — that their first project would be restoring these dormant films, The Decline of Western Civilization.
Throughout a meandering career which features major-studio diversions like Wayne’s World, Black Sheep and The Little Rascals, Spheeris kept returning to the Decline saga like a reliable punk-rock vacation home. By documenting three distinct eras — Part I’s riotous Los Angeles underground (1981), Part II’s overblown excess of heavy metal (1988) and Part III’s elemental look at homeless gutterpunks (1998), the films highlight punk’s timeless ethos.
After Shout Factory distributed high-quality scans of the Decline series this summer on disc, Spheeris and Fox began touring the country for screenings they cheekily call “The Decline World Domination Tour.” The tour rolls through Pittsburgh’s Hollywood Theater this weekend, and City Paper talked to Spheeris and Fox about the trilogy and what lies ahead.
When you were getting ready to make the first Decline, were you already pretty ingrained into the Los Angeles punk scene, or was there a lot of discovery that came with filming?
Penelope Spheeris: That’s actually a point that most people are really interested in. I’ve even been asked, “How could a professional filmmaker like you infiltrate these underground scenes and actually get some truth out of it?” Well the fact of the matter is, I was a part of the scene before I started the movie.
Anna Fox: And you weren’t a successful filmmaker at the time either. It was your first movie.
PS: These were our friends. Anna was 9 years old, and Darby [Crash, of the Germs] used to come to our house, and —
AF: Give our dog beer.
PS: Yeah, Darby would dump out the water in the dog dish and put beer in there. And then we would stop him from doing that right away, because we are animal-lovers. And then they’d also come over for a little dinner or something, and the next day when it was light, we’d go, “Oh no, they spray-painted the house.” Their band name’s on the outside of the house.
When you were filming the scene around this time, did it occur to you the sort of influence and power some of these bands might have? Or did it seem like this isolated L.A. scene?
PS: We didn’t have the global village going on at that time, because we didn’t have the social media and digital technology. So it wasn’t like one world that all popped up at the same time. It was really isolated compared to today. And I was just filming it because I found it profoundly interesting, and felt that there was some sort of historical importance to it. I know Don Less was filming the punk scene in New York, and Julian Temple in London. But in Los Angeles, there wasn’t a lot of other people filming, I don’t think. And I feel fortunate that I was able to do it and document it, because otherwise, it’d be gone. It was a very, very powerful time, just in terms of social change and change in music. If you look at, the one thing I really like to see audiences react to is how — you see that first film and realize where so much of today’s trends and fashion and music, etc. come from and just how a lot of it comes from back then. And if we didn’t have that film to refer to, I don’t think we would understand. Like kids today see people running around with their lift-up shirts and tattoos and piercings — that all started right back then. Now it’s so common. You’re unusual if you’re not all tattooed up.
So how did you first come across the kids from Part III? That scene seemed a lot more protected and underground than Part I.
PS: I saw them, a whole pack of kids walking down Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, and I said, “These guys look exactly like the kids from Suburbia or from the first Decline. I’m going to stop and talk to them.” When I stopped, I said, “Hey, how about we do The Decline Part III?. They said, “No, no — Penelope has to do that.” I said, “I am Penelope,” and they said, “Let’s go for it.” So then they introduced me to a lot of other people they knew, and we went to a bunch of squats they lived in.
In Part II it seemed like you were really pressing them on “Why are you in the business? Why are you doing this?” To kind of get the blanket, “Rock and roll, sex, partying.” But Part III was more understood.
PS: Survival. Hasn’t the world kind of swayed that way honestly? It’s really more about survival. What a mess things are anymore. You wonder how immigrants in Europe — you know, you never thought that would happen in Europe. We have it here with Mexico and everything, and now it’s worldwide where people are virtually homeless. All those people that are in Europe migrating, those are homeless people. They don’t have a place. It’s just become more prevalent now. People kind of ignore the way that there are so many young people that are out on the street and don’t have a home — they think it’s something that happens in other countries, but it happens here a lot. That’s why whenever we go to these cities, I sign the posters and we give the money to the homeless kids’ charity. We do pretty good, too. The most money we raised was down in Nashville for some reason.
It seemed like when the kids dodged questions, you sort of had this parental relationship with them. For as much as they resent authority they seemed to hold yours in great respect.
PS: I think it’s because of the other movies. And also because as a child, I was put in charge of the other three kids that were younger than me, and I don’t know how to present myself in any other way than a parental authority.
AF: No, you do not. [laughter ensues]
PS: See, that’s my daughter. She testifies. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
Have you followed up with the kids from Decline III?
PS: The people in Decline III for me are the people that I’m really most close with. I met my boyfriend on Decline III, and he was in the movie briefly, and he’s been my boyfriend for 18 years. And the other people, like Eyeball and Gizmo from the Resistance, we’re still in touch with, and Kirsten, from Naked Aggression. For me, those are the people that just knowing them changed my life, and made me not even want to do that Hollywood thing anymore and just help other people.
Do either of you keep up with current punk scenes at all?
AF: I have a 16-year-old daughter who’s going to a festival this weekend called Beach Goth, so my only exposure to all the new stuff is basically through her. She went through a phase where she was all about the stuff I was into, and we went to all the shows.
PS: So Beach Goth is the only new thing we can report on, via my granddaughter. We’re doing the Decline IV, but we’re not able to speak about the subject matter, because you could go make that movie, Shawn.
I don’t know if I could.
PS: The point is, you get to a point in your life where you go, “OK, what’s more important: going out to clubs, rocking out and sticking my hair up in the air or going out and trying to help people.”
It sounds like the fourth Decline might be closer in spirit to Part III than parts I and II?
PS: Well, I think that’s a really good guess. And here’s the thing about making a documentary — you need to let it take you on the trip. First time I ever heard anybody say, “Is your script ready for your documentary,” I almost fell off my chair. How can you script a documentary? You let it unfold in front of you if you make a good documentary. That’s what we’re doing with the fourth Decline, and people are asking for it, so we better hurry the heck up and stop with this tour. Don’t you think? Fire up our machines again.
You talked earlier about the scene from Decline I being really isolated, and how today with music blogs and social media everything’s really homogenized. Do you think it would even be possible for a film like that to happen today and have the same impact it did, given the proliferation of information we have?
PS: I think there’s a long shot it could happen, but it would have to be something that was extremely clandestine and underground. Because, as you say, everything is so visible and present and homogenized. I’ve often thought — I would never do it, mind you, because it’s too life-threatening — but to document the anarchists. You’d have to be so underground to really do it. You’d get killed. And I think if I was 25 years old, I might go out and do it, but I’m getting too old.
Well, Anna, there’s an idea for you.
AF: [laughs] I’m too old, too. Maybe my daughter.
PS: But I understand what you’re saying, Shawn. Things are so easily accessible — there are no surprises anymore. And back in the day, when I shot the first Decline, it was a surprise. It was the most-written about film of 1980, because everybody kind of knew about it, and mainstream America was scared shitless of it. They watched the movie as a way to vicariously learn about it. And I mean, for years now the film has been passed around as kind of underground contraband because they weren’t in any kind of legitimate distribution. Everybody says, “Oh, I got the film from my cousin who had a third-generation VHS. Even Dave Grohl, who did a voiceover for the first Decline DVD … his cousin gave him the film, and it opened up a whole new world for him. That’s the way it was for most kids who saw the movie. It was secret underground contraband they could pass around. And then when the VHSs got sold, they looked like crap. When they were distributed — pirated on the Internet — we would have Anna and people in the office there just taking them down all the time. We would get nasty remarks about how we took the film down, but they just looked so crappy — I had to.
It’s been a while since you revisited music documentary — since your work on Ozzfest. Why haven’t you returned to the genre since then?
PS: Well, I worked for three years on the Ozzfest movie — We Sold Our Souls for Rock ’n’ Roll — and I’m really, really proud of it. But when you work for three years on a movie and it never gets released, you kind of go, “What the hell am I doing this for?” Sharon [Osbourne] said she had the rights for the music, but she didn’t, and I don’t think she actually realized the ramifications of not having the rights. It wasn’t like she was being vicious or malicious or anything, it was just a matter of neglect, so the film never got seen. So I didn’t make any more music documentaries. And the fact of the matter is, in the time since I made that movie, the music business has disintegrated, and there’s no way to make any money unless you have merchandise or something to get a dollar or nickel on Spotify from. So the only way that older bands can really make money from it is by licensing their music, so the licensing fees have gone up tremendously. The clearance process is a flipping nightmare, and having been through all that, I don’t feel like doing it anymore. Plus I don’t see any music that really interests me. Except this one guy, Willis Earl Beal. Willis Earl Beal is awesome. For me, that is finally something different that I have never seen before. He’s got that incredible voice and his performances are so unique, and he’s an artist as well. I could do a movie about Willis, probably, but I should get all the clearances up front. And not like Sharon did it.
So you two really don’t listen to much contemporary music?
PS: That is correct. It’s all too derived for me. I listen to music and I go, “This came from there, that came from there,” so where is the original part? I look at movies, I can’t even watch movies because all I do is go, “Here’s how they did that, here’s why that camera’s there.”
AF: So she watches the cooking channel instead.
PS: I watch the Food Network, and I listen to Zen meditation music.