Nether Regions 11.23.11: The Decline of Western Civilization Part II - The Metal Years
Posted by Chad Webb on 11.23.2011
This week is Penelope Spheeris' controversial follow-up to her punk rock documentary, this time focusing on glam metal in the late 80's. Does the trilogy continue to impress or falter with this sequel? Only one way to find out....
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin in the movie-zone that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask, "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION PART II: THE METAL YEARS
Featuring (As Themselves): Steven Tyler, Gene Simmons, and Bret Michaels Written/Directed By: Penelope Spheeris Running Time: 93 minutes Original Release Date: June 17, 1988 Missing Since: June 21, 1994 Existing Formats:VHS Netflix Status: Not Available Availability: Extremely Rare
As the old cliché goes, sequels are rarely as good as the original, and that could be applied to Penelope Spheeris' The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years as well. Focusing almost entirely on the negative aspects of being a rock star, this second installment of life and music in Los Angeles suffers from several poorly staged sequences, narrow mindedness, and some rather distorted intentions.
One of the major problems with The Metal Years is that she spotlights 80's heavy metal, specifically glam rock, which has been featured on numerous documentaries over the years, whether it be on individual bands or specials revolving around the entire era, most of them more accurate and level-headed. The first Decline centered on the attitude and sacrifices of the punk music scene, which has not been researched nearly as often. So after viewing an this glib middle chapter on a familiar brand of music, comparisons are inevitable. Spheeris' interview skills are still quite unassuming and blunt, but her motives are skewed.
Alice Cooper interviewed on stage with his noose.
At the beginning we are given the dates of filming, between August of 1987 and February of 1988. Shortly thereafter the liability announcement at the concert venues is seen, with the band members each injecting their own personality and gusto to the short acknowledgement. The first general topic is "what do kids like about metal?" and this is fielded by both fans, aspiring musicians, and established talent. L.A. Probation agent Darlyne Pettinicchio explains the origins of 80's metal. She is one of those people who seems to think this fad is a stain on humanity. Among the artists interviewed: Poison, Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, Lemmy, Ozzy Osbourne, and more.
Once again a hefty chunk of time is spent with struggling bands, this time Seduce, London, and Odin. But the director bookends that with extended segments on groups that had already landed record deals like Faster Pussycat and Megadeth, comparing the desire for fame to those who possess it. Taking that into account, Megadeth's insertion at the end feels a little "out of left field" other than to have frontman Dave Mustaine (featured on the cover) talk about how he embraces the notoriety differently than most of the bands profiled previously in the documentary. Their performance of "In My Darkest Hour" is excellent though. Lizzy Borden, who is never really discussed, performs a cover of "Born to Be Wild," even though any number of their original selections could have been used.
Decline II's most enthralling sequences concern the unsigned bands, who perform almost every night, battle daily to keep their flyers afloat, and look forward to wealth and popularity. The band London had no place to stay, so they travel around in a beat up motor home. These are groups who have devoted their lives to rock, but this commitment also encompasses the desperation and partying; everything that comes with the label. The excess is what Spheeris is interested in, specifically the alcoholic tendencies, treatment of groupies, and reliance on "making it." During one absorbing moment, the lead singer of Odin opens up about his suicidal thoughts. Several of the bands displayed do not take the questions very seriously, opting instead to take another swig of beer or make a joke. If they are not filmed with sleazy looking groupies, they talk about them frequently because it goes without saying that "getting chicks" is a crucial reason for the launch of many bands. Plenty of footage is shown to make the argument that the lifestyle is sexist and that women are degraded. The Faster Pussycat guys admit to having sex with girls in the same room as fellow bandmates on occasion because they had no choice.
To coincide with the sexist angle, too much time is wasted on creepy club owner Bill Gazzarri, who organized some sort of "rock ‘n roll dance contest," which is judged by various musicians from the area. Attractive women dance on stage in skimpy outfits, never getting nude, but sometimes stripping to a bikini or failing to wear underwear. Apart from a brief clip of Gazzarri pushing the band Odin, he seems barely associated with heavy metal, and this dance contest doesn't really serve much of a purpose other than to underline how certain musicians view women. Duh. This is where the scope of Spheeris' trilogy becomes muddled. It's usually described as a set of documentaries peering into life in Los Angeles at various periods, but the first two installments remain relegated to the music scene in L.A. And then this dance contest comes into play, yet the point was already hammered home through other interviews.
While fledgling acts are the stars of the piece, Spheeris integrates conversations with a lot of legendary musicians. Dave Mustaine and Alice Cooper might be the only people who escape unscathed. Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith converse with Spheeris together, and she does indeed mention how influential they are, but she breezes past that in order to encourage them to divulge secrets about their publlicized drug use and the fact that they claim they are sober now. Tyler refers to himself and Perry as the "Toxic Twins," and then compares the career of Aerosmith to learning how to have sex. Basically, they are made to look like idiots, and the message appears to be that whether or not you're rich or poor, famous or up and coming, many of the same problems exist such as unprotected intercourse, drug use, and blowing your money. There are some neat little sections where the rock luminaries describe what it feels like to perform in front of thousands or share stories about fans that got out of control.
Ozzy Osbourne is interviewed while making breakfast and he chats about how his wealth has affected him, where he'd be if Black Sabbath never made it, and how it feels to be an icon. At one point he is seen pouring orange juice into a glass, which goes all over the place because of uncontrollable shakes (we're supposed to assume). This was later revealed by Spheeris to be fixed. Chris Holmes of W.A.S.P. is interviewed while in his pool with his mother sitting beside him observing morosely. He is incredibly drunk, and answers every question with mumbles and incoherent babbling. He then pours multiple bottles of vodka all over himself and down his throat. It was later discovered that water was actually inside the bottles. These might only be two scenes, but if you look back at reviews upon its release (or even now), they will be mentioned. They are given a great deal of weight on what Spheeris is attempting to convey about life as a rock star, but they were largely faked. Knowing this put a sour taste in my mouth. Undoubtedly Ozzy's years of drug abuse changed him physically. We know that from The Osbournes, and of course many rockers suffered from alcoholism (See Eddie Van Halen), but were staged moments really necessary to communicate that?
Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of KISS are interviewed separately. Simmons seems to be in a women's clothing store and Stanley is hilariously questioned while laying on bed with women hanging all over him. The comments from Simmons and Stanley are few and far between, but anyone who has read their books or seen any documentaries on them knows they could have been given longer to spill. The Stanley interview set-up is funny…at first, but grows old quickly after it becomes clear that it is staged for attention. The sexual escapades of these two are well known around the world. We didn't need Paul Stanley petting the hair of a blonde girl or Simmons staring at a sexy shopper to understand that.
Lemmy Kilmister from the band Motorhead truly has not changed at all. He tells it like it is and could care less what anyone thinks of him. His comments are always exciting, but even he was skeptical about Decline II, and wrote in his autobiography that Spheeris filmed him at a distance possibly to try and make him look stupid. This is worth pondering because many of the hopeful acts are asked about their education. Many of them dropped out and never had any other jobs to speak of apart from wanting to be a musician. If Spheeris wanted to portray these people as dumb, perhaps that objective was achieved in 1988. Nowadays however, her documentary cannot have aged well. Steven Tyler and Gene Simmons might not be saints, but morons they definitely are not. No one can deny that not every rock giant is a genius, but they are given an unfair shake in this case.
Passing metal on from generation to generation.
That's not to say The Metal Years is all bad. The female probation agent explains in detail a process called "demetaling," which involves extracting the metal characteristics from people. She then presents various items of clothing to illustrate how dangerous heavy metal is: apparel such as spiked collars, bracelets with nails in them, and so forth. At another point, everyone is asked what they will do if being a rock star doesn't pan out. They all reply repeatedly with "But I will make it." Many of the celebrated stars are asked about people who rip off their sound or look. Alice Cooper responds that some of them are downright plagiarists. He does give a name, but it is bleeped out. The consensus is that he gave the name Blackie Lawless of W.A.S.P.
There is a theory that The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years was responsible for the death of glam metal and the rise of thrash and grunge. Labeling Spheeris' documentary the sole reason for its demise is indeed stretching it, but Dave Mustaine backed up this claim. It is thought that the fans were turned off by the scenes of excess and decided to listen to other forms of rock. Obviously the fact that thrash and grunge delivered great new music, and that glam rock had peaked had something to do with it, but I would agree that this documentary helped bury that genre of 80's rock.
All of the emphasis on why striving for rock ‘n roll stardom is a bad idea might be more acceptable if the music, what it stands for, and why the energy of it means so much to the masses were more important to Spheeris. Compared to the first Decline, the stage performances and the songs in general are an afterthought to the concentration on promiscuity, substance abuse, and sheer idiocy. If the intent is to show any kid with dreams of platinum records and millions of fans an unflinching glimpse of what being a rock star means, I think she goes too far. Considering We Sold Our Souls for Rock ‘n Roll, it is surprising to watch such a one-sided, misguided documentary. This effort includes sprinkles of gripping conversations and footage, notably of the venues on the Sunset Strip, but by and large this is a disappointing documentary because for all its flaws, glam rock deserves some respect.