Photo by John GoleaudRock & roll – it's all good fun until someone gets hurt. For punk rock, the end began when Sid Vicious did or didn't stab his girlfriend, then definitely did kill himself. His demise marked what was, like most rock deaths, the end of the party, the break of a wave that either decimates those surfing it, or scatters them to new ground. Despite their differences in approach and intention, both Bruce McDonald's knowing faux documentary Hard Core Logo and Penelope Spheeris' third, all-too-real installment of her The Decline of Western Civilization series illuminate with force the sad believers who'd rather cling to punk's skeleton than trade it for the unknown.
Like McDonald's films before it (Roadkill, Highway 61), Hard Core Logo is a road movie, a film that flings its eponymous Vancouver punk band into the crucible of a barely rolling milk truck for the obligatory trip to fame, oblivion or something as monumental as an everyday life. The singer, Joe Dick (a remarkable Hugh Dillon), has persuaded his long-dispersed bandmates – a guitarist who's moved on to bigger things, a bass player kept earthbound by a lithium anchor, and a drummer who's, well, a drummer – to travel the country on a reunion tour for a last and, in Joe's case, desperate stab at glory.
It's a grand picture, with a sardonic, smart-mouthed script by Noel S. Baker (adapting the novel by Michael Turner), tunes by Dillon and his band Swamp Baby that rock where they should, and a keen directorial turn by McDonald, whose occasional stumbles into cliché (do we really need to see the double yellow rolling by to know the road is long?) don't disrupt his feel for how the proving grounds of rock and the road are as similar as they are decisive. “Maybe I never had a real self to throw away like these guys,” says Joe, weighing his own urgency against his bandmates' lack thereof. One thing is certain: By the end of the trip, he'll know either way.
Joe's observation is a kind of punk motto on its own, and it transfers easily to Spheeris' documentary, an elegiac look at lost souls whose anger at their raw deal is real, true, absolutely just and wholly impotent in the face of an unforgiving world. After tracking the denouement of the fevered L.A. punk scene in 1980 (Part I) and the vapid gloss of mid-'80s glam rock (Part II), Spheeris turns, in The Decline of Western Civilization, Part III, to the “gutterpunks” of Los Angeles, kids who've left their unbearable homes to live in squats and beg for beer money on Hollywood Boulevard. Where the series' first film captured the buzz of revisionary elation and rebellion that marked punk's glory days, this third go is a plunge into bland despair. And as Spheeris trails these teens, who wear their ripped jeans, leather jackets and purple Mohawks as emblems of membership in much the way Masons wear their rings, you can see that they're breaking her heart. The ironic comedy that buoyed the first two Decline films is present here, rippling through the wisecracks or quippy pitches used to cull quarters on the street. But it's the kids' own self-conscious humor, not, as in those first two pictures, a joke set up by Spheeris at their expense – she clearly doesn't think their situation is funny, and the jokes are too apparently a distancing technique to be anything but dispiriting.
In Decline Part II, there's an infamous sequence featuring WASP guitarist Chris Holmes, wasted in leather and floating in a pool as his mother looks on. It's a pathetic scene, the picture of an adult who'd found some success and not known what to do with it besides let it carry him away. In Decline Part III, these barely formed followers of punk's numbing hardcore legacy have known no successes and, more to the point, aren't really looking for any. As Spheeris plainly and poignantly points out, these kids are just marking time until the wave breaks on them.