The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)

Rates: * * * * *

Why Did I Watch It? Haven’t seen it since high school and the time was right.

Cast, crew, etc.


The 1960s were a time of enormous change; societal conventions were overturned amidst a push for greater equality, driven by an energetic youth movement and progressive activists and political leaders. But as the 60’s gave way to the 70s, the idealism petered out; the War in Vietnam raged on, Watergate destroyed the public’s faith in their public institutions, and the oil shock ended the long running post WWII economic boom.

The arts reflected these turbulent times.

In music, the sunny, flower power era was catalogued by bands like The Beatles and The Doors, and a million others; catchy pop music with a utopian undercurrent. Likewise, the malaise of the 70s was reflected via two new musical strands; epic arena rock, where bands like Led Zep indulged themselves with 20 minute guitar solos, and disco, which provided a hedonistic happyland for anyone who just wanted to escape.

By the middle of the decade, all of these different influences would combine to produce a much more dangerous style of music: punk rock. Young people, angry at the state of the world, and pessimistic about their futures, would strap on guitars and exorcise their frustrations on stage. A band like the Sex Pistols showed: you didn’t even need to be able to play that well to be a musician. Punk rock was not about mastering a craft, or technical proficiency, it was about self expression; as I heard Kurt Cobain put it once in an interview, ‘Play whatever you want, as sloppy as you want, as long as it’s real and it has passion’.

Penelope Spheeris: fearless

This astonishing documentary captures this movement at a time when it was still fairly new, but already evolving. Echoing another 1970s cultural innovation, gonzo journalism, writer/director/producer Penelope Spheeris takes a small crew and plunges into the maelstrom of the early 80s LA punk scene. Focussing on half a dozen prominant groups, she mixes electrifying live footage with free wheeling backstage conversations, where the band members talk about their lives.

The live footage tells you everything you need to about punk’s appeal. The bands do not leave anything in reserve; they scream, they flail, the run around the stage, they fight with the audience, they thrash their instruments at high speed and maximum volume. As one of the club owners says: these kids need a release. And punk rock is where they find it. For members of this scene, it was not just playing or listening to music, but a cathartic experience, therapeutic in its extremes.

You can see the importance of this when the music stops and the kids start to talk. They are mostly quiet and shy; the opposite of their onstage personas. Many of their lives are depressingly grim; one band lives in a series of cupboards (for $16 a month), another in what appears to be an abandoned building. Their prospects do not look very bright (although some of these bands would find success), and it is music that is keeping them going. There are a lot of movies about the power of art as a sustaining force, and this one captures it perfectly, via real experiences.

Watching this film again now (I have not seen it since high school), some other elements really stood out. I especially enjoyed the hard bitten ‘Slash’ magazine journalist, who denounced ‘New Wave’ – a more melodic, manstream variant of punk – as “non existant”. He also states at one point how much harder it has become to create a musical experience with broad appeal; the audience has splintered into little factions with little crossover. I wondered what this guy would have made of the punk-pop bands like Offspring and Green Day that were hugely popular a decade later, and if the music scene was niche in 1981, what is it like now? In music, and all of the arts, today there is almost nothing that stands as a shared cultural experience.

And so this film serves two functions. As a time capsule of a place and time that has now vanished; LA is a different city, and musical tastes have changed. Punk rock is not dangerous any more, it is just another genre that people perform in. But this film does also serve as a reminder that history endlessly repeats; you would have to think that the frustration the young people are feeling here would be at the same level as people of a similar age today. The issues might be different (although some are undoubtedly the same), and their means of expressing their anger may have changed, but there is a definite straight line connection. Just like the early 80s punks, young people today are worried about the future, disillusioned with their political leaders, and facing, once again, a clean up of up the mess left by the generation before.

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