Monday, June 7, 2021

#2,581. The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)

Penelope Spheeris’ documentary The Decline of Western Civilization chronicles L.A.’s underground punk rock scene, and does so in a way that is absolutely intoxicating.

Filmed on-location from December 1979 to May 1980, The Decline of Western Civilization introduces us to a handful of punk groups, including X, Black Flag, and the Circle Jerks, interspersing footage of their live performances with interviews Spheeris conducted with members of the bands. The live shows have a definite energy to them, and audiences occasionally get so rowdy that they lose control. During a Circle Jerks concert, a fan runs on-stage and tries to pick a fight with the lead singer. Not to be outdone, Lee Ving, the voice of Fear, shouts insults at the crowd, which not only shouts back but also spits on him). The music is loud and fast, with titles like “White Minority”, “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene”, and “Gluttony”. Many of the songs were new to me, but I did recognize “Let’s Have a War” by Fear, which appeared on the soundtrack for 1984’s Repo Man.

As The Decline of Western Civilization shows us time and again, the bands took their music seriously, despite the fact most were severely underpaid. At the time this film was made, the members of Black Flag were living in the basement of what was once a Baptist church. Spheeris asks how much money they take home after each performance, and lead singer Ron Reyes responds “Nothing”, adding “maybe there’s enough left over for a meal or two”. In fact, the most Black Flag ever earned during a single gig was $200, which had to be split four ways!

Along with the bands and their venues, The Decline of Western Civilization also gives voice to the fan base. Shot in black and white, youngsters like Eugene and Gennifer talk about why they love punk rock, with most saying it’s a way for them to get out their aggression. The “Pogo Dance”, where punks hop up and down to the music, was popular at the time, and resulted in more than a few fights. And if this movie is to be believed, the release of pent-up anger was what drove the rockers themselves to take that stage night after night.

As hard-hitting as it is informative, The Decline of Western Civilization is a snapshot of a subculture that was all but ignored in its time, and to this day, it remains one of the finest rock documentaries ever committed to film.
Rating: 9 out of 10 (Buy it now!)

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