Penelope Spheeris’ three documentary films The Decline of Western Civilization, in many ways helped spearhead a movement, or two, in L.A.’s musical scene. The first film, released in 1981, documented the city’s burgeoning hardcore punk scene and featured such iconic musical acts as Black Flag, X, The Germs, The Circle Jerks, and Fear as they often drove fans there to see them into violent frenzies.
Flash forward seven years, and Spheeris’ follow up, The Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years took a peek into the city’s hair metal scene as the genre was lighting up the airwaves all over the country. A slightly different feel from the first, this second film followed a group of bands (Odin, London, Faster Pussycat) struggling to make it, while also offering interviews from those metal giants who were already successful (Poison, Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper, Lemmy, Aerosmith). It is also notable for the saddening, drunken poolside interview Spheeris has with W.A.S.P. Member Chris Holmes, obviously badly affected by his success.
Lastly, The Decline of Western Civilization III, released in 1998, returns to the punk scene of the late ’90s in L.A., following the so-called “gutter punks,” a group of homeless teens who live the punk lifestyle, begging for cash, prostituting themselves, and squatting in abandoned buildings. It made sense for Spheeris to revisit punk with this film in 1998 since the genre had finally blasted into the mainstream, courtesy of acts like Nirvana and Green Day and the Grunge scene of the early ’90s. However, what Spheeris’ film highlighted was that the underground punk scene was still going strong despite the mainstream breakthrough, and also the failed promise of those early, halcyon days of the scene that was documented in Part I, similar to the failed promise of the ’60s counterculture movement and the very hippies that the original punks were raging against.
This anthology brings all three films together on Blu-ray for the first time, in new 2K restorations for fans new and old to take in. I saw Part II in the theater with a friend back in the ’80s and Part I on television somewhere sometime over the years. This is my first time seeing Part III, and while it doesn’t hit with the same musical impact, the social impact is just as powerful.
All three Decline films were restored in new 2K scans of the original negatives under the direction of director Penelope Spheeris and they come to Blu-ray in AVC/MPEG-4 1080p encodements from Second Sight, framed at 1.33:1 for Part I and 1.78:1 for Parts II and III. These films have never looked great, especially not Part I, but that is part of their appeal. These are documentaries that are meant to look (and sound) low budget and bit gritty. They still do here. You’ll still see a lot of softness and source damage, but you won’t see any post-processing misdeeds like edge enhancement or compression noise.
All three films come with new lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (48kHz/24-bit) mixes and also their original theatrical mixes in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono (48kHz/16-bit) for Parts I & II and DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Stereo (48kHz/16-bit) for Part III. The 5.1 tracks are major upgrades, especially for Part I, which sounds very boxy and dull in its original mix with no dynamics whatsoever. That said, it is quaint in its lo-fi antiquity and suits the punk aesthetic of the film. The 5.1 mixes do not overdo it with the surround effects, they add a narrow bit of stereo effect and some mild atmospherics plus a slight boost of low end, so that the lo-fi effect is maintained, but some clarity and dynamic range is gained.
We get a lot of bonus footage not in the films, plus a few audio commentaries, including one for Part I from Dave Grohl. Much of the extra footage does not look great at all, but it’s still cool to see. We also get some Q&A panels in HD with Spheeris and some of the people from the films, and those are definitely worth watching.
The Decline of Western Civilization Part I:
- Audio Commentary with Penelope Spheeris and Anna Fox
- Audio Commentary with Dave Grohl
- X Signs Contract (1.33:1; SD/PAL; 00:02:42)
- Tour of the Masque (1.33:1; SD/PAL; 00:07:56)
- Fear – We Destroy the Family, No More Nothing, Waiting for the Gas, Fresh Flesh (1.33:1; SD/PAL; 00:07:24)
- Germs – Lexicon Devil, Let’s Pretend (1.33:1; SD/PAL; 00:04:56)
- The Gears – Elk’s Lodge Blues (1.33:1; SD/PAL; 00:02:09)
- Henry Rollins Interviews Spheeris (1.33:1; SD/PAL; 00:04:56)
- Announcements (1.33:1; SD/PAL; 00:02:45)
- Theatrical Trailer (1.33:1; SD/PAL; 00:01:54)
- Extended Interviews:
- Black Flag (1.33:1; SD/PAL; 00:16:45)
- Darby’s Apartment (1.33:1; SD/PAL; 00:15:17)
- X (1.33:1; SD/PAL; 00:10:29)
- Brendan Mullen (1.33:1; SD/PAL; 00:08:37)
- Nicole, Germs Manager (1.33:1; SD/PAL; 00:16:41)
- Light Bulb Kids (1.33:1; SD/PAL; 00:08:04)
Part II: The Metal Years
- Audio Commentary with Penelope Spheeris and The Nadir D’Priest
- Extended Interviews:
- Aerosmith (1.33:1; SD/PAL; 00:19:07)
- Alice Cooper (1.33:1; SD/PAL; 00:18:42)
- Chris Holmes (1.33:1; SD/PAL; 00:15:03)
- Gene Simmons (1.33:1; SD/PAL; 00:20:25)
- Lemmy (1.33:1; SD/PAL; 00:14:43)
- Ozzy Osbourne (1.33:1; SD/PAL; 00:21:44)
- Paul Stanley (1.33:1; SD/PAL; 00:16:19)
- Theatrical Trailer (1.78:1; 1080p/24; 00:01:34)
- Extended Interviews:
- Flea (1.78:1; SD/PAL; 00:06:20)
- Keith Morris (1.33:1; SD/PAL; 00:09:13)
- Leonard Phillips (The Dickies) (1.78:1; SD/PAL; 00:12:12)
- Rick Wilder (The Mau-Maus) (1.78:1; SD/PAL; 00:06:21)
- Light Bulb Kids (1.78:1; SD/PAL; 00:09:19)
- Additional Extras:
- Behind the Scenes (1.33:1; SD/PAL; 00:06:42)
- Gutterpunks (1.78:1; SD/PAL; 00:02:14)
- LA County Museum of Art Panel – Decline I and II (1.78:1; 720p/60; 00:20:59)
- Premiere/Movie Introduction (1.33:1; SD/PAL; 00:03:43)
- Sundance Interview/Spheeris (1.33:1; SD/PAL; 00:06:10)
- Theatrical Trailer (1.78:1; 1080p/24; 00:02:18)
- Decline II Extended Interviews:
- London/Megadeth/Odin/Poison/Mega Crowd 87 (1.33:1; SD/PAL; 01:18:36)
- Decline I News Report (1.33:1; SD/PAL; 00:02:46)
- Decline II Cruising the Strip (1.33:1; SD/PAL; 00:06:51)
- Decline III Panel (1.33:1; SD/PAL; 00:06:54)
- Tawn Mastrey Interviews Spheeris (1.33:1; SD/PAL; 00:11:06)
- LA County Museum of Art Panel – Decline II (1.78:1; 720p/60; 00:14:14)
- Mark Toscano Interviews Spheeris (1.78:1; 1080i/60; 29.970 00:10:37)
- Nadir and Lizzie (1.33:1; SD/PAL; 00:16:12)
- Theatrical Trailer Suburbia (1.33:1; SD/PAL; 00:02:00)
- Extras’ Credits (1.781; 1080p/24; 00:00:43)
The Definitive Word
Violent, gritty, honest, and poetic, The Decline of Western Civilization I-III are more than just documentaries about musical movements, they are films about pitfalls, hope and hopelessness, wayward youth, and the American dream lost, found, and lost again. This set may not be an audio or video reference, but it works for the material and is packed with lots of strong never-before-seen extras.
Additional Screen Captures