As the 1970s ground to an exhausted halt, music media and tastemaker eyes were fixed squarely on London and New York City, greedily lapping up the grand guignol spectacle that was the early halcyon days of punk rock. All the while, they were by and large missing out on the real story, all the way across the country there was a dearth of equally adventurous and antisocial and gloriously strange music music cropping up in the middle of HOLLYWOOD USA’S facade-like glitz and glamor. The punk virus had spread to Los Angeles and everyone was too scared to talk about it.
The punk scene captured in filmmaker Penelope Spheeris’ documentary “Decline Of Western Civilization” was in a crucial state of transition. X and Fear were about to hit the big time. The so-called HB hardcore bands like Black Flag and the Circle Jerks were supplanting the earlier wave of artier, weirder West Coast punk outfits (to say nothing of Black Flags’ nascent DIY SST operation changing the record company rules). And this would be the last days of doomed Germs frontman Darby Crash. Indeed by the time the film was released, Crash would be dead by drug overdose, and the picture of him on the film poster, lying prone on the stage, eyes closed, was the eeriest of coincidences. “Decline” focuses on a handful of LA’s then finest: Germs, Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Fear, Catholic Discipline (a revelation), the Alice Bag Band, and X. The film is a note-perfect mix of violent performance footage, open-ended interviews with most of the musicians (Darby Crash cooking breakfast and playing with a tarantula is amazing, as is the montage of Crash whining “Gimme a beer” onstage with a ragged and volcanic Germs), and interviews with lots of disarmingly young (and disaffected) local punk scenesters. Wonderfully shot and in your face, and with so many incredible characters (Greg Ginn, Darby Crash, Exene Cervenka, Billy Zoom, Jean-Claude Bessy, Lee Ving, Alice Bag, Robo) this film never gets old.
“Suburbia” came several years after “Decline – 1984 appropriately enough – and with the benefit of hindsight can almost be seen as a dramatized followup on some of the punk fans spotted and interviewed in “Decline.” Surreally enough, exploitation king Roger Corman bankrolled it, but keen students of film will note that in his later years, Corman gave breaks to filmmakers as diverse as Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson – so it all makes sense. Sorta. “Suburbia” tells the story of lost and disaffected punk kids who band together as a Peter Pan-esque lost boys gang, refugees from a bland and shitty suburban dream. The cast was drawn from real punx (check out a young Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers do Charles Manson eyes) and the acting is satisfying understated and raw. There is some great social commentary hidden away in there, and there is some great social commentary that will hit you over the head with a baseball bat. In my opinion, the iconic scene of the gang of punks walking down a street of well-manicured lawns in “Reservoir Dogs”-esque slow motion is worth the price of admission. To say nothing of great, deranged performance footage of DI, the Vandals, and (gimme a moment here), TSOL in full-on deathrock mode. The punks halfheartedly mosh for the camera, but frontman Jack Grisham, in black lipstick, a skirt, leather jacket, and one glove is too busy pirouetting for the camera and throwing in his lot with Christian Death. Neato.
“Decline” is kind of the platonic ideal of music documentaries. It’s a film that until its “OFFICIAL” release this year had been passed from hand to hand like some sort of highly-bootlegged sacred text for some three decades now, or as the subject of feverish “unofficial” midnight screenings. I can tell you that I’ve owned two bootleg VHS copies and a very handsome bootleg DVD, not to mention a hamfisted effort that eighth-grade me made to record it from a late night MTV showing and “edit” out the commercials in real time. To see it on a big screen, with Penelope Spheeris herself in attendance? I daren’t even imagine….-Matthew Moyer