Though she is known to many as the director of big, broad ’90s studio comedies such as “Wayne’s World” and “Black Sheep,” Penelope Spheeris is revered by others for her trilogy of L.A.-set music documentaries, “The Decline of Western Civilization” Parts 1, 2 and 3. The films have just been released as a boxed-set by Shout! Factory, allowing audiences for the first time to consider them all together while highlighting their achievement within Spheeris’ career and their deeper effect on her life.
Part 1, released in 1981, covers the nascent punk scene and includes X, the Germs, Fear, the Alice Bag Band and the Circle Jerks. Part 2, released in 1988 and subtitled “The Metal Years,” takes an ironic approach to the heyday of hair metal, featuring Poison, Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons of Kiss, and Alice Cooper. Part 3, which premiered in 1998 but never received a proper release, focuses on homeless street kids known as gutterpunks and includes the bands Naked Aggression and Final Conflict.
All three films are less conventional music docs and more scene reports, snapshots of their specific times and places. Yet they are jam-packed with music, which led to a long-held assumption that the first two films were out of circulation for so long due to issues with clearances from the many bands involved.
“I know that the urban myth is that there were music issues, but not to our knowledge,” Spheeris said in a recent interview. “The reason it didn’t come out yet is I just didn’t want to deal with it. I think I knew instinctively how much work it was going to be. And actually I didn’t even have a clue as to how much work it was going to be.”
Spheeris, 69, credits her daughter, Anna Fox, with doing most of the work to pull the boxed-set together. Spheeris has long kept her archival materials in a cold storage vault, and among the never-before-seen footage included in the set is the members of the band X signing, and then burning, their first recording contract. Each disc features outtakes and previously unseen footage, and a fourth disc includes nothing but extra material. A booklet was written by L.A. music historian Domenic Priore.
“She didn’t want to do it because it’s looking back in life, and she moves forward,” Fox said of her mother.
Though she prefers to remain vague on details, Spheeris already has started work on a fourth “Decline” film, which she will return to once she is done touring with the package of theatrical play dates to promote the boxed set.
Spheeris described herself as most of all relieved to finally see the three “Decline” films released together.
“It’s been kind of a burden on my shoulders for about 20 years,” she said. “I’ve always known that I needed to do it, there’s so many people that have such intense interest in it, but I wasn’t really ever able to do it because I think I consider this work my identity. So I think I was afraid of doing it wrong.”
Spheeris describes the little-seen third film as her favorite of the pictures she’s made. While acknowledging that the film is more downbeat than the other two – “the ugly stepchild,” she called it – she also noted the ways it had affected her life. Spurred on by the stories she heard from kids on the street, she became a foster parent. She also met her boyfriend of nearly 20 years when he was among the homeless punks featured in the film.
Spheeris credits the duo of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, producers on “The Metal Years” before they moved on to direct “Little Miss Sunshine,” with that film’s comedic sensibility.
If the first “Decline” film featured moments with the Germs’ doomed lead singer, Darby Crash, at his most clear-headed, coherent and charming while fixing breakfast in his kitchen, “The Metal Years” includes moments with Osbourne being an unexpected voice of reason while fixing his own breakfast.
A recent screening of the first “Decline” at a Hollywood multiplex happened to coincide with a screening of “Amy,” the new documentary on singer Amy Winehouse. Osbourne and his wife, Sharon, were attending that screening and bumped into Spheeris in a hallway.
Spheeris happily recounted the encounter during the Q&A after her own screening, adding that Ozzy Osbourne had given her a big hug.
“He’s … old now,” she said with a laugh. “And so am I.”