Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Getting up close and personal with the early punk scene

Illustration for article titled Getting up close and personal with the early punk scene

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: The excellent Green Room has thinking about some of the best punk rock movies.


The Decline Of Western Civilization (1981)

The Decline Of Western Civilization concludes with a performance from Fear in which lead singer Lee Ving gets into an on-stage fight with a female fan, and then mercilessly mocks the crowd for being full of homosexuals. That sort of unbridled antagonistic rage is indicative of the angry energy captured by Penelope Spheeris’ seminal 1981 documentary about the L.A. punk scene from 1979 to 1980—a time marked by the rise of bands that played fast, loud, enraged music to volatile crowds in jam-packed clubs like Arena 88 and The Fleetwood. With an in-your-face nonfiction aesthetic to match her subjects’ raw, unvarnished music and lifestyle, Spheeris spends time with Black Flag, The Germs, X, the Circle Jerks, Catholic Discipline, Alice Bag Band, and Fear, all of whom are barely getting by—Black Flag lead singer Ron Reyes gives a tour of the church basement closet he rents for $16 a month—but similarly guided by a non-conformist fury they can’t quite explain.

Through extended performance clips, The Decline Of Western Civilization depicts not only the scuzzy, amateurish antics of its musicians, but also the breakneck pogoing and slam-dancing of its shaved-head fans, whose chaos often tips into outright violence. In interviews, these intolerant punks make hateful remarks about Jews and African-Americans while remarking upon their aimless fury, and their comments about their fringe-dwelling lives—more than one confesses ignorance about parents’ whereabouts—suggest a disenfranchised youth culture raging against all manner of neglect and marginalization. That’s also true of the bands themselves, who in behind-the-scenes snapshots come across as alternately angry and adrift, especially in the case of Germs singer Darby Crash, who confesses that he consumes whatever drugs and alcohol are available before shows in order to numb the pain that invariably comes from his reckless on-stage behavior. That Crash (the subject of 2007’s biopic What We Do Is Secret) would die via heroin-induced suicide mere months after filming lends an added poignancy to his scenes. It also underscores the destructive torment that fuels Spheeris’ bracing subculture doc.

Availability: The Decline Of Western Civilization is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Amazon or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased from the major digital services.