Monday, 31 August 2015

The Decline of Western Civilisation Collection

Over the course of 17 years, Penelope Spheeris has created arguably one of the greatest and most influential music documentary series ever. Set in Los Angeles and covering the punk scene of the late 70s, the heavy metal scene on mid 80s, & the gutter-punk scene at the turn of century, it explores the sound, performance, politics and business, that exist around each of these worlds and times. It's style was naturalistic, inquisitive, unobtrusive, and at times brutally honest, which was eloquent and effective enough to eventually become part of the DNA of everything that has followed - with clear impact on Reality TV and the rockumentaries of MTV & VH1.

At the core of each film is, fittingly, live performances which are used as showcases for the scenes by giving equal focus for those on stage and off. The style is naturalistic, observational, and intriguing as anthropological documents. They also sound great, even if not all of the bands presented are actually that good. Interspersed with this are interviews with a broad range of individuals involved: musicians, fans, promoters, businessmen and police/authority figures giving the scene outsider/"every-man" view of it all. The iconic set of the blank wall with a single, bare light-bulb hanging at head-height is used extensively, evocative and beautifully simple as it allows the focus to be directly on the individual and their words. Being set in LA it also has plenty of car-based drive-along interviews, which provide the bulk of representation of the city outside of the venues or scene-controlled spaces, giving impressive visual insight into the urban environment that helped shaped the action of the piece. It also demonstrates how super-imposed the scenes are, hyper-stylized worlds pushed up against the realities of everyone else's everyday lives.

Although unified in style and approach, the content of the three is distinct and unique, giving each the flavour they merit. Part 1 has the largest variety of musical styles and shows a scene carving its way into the wider world on it's own terms and with a new sensibility of DIY. Part 2 shows a more homogeneous visual and musical approach and people unapologetically chasing financial success that the other two don't even think about as a possibility or goal, and Part 3 presents a nihilistic and often harrowing focus of fans living a vagrant life which they see no reason to attempt escaping.  Through all this, the topics stay the same: sex, drugs, rock and roll, what will youth be doing in 5 years, is it all worth it, if the goal is art of money, and how people enter into the tribes that they have aligned themselves with. But the changes in the answers are telling, the reasons and motivations changing in each era.

Picking a favourite or "best" is impossible, as each is it's own story. Part 3 is easily the most emotionally upsetting, dealing as it does with homeless under 18's who have basically given up on life as a concern and with 2 deaths happening among those interviewed whilst the "lucky kid" is someone in a wheelchair as they get to have a flat. Part 2 is the most entertaining, with the glam extravagance and heavy metal stupidity being instantly comedic. Part 1 tells the most optimistic story and has the widest range of motivations to be explored.

But the key thing is that these are three fantastic social history documents that are able to carry the interest of anyone who watches it, regardless of their opinions of the music being explored, as they go beyond the successes or failures of individual artists or the benefits or durability of a scene. They are regularly considered classics of the musical-documentary genre because it's something that no-one else thought about capturing, and they have been captured with care, attention and consideration. They offer an insight into real, relatable people, and not just three rocking concert soundtracks.
Post a Comment