We caught up with director Penelope Spheeris to talk about her iconic series and her career.
Americans have long been afraid, disgusted, and confused by teenage punks and the music they listen to. The film and television industry has exploited this dynamic for decades, often to absurd results. Nowhere was this more evident than in the 1980s. Whether it's the infamous "Next Stop: Nowhere" episode of medical-investigation drama Quincy, M.E. that's based off sensationalistic punk-rock tropes (drug-taking nihilists who just need a little push to murder people) or the second Police Academy movie, featuring a gang of violent punks and metalheads led by Zed McGlunk played by Bobcat Goldthwait, people with mohawks and weird piercings who liked loud and fast music were seen as either aggressive criminals or misguided kids, desperate for attention.
"There was a shift in general human behavior, what the teenagers were doing," director Penelope Spheeris told me recently over the phone of her iconic documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, which depicted a much more nuanced view of those loud music-loving kids. Thirty-five years after its initial release, Spheeris's quintessential film is finally getting the box set rerelease it deserves along with the other two fantastic documentaries in the series (all titled TDOWC). Featuring interviews and performances with some of 1980s LA's most iconic punk bands, including Fear, Black Flag (on their second singer, Ron Reyes), X, and most notably the Germs. Spheeris managed to capture the bands and the scene in all their raw and gritty glory without being exploitative or sensationalist. It serves today as one of the best visual documents of the American punk scene that scared the hell out of most of America.
The first film was a springboard for her to explore American punk and metal culture like no other director has done before or since. The second Decline famously looks at the burgeoning metal scene in the middle of the 80s, and the third finds the director less interested in bands so much as in the dead-end kids who gravitated towards punk rock in the late-1990s. The idea came to her while she was driving down Melrose and saw a group of teens walking in formation, much like the group of punks in her first studio film, 1984's Suburbia. "I wanted to know them," she told me. "I wanted to understand where they were coming from."
Suburbia—which in my estimation is one of the best teen-rebellion films alongside 1979's The Warriors and Over the Edge—and the first Decline are the strongest of her films. This is probably because they're essentially siblings, created out of necessity, since Spheeris said she couldn't get distributors for Decline, but also because she'd found something she connected with. "I wrote Suburbia because it's a narrative piece about the same subject matter I'm so enthralled with."
But when you consider her filmography from those two films and onward, a pattern emerges. From Suburbia she moved on to the Charlie Sheen-starring teen murder spree movie The Boys Next Door, then to 1987's Dudes, possibly the greatest if only punk-rock Western revenge flick starring Jon Cryer a year removed from his most famous role as Duckie in Pretty in Pink. No commercial hits among them, but in that small timespan, Spheeris made a slew of films where society's rejects were, instead, the main characters. These characters weren't put under a microscope. Instead they are shown in their natural habitats, allowed to do and say what they want, like swim around on a float in the pool spitting vodka at your mother like Chris Holmes of W.A.S.P. does in Decline Part II: The Metal Years. Her films were all mostly underground hits, and then in 1992, she rounded it all out by directing the film adaptation of Wayne's World. Her first big commercial hit was both a blessing and a curse.
"I could not make another movie that had any substance to it," the director said of her post-Wayne's career. The film based off the Saturday Night Live skit went on to be her biggest earner by a long shot, raking in $121.6 million at the box office.
And yet there is something that can be said about Wayne's World fitting perfectly into her oeuvre, because, really, what are Wayne and Garth but a couple of dumb metalheads just hanging out in their suburban Chicago basement? They're basically the kinds of people that worship at the altar of the bands Spheeris features in the second Decline film.
If you put all of those films together, it becomes quite clear that Spheeris has few contemporaries when it comes to telling stories of fucked-up and misunderstood youth. When I mention that her films serve as sort of the flip side to the sunnier and goofier versions of 80s teenage life served up by fellow directors John Hughes and Amy Heckerling, Spheeris tells me that even though she's fond of both directors, films like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Sixteen Candles were probably closer to the teenage experiences Hughes and Heckerling had.
"I wish I would have had a more balanced living situation, but I didn't," she explained. "I had a very tumultuous one." Spheeris admitted her upbringing was "chaotic and violent," much like the lives of many of her characters, both the real ones in the Decline films as well as the fictitious ones in her other works. It's probably why Spheeris is to movies about young people with bleak futures what Hughes is to pictures about suburban teenage malaise. Yet Spheehris is hardly considered one of the defining directors of her time.
Being a teen is tough for everyone. There are lots of complex emotions you're grappling with. Adulthood is looming and it's almost impossible to prepare. Toss in a healthy batch of sex and drugs into the mix, and those of us that make it through those years should feel lucky. Hughes understood this, and the reason his films have become the gold standard for teen cinema is because he gave his young characters considerable nuance. There was buildup to Molly Ringwald's Sam running out of the gym and crying over Jake Ryan at the high school dance in Sixteen Candles. We get to understand why John Bender is the way he is in The Breakfast Club. He isn't simply a rebel without a cause—his home life is terrible, full of abuse and neglect, and he's a product of it. He's one of the most unforgettable characters from the writer and director who redefined the teen film because we know his backstory and feel sympathy for him. But really he's a minority among the Ferris Buellers and rich preppies who are usually depicted onscreen.
Which is why Spheehris's films are so valuable: They're filled with the John Benders of the world, both real and fictional. There's Darby Crash of the Germs. Watching the first Decline, you can't help but feel he's doomed. A few months before the film's premiere, he intentionally overdosed on heroin at the age of 22. And then there are the kids in the T. R. (The Rejected) house in Suburbia, a group of punks who all have their own horror stories. They aren't in a picturesque cul-de-sac, but living in an abandoned home together in a forgotten part of Los Angeles where you're more likely to see one of the stray dogs that we see mauling a toddler at the start of the film than you do other humans.
With Dudes, one of the great underrated films of decade that deserves its own rerelease, the film goes from punk buddy road comedy to something resembling Easy Rider, after rednecks (led by Decline 1 alumni Lee Ving of Fear) kill one of the punks (played by Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who is also in Suburbia). What follows is one of the strangest 80s revenge films, where Dudes is just Jon Cryer and Daniel Roebuck out to avenge their friend. Spheehris excelled in making films about outsiders, the likes of which other filmmakers refused to take seriously.
Spheehris is the quintessential punk and metal movie director of the 1980s, but like Hughes, the 1990s phase of her career concentrated on family-friendly film adaptations of The Beverley Hillbillies and The Little Rascals, as well as the second buddy comedy starring Chris Farley and David Spade, Black Sheep.
"I sold out in a lot of other ways... I sold my soul to the devil with the other movies," Spheeris says of her big Hollywood films. Of course, you have to do what you have to do, and films featuring Keith Morris of Circle Jerks screaming into a microphone aren't exactly cash crops. But the Decline movies, she says, those were made out of love, especially the third, which she put out as the follow-up to Black Sheep, which pulled in $32 million at the box office. The Decline of Western Civilization Part III, in comparison, never made it to wide release despite positive reviews from critics who saw it at various film festivals. But now, with the complete Decline series available for the first time, and the director saying she's open to giving Suburbia and Dudes the same treatment, the great chronicler of messed-up youth doing whatever it takes to get by in a fucked-up world will reach a whole new audience.
The box set The Decline of Western Civilization Collection is out now from Shout Factory.
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