The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988)

6 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

For those who aren’t familiar with director Penelope Spheeris’ trilogy of “Decline of Western Civilization” films, I’ll give a little background. The first “Decline of Western Civilization” film was a documentary about the Los Angeles punk rock scene, featuring concert footage of punk bands and interviews with band members and their audiences, giving a glimpse into the subculture the music created. It filmed through 1979 and 1980 and released in 1981. The film became a cult hit, which led to Spheeris making a sequel, this one about the heavy metal scene of 1986-1988: “The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years.” (Nearly a decade later, a third chapter was made about the gutter punk lifestyle of homeless teenagers of L.A. ‘90s.)

“The Metal Years” uses the same approach as the previous film—a straightforward, constructive, unblinking view of a subcultural phenomenon. But there’s something different about this approach. While interview subjects in the first film could make wild comments at times, the amount of “out-there” these people bring to their interviews doesn’t merely make “The Metal Years’ an in-depth portrait; it also makes it a comedy, with randomly hilarious moments in which these “metalheads” seeking fame and fortune use their egos to unintentionally embarrass themselves on camera.

The reason for their directness may be because director Spheeris is definitely not afraid to ask these people the right questions. And when I say “the right questions,” I mean the questions we might be afraid to ask ourselves; the kind of questions that would seem “rude” to many other people. Whether it’s about groupies, over-ambition, addiction, ethics, economics, or whatever, Spheeris asks these direct questions to get the honest answers she seeks, and she has apparently earned enough trust from her subjects to receive them. Among the questions are: “What do you think parents think about you?” “Are you in it for the chicks?” “What if you don’t make it as a rock star?” “Where do you see yourself in 10 years?”

Among Spheeris’ interview subjects are famous musicians such as Aerosmith, Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper, Dave Mustaine and Paul Stanley, but her initial focus is on unknown bands (some of whom are still unknown today, unsurprisingly), including London, Odin, Seduce, among others; the film has them talk about their desperate quests to stardom and how confident they are that they’ll each make it as a rock star. Many of the answers they give to Spheeris’ blatant questions are fun to listen to just because of how egotistical they are.

It’s nice to get different views on the lifestyle, from those who want to go through certain elements of the lifestyle to those who already have. Among the latter is the somewhat voice of sanity in the form of Ozzy Osbourne, who is seen here as rehabilitated and talking about success while making breakfast in his comfortable home. And there are also those who seemingly haven’t learned much from experience, as Steven Tyler of Aerosmith boasts about his musical and sexual flairs. (By the way, as funny as the movie is, it’s funnier for music buffs looking at this movie from 1988, knowing what they know in 2016.) And then there’s the former, who just desire to be famous, even if it means, according to one subject, “going down in history like Jim Morrison.” They don’t even like to get real jobs because they’re so convinced they’ll be famous sometime soon—they’re that convinced it’s inevitable.

The film is a cult-classic also for its scenes that show rock star excess. There’s a sequence including middle-aged club owner Bill Gazzarri, whose “sexy rock n’ roll dance contest” is now called sleazy and sexist; some of the subjects talk about how women, especially groupies, are portrayed unfairly in the metal scene; Aerosmith talks about spending millions of dollars on drugs; and so on. The most haunting interview occurs late in the film, with Chris Holmes of W.A.S.P., who inadvertently presents the other (darker) side of partying. He’s interviewed in a swimming pool, with his mother sitting in a lawn chair nearby. He slurs and stumbles throughout the interview as he was heavily drunk, admits to being a “full-blown alcoholic,” pours a bottle of vodka over himself, all while his mother watches with discomfort. It’s the most striking sequence in the film.

The film may be dubbed “Part II,” but it can easily be seen on its own. And even if you don’t care about heavy metal of the mid-to-late-‘80s, there’s sure to be something in this documentary that will entertain people today. And when you’re not laughing at these unusual behaviors and straightforward comments, you may also learn some illuminating, interesting information about the pursuit of fame and fortune, which is still relevant in our lives today.

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