Penelope Speeris’ ‘The Decline of Western Civilization’ documentary series is both a love letter and a time capsule to a series of movements within the history of music and culture that now seems fairly distant in a lot of ways.
The first film captures the early punk rock movement in the late 70’s and early 80’s before it pervaded the mainstream. It features performances from a bunch of (now) legendary punk bands including X, Black Flag, and The Circle Jerks. Along with these classic performances are a series of interviews with the performers; showcasing their funny and free-wheeling take on music and the punk movement. It is fascinating to see the amount of rebellion and self-judgment inherent in punk rock, something that seems so phony in the music of today.
The second film moves up in time a bit and follows the glam rock period of the late 80’s. It is done in the same format as the first film with performances and interviews from popular bands. This time we are treated to bands and stars like W.A.S.P., Poison, and Ozzy Osbourne. It is surreal now to watch these glam rock bands, which were the pinnacle of rock and roll at the time talk about being the next Led Zeppelin or Rolling Stones. There is a real connection between these artists and their music, but it gets lost pretty fast in their gimmicks and often dumb pursuits.
The third and final film in the series is both a turn from the first two and a true sequel to the original. Whereas the first film showcased the birth and origins of punk the final film delves into what happened to the movement twenty years later. Homeless teenagers living the punk rock lifestyle are interviewed. The anarchy and self-loathing of the punk movement is shown to be alive, but what it has become is both sad and scary. When asked where these kids see themselves in five years many of them just say “dead”. This is a part of American society that is not often given a voice in films, which is really the entire point of ‘The Decline’ series. While the third film is certainly the most depressing of the bunch, it is also the most poignant.
‘The Decline of Western Civilization’ series will not appeal to everyone. Those who don’t have a large interest in punk may not find a lot to like. However, these films showcase a lifestyle and movement that a large number of people either misunderstand or know little about. For this reason alone it is an interesting and educational watch.