Decline of Western Civilization, The (1981)

Decline of Western Civilization, The (1981)

“Nothing else is going on — it’s the only form of revolution left.

Punk bands in Los Angeles — including Fear, The Germs, Alice Bag Band, and more — channel their aggression and nihilism through music.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Documentary
  • Musicians

Penelope Spheeris‘s feature debut as a writer-director-producer was this insiders’ look at the punk music scene in L.A., mixing raw concert footage with interviews of band members, managers, fans, club owners, and others.

A former “punk” herself, Spheeris effectively elicits their no-holds-barred thoughts on life, music, drugs, pet tarantulas, haircuts, dead gardeners, and… Well, you get the point. How interesting you find all of this will ultimately depend upon how intrigued you are either by subcultures in general, and/or with the punk movement, which we quickly learn is grounded in nihilism, anger, violence, and bigotry — all on ample display here.

According to this documentary, punk fans and musicians seem to live for the moment when they can enter into a club and begin thrashing their emotions on their sleeve, harming others (and themselves) along the way as applicable. While Decline… is worth a look as an erstwhile cult favorite (and for the cultural footage it provides), it’s not must-see for all film fanatics — though I do recommend it for one-time viewing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A valuable time-capsule snapshot of L.A. punk in the early 1980s

Must See?
No, though it’s recommended for one-time viewing. Listed as a Cult Movie and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.


4 thoughts on “Decline of Western Civilization, The (1981)

  1. Oh, the things I do for this check-off list!

    First viewing. Not must-see…not unless, for some odd reason, you have a burning desire to learn more about this ‘music’ period (not that there’s much to learn here).

    However, it’s a really great doc if you want to spend 100 minutes listening not only to anti-music but to practically non-stop stupid comments by stupid people, delivered mostly via monotone, “I don’t give a shit about anything” voices.

  2. Ughh…not a must see. Full confession – I love some punk rock, but this isn’t a great document (nor is Spheeris’ follow-up about the metal years – a genre I wasn’t too enthusiastic about).

    The bands represented show the early years LA punk. The Germs have their fans (I’m not as enthusiastic). The one band that rises above everything is X, and they are the only thing worth seeing in this film. That band released several great albums (“Wild Gift” in particular has impressed some of my non-punk loving friends during the 80’s).

    I do think it is worth a look for what the scene was like during the day. While the director was a fan, she actually did a disservice to the genre.

  3. A little info of the bands:
    Black Flag – this band had several lead singers before Henry Rollins became their lead singer during the bands heyday. Rollins drew claim for this band, a solo career, spoken word tours and poetry books, and acting. This has Ron Reyes as the lead singer. Guitarist Greg Ginn has since been listed as one of the top 100 guitarists of all time by several publications. He owns SST Records.

    The Germs – lead singer Darby Crash committed suicide. Guitarist Pat Smear kept in the industry and became a touring member of Nirvana and member of the Foo Fighters. He even played with Paul McCartney.

    X – The band has several critically acclaimed albums (“Wild Gift” is a masterpiece). Bassist/Singer John Doe has a separate acting career (Great Balls of Fire, Boogie Nights, etc.). Singer Exene writes poetry and was once married to actor Viggo Mortensen.

    Fear – managed to appear on Saturday Night Live at the urging of John Belushi. Singer Lee Ving also acted.

    Circle Jerks – had a couple of decent albums. Most fun song is “Golden Shower of Hits” which brings 6 AM hits together for a mini suite with a story.

    Catholic Discipline – short-lived band. Vocalist Claude Bessy was a publisher and teacher before dying of lung cancer. Guitarist Phranc changed genres to folk music with a couple of decent albums (good sense of humor coupled with feminist and LGBTQA+ topics).

    Not having an appreciation for this genre helps, but I still think it could’ve been better. It is sad seeing Darby Crash get so much air time, and it could’ve been better if the doc was made several years later as a critical retrospective (good and bad and ugly depicted) with less interviews.

  4. And an evolution of the scene will show that the racist (some fans), sexist, and homophobic remarks (several bands) became less frequent, and much of the scene became inclusive and issue oriented. Black Flag and X were very open and inclusive. Catholic Discipline featured a completely openly gay guitarist in the band. Idiots like Fear and some others were a rude awakening of where the scene once dived into (and, frankly, how things were in 1978/79 versus later…at least in some places).

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