Published Jun 30, 2015"This movie is about groups, metal, guitars, girls, all that stuff," says Gene Simmons at the beginning of the Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years. "But ultimately the movie is only half the story. Half the true magic is about the fans."
That remark is rare moment of humility from Simmons. And while he's specifically referring to fans of heavy metal — in other words, KISS fans — he's remarkably on point in describing all three of director Penelope Spheeris's The Decline of Western Civilization films.
Commercially available for the first time in years, the trilogy chronicles three specific moments in the Los Angeles rock scene. Part I captured the nascent punk scene; Part II skewered the city's hair metal groups; and Part III covered L.A. hardcore in the '90s. Part I's legend has long rested on the performances Spheeris shot — it boasts rare footage of future legends the Germs and X — while Part II's is often recalled for its displays of hubris and debauchery. But it was the filmmaker's ability to capture a subcultural moment that elevates them above mere time capsules.
All three Decline movies cut back and forth between musicians and their fans, and it's these conversations with these communities built around the music — the mere mortals who would otherwise have been long forgotten — that provide the trilogy's heart and soul. Spheeris understands that the fans are as important to these scenes as any one artist.
Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the trilogy's concluding chapter. After a short stint in Hollywood (where, based on the knowledge she'd gleaned making The Metal Years, she directed Wayne's World), Spheeris seems more interested in the lives of the street kids and gutter punks who attend shows than the bands headlining them. Maybe it was a shift in her priorities, or a comment on the music itself, but the communities they form and the tragic end to one of its most colourful characters proves to be Decline's most divergent, yet affecting tale.
This four-disc box set includes a bevy of extras, including additional interview and performance footage from all three films, as well as clips from television and film festival panels. There's also a book of photos and liner notes by pop music historian Domenic Priore. But even without these generous additions, The Decline of Western Civilization, as its name suggests, remains a towering achievement, charting the shifting underground subcultures that inhabit one of the world's superstar cities.