At long last, one of the holy grails of music documentaries is finally making its long-awaited DVD and Blu-ray debut. Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization is an outrageously important piece of music history on film. The trilogy delves into three different L.A. scenes during very different times. The first film famously explores the chaos of the punk scene of ’79, the second revels in the excess of the metal years of ’87, and the third covers the gutter punks of the late ‘90s.
To coincide with the trilogy’s upcoming June 30 Blu-Ray and DVD release, a series of screenings are set to take place around the country. The Arclight Theater here in Los Angeles gets a screening of the first film, along with a Q&A with Spheeris on June 25. In anticipation of both the release and the screening, we spoke to Spheeris about all that went into making the films, why the release took so long and how she views them today.
Over the years you’ve mentioned in interviews that the reason it’s taken so long to get the documentaries released on DVD is because you wanted to get Decline 3 distributed without having to give up the rights to the first two films. What made Shout Factory the ideal distributors?
I never did it before this because, basically, I don’t like to go back and look at my old movies. I don’t know why; I just like to keep going forward in life. I don’t want to deal with it. There came a period of time when I flirted with putting out the DVDs, but I couldn’t do it, I was doing other things, I wasn’t interested. About three and a half years ago I asked my daughter Anna to please come to work for me, and she said only if the first thing we do is the Decline DVDs. So, I had to honor her request, but as a good businesswoman I threw it back at her: “You figure it out.”
We went through the vault and started meeting with all these companies, and Shout was the only one that felt right because they’re so music-oriented. That’s how it happened. We never had a problem with [music publishing] rights. I know people think that and like to jump to that conclusion, but there really isn’t a problem with our rights. I think people say that because they just assume that would be the only reason it wouldn’t be released. But it has to do with me doing other things and not wanting to have to do it.
Are there any cuts made from the three original films?
No. There are things I would have liked to have edited out to make the films move along better, but Shout said the fans really, really want the original piece.
One of the extras on the first Decline film includes a 1982 local news interview with you where you mention a lot of the energy of the first film comes from “tearing down the 70s.” Do you see the cultures documented in parts 2 and 3 as tearing down other elements of society as well?
Not so much tearing down, but shifting gears with part two. As much as punks wanted to tear down all the traditional elements of rock 'n' roll and changed a lot of standards, I don’t think part 2 was revolutionary in any social shift, but an experiment in other ideals like “trying to make it” or being “drugged out and sexy.” Decline 3, which is my favorite movie I’ve ever done, is just a sign of the future that’s unfortunately coming true today, because there’s more and more homeless kids.
Another thing I’ve noticed from the interviews are mentions of how the first Decline film was independently financed, but on the second one you had to “answer to people with the checkbook.” Had that not been the case, is there anything on the second one you would have done differently?
Oh yeah, a lot actually. I really love the bands that are in there. Guns N’ Roses were supposed to be in the movie but they crapped out on us at the last second. I was showing their manager the location where we were going to film them, and he said: “We’re not doing this.” I think Seduce works in there; they’re not an L.A. band, but the guy who had the checkbook was the manager of Seduce, so there you go. I don’t regret anything I’ve done in my life, because I did it. In the first Decline film, The Go-Go's were supposed to be in it, but they walked out at the last minute. I do regret not having a girl band like Vixen in the second one. I had to fight to get Megadeth in the movie because their lyrics gave it some weight.
The Decline of Western Civilization trilogy is available on DVD and Blu-ray on June 30. More info at www.declinemovies.com.