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Sunday, March 9, 2014

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



Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, Alice Cooper, Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Lemmy, Ozzy Osbourne, Bret Michaels, Bobby Dall, Rikki Rockett, C.C. DeVille, Faster Pussycat, Lizzy Borden, London, Odin, Seduce, Megadeth, and more

Directed by Penelope Spheeris

The Short Version: The filmmaker behind the first DECLINE in 1981, THE BOYS NEXT DOOR (1985) and WAYNE'S WORLD (1992) turned her attention towards the 80s headbanger scene in this one-sided metal rockumentary that's equal parts fascinating and funny with a lot of girls, girls, girls, and a dab of fakery thrown in to get the point across. Through numerous interviews and stage show excerpts, various rockers -- young hopefuls and those already financially established -- discuss the wild world that was the heavy metal way of life in 1988 before it careened off a cliff by the early 1990s. Hair today, gone tomorrow.

"A lot of performers from the 80s haven't fared very well -- that's obvious from watching THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION II: THE METAL YEARS. Where are all those people now? That film probably killed their careers -- it made everyone who liked heavy metal look like morons." -- Lemmy in his autobiography, 'White Line Fever', page 210. 

Penelope Spheeris interviews a myriad number of heavy metal hair bands about their success and what it's like to be a rock star. Also interviewed are many struggling musicians and young hopefuls who want to find fame, fortune, and that all important record deal amidst LA's crowded metal scene in the late 1980s.

Filmed from August 1987 to February 1988, director Spheeris probes into the lives of heavy metal bands in a series of candid interviews mixed with footage of the band members doing their thing and occasionally humiliating themselves while dressed in loud clothes, leather and lots of Aqua Net. A scant few escape with their dignity intact, but mostly these guys (and girls) are just having 'Nothin' But a Good Time'. The picture doesn't exactly paint these rockers in the best light; and for some, that's not too difficult. It does feel like a one-sided approach is being taken, but Spheeris does ask some pertinent, to-the-point questions that beget very interesting answers ("What if you don't make it as a rock star?", "Are you afraid of getting AIDS?"). Some of the interviewees do come off more serious than others, but the level of shallowness seen in many of the participants is deeper than the average kiddie pool. 

"I don't wanna work till I'm 60 and die poor at 70... and have a fat wife bitchin' at me, and 30 kids... I wanna do my own thing."

The struggling musicians, oblivious about what their future might hold, and careless about being bums and moochers till they find success (and many never did), come off the worst. In their minds wealth is assured, despite a high probability they will never attain it. Even with a high quotient of ridiculous words falling out of their mouths, these bits end up as the most intriguing. The doc does get across that some of these musicians work for a living and do their music on the side, but the bulk of them don't work, or never had a job, and live off whatever woman will take them in. This is possibly the most disappointing thing about this movie -- a greater understanding of the heavy/hair/party metal culture is lacking. It's a 'Greatest Hits' package of peripheral musings that focus more attention on the popular, negative staples associated with this style of music. Long hair had always been attributed with rebellion, and during this time the corruption of the youth via heavy metal (and Satan!) were popular targets on the societal dartboard.

"Disobedient boys... that's what we are."

The notion that heavy metal is THE factor to these kids dropping out of school, or never getting a job, doing drugs, excessive partying, promiscuity, etc is how the topic is periodically covered. We get nothing about the backgrounds of some of these people; but if we did, the message that 'The Metal Years' is key to our civilizations decline would be undermined. Spheeris claims to be a fan of the genre, but her movie distorts some things in order to get her point across. Not every rock star is a moron, or turned to drugs. Some of those who didn't are featured here, as well as those who got clean; but that aspect of their professional lives is glossed over. For example both Steven Tyler ("I musta' snorted up all of Peru") and Joe Perry are as proud of being clean from alcohol and drugs as they are of their sexual prowess -- the latter of which gets more discussion. Both Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley avoided the allure of drugs to stay the course of achieving their goals of becoming a successful band; and this is merely hinted at in their segments.

Personal responsibility is conspicuous in its absence among the bulk of the interviewees; although the way some of the wannabe's present themselves, it's difficult to feel sympathy for them. Moreover, it's much more entertaining to highlight people making fools of themselves; and that's in abundance in DECLINE II, which could be viewed as an inadvertent sequel to THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984). Like sex, sensationalism sells, and Spheeris's movie turns that up to eleven.

The bits with the established rockers doesn't come off much better. At the time, they didn't seem to care, really. Not surprisingly, a number of those interviewed weren't too fond of the finished product. Some were embarrassed by their participation, while others claimed their remarks were taken out of context to make them look stupid. Some were pleased with how it all turned out. Apparently the films premiere was as much a circus as what ended up onscreen. The bulk of the doc is built around the rebellious young hopefuls; and no doubt they were hopeful this film would get them discovered. In the case of most of the lower tiered bands showcased, success eluded them in the long run. Bands, or band members seen here include Aerosmith (Tyler and Perry), KISS (Simmons and Stanley), Motorhead (Lemmy), Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, Poison, Megadeth, W.A.S.P., Faster Pussycat, Vixen, Tuff, Lizzy Borden, Odin, London ("We are not role models for your life!") and Seduce.

"It's the theatrical effect, I guess it's cool. It's when they wear [makeup] off-stage and try and pat you on the ass that worries me.... sometimes it worries me."

The focus of DECLINE II is on the hair metal bands so naturally the concept of guys making themselves up like girls is covered; what they think about it, and what women think about it. The inescapable topic of drugs is regularly discussed, while those who never did them, or are now clean are minimized. Uncouth behavior is the order of the day; some of it good-natured. The so-called satanic ramifications associated with metal is trotted out via Darlyne Pettinicchio's "demetaling" program; and it's a hoot, too. Those easily offended will find much to disturb them with all the perceived degradation of women. Nevermind that rap took this T&A torch and ran with it when metal lost its touch. The famous LA Cathouse Club is in there, and this is where Spheeris's documentary reveals where its interests lie. 

"It's kind of a rule that chicks don't get in the house unless they have a sack of groceries with'em, you know."

The looming air of sexism in the genre is unavoidable, but the director focuses a lot of attention on it. Bill Gazzarri's famous nightclub gets two segments; actually the same segment, but cut in two in case you forgot about the women shaking their ass for the camera the first time around. Gazzarri had been a well known club owner since the late 60s, and by the late 80s, he'd turned himself into a heavy metal Hugh Hefner with his gaggle of girls who, if this film is anything to go by, had as much air in their head as silicone in their chest. 

"Guys in the metal scene are fun. You can take advantage of them just as the guys can take advantage of the girls in the metal scene..."

Granted, Spheeris includes some female rockers who are just as self-serving, sex-hungry, fame-obsessed as the guys. The men and women were clearly using each other to get whatever it was they wanted during this time period. Regardless of your opinion on the whole hair metal/glam rock scene, it was one long party that, when it was over in the early 90s, was replaced by this depressing, grating sound that was grunge. Regarding grunge, a number of critics, and some of the musicians interviewed here, feel this documentary was key in the death of metal as a mainstream force. 

"Well, that's not really Ozzy's house. And I faked the orange-juice spill. So there's two broken bubbles." -- Penelope Spheeris, A.V. Club interview, March 10th, 1999 

The way the interviews are arranged is awkward to say the least. Spheeris claimed the interview locations were left up to the subjects -- so Gene Simmons chose a lingerie shop; Paul Stanley favored being filmed draped by three lingerie models on a bed; Lemmy is in some isolated location; and Ozzy is supposed to be in his home. In his autobiography, Lemmy had no say in how he was filmed and found the filmmakers methods aggravating and stupid. Needless to say, he wasn't a fan of the film. Some criticized the blatant chauvinism of the KISS bits despite the whole metal movement being about excess; so that Simmons and Stanley would be featured in their natural habitat makes perfect sense. Nearly their entire discography is nothing but songs about partying and fucking, so what would you expect? Mind you, the one with Ozzy in "his kitchen" was revealed by Spheeris herself to be staged (for instance, the bit where he pours orange juice everywhere but in a glass) some ten years after the docs release.

"I couldn't believe the amount of horseshit in that film. It seems that all anyone talked about was partying and getting laid. What about being in a band and playing music?" -- Ozzy Osbourne in a Guitar World Magazine interview from June, 1990.

The one segment that always seems to get the most discussion is the interview with W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes. The setting is in his pool -- drunk. His mother is seen sitting in a chair poolside while the heavily inebriated Holmes downs a few bottles of vodka and says things most folks would never say in front of their mothers, much less get drunk in their presence. While neither Spheeris, nor Holmes have ever commented on this segments validity, it has been stated by multiple sources that Holmes, while evidently drunk, was actually downing water that had been filled up in the vodka bottles. Anyone who can expeditiously chug half a bottle of vodka in one go and immediately answer questions without missing a beat couldn't possibly be human. This part of the film is compelling, but knowing bits of the documentary are fixed, or staged not only lessens the impact, but makes one wonder what else has been rigged. It wasn't the first time a documentary fabricated situations to get a point across, and it wasn't the last. 

"I'd rather get rich playing music than get rich doing plumbing."

THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION II works best as a time capsule of a bygone era that is fondly remembered by some, and a source of embarrassment by others. Many of the hair metal bands are still around, and occasionally crop up on summer tours playing for crowds big and small. For the most part, the bands featured in this film are still where they were when they were interviewed for this film. For some, that was continued success, and for others, it was nowhere. 

In addition to a number of movies including THE BOYS NEXT DOOR (1985) and WAYNE'S WORLD (1992), director Penelope Spheeris made this series a trilogy with THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION III in 1998.

The Metal Years may be past, but heavy metal continues to be a viable market overseas in Europe and Japan while maintaining a cult appreciation stateside. Who knows if, or when its time will ever come around again. We can all snicker at many of the individuals here and their delusions of grandeur, as well as some of the phenomenally silly, empty-headed things they say; but behind all that nonsense, the one positive thing to come out of this is that the bands, whether they made it or not, believed they could, and gave what they had in an overwhelmingly crowded, competitive industry of big dreams, and most importantly, big hair.


Tommy Ross said...

REALLY great post on a flick that surprisingly enough, I've never seen. Gonna hunt this one down, do a little research, thanks!!

venoms5 said...

It occasionally pops up on cable, Tommy. I think IFC has shown it, too.

Francisco Gonzalez said...

I need to see both of these documentaries, even if they aren't completely accurate or real, they undoubtedly will make for a fun watch. I mean, all that crazy hair and sex talk must be hilarious.

venoms5 said...

There's three of them, Fran. I mentioned the third one at the bottom. I've not seen the first or third ones, though. The second is definitely entertaining. If you've seen THIS IS SPINAL TAP, this is a lot like that, but unintentionally so.

Spheeris stated in an interview a few years back she planned to release a box set, but nothing has surfaced yet.

Will Errickson said...

As an '80s metalhead through and through - I bought many of the classic metal records as they were released when I was in high school - I've always been unsettled at how stupid this movie made metal musicians and its fans out to be. Sure, lots of it is hilarious, but the self-delusion of the bands who were struggling to make it is painful to watch. Still, both DECLINE films are essential viewings for fans of rock'n'roll subculture.

Oh yeah - *great* review!

Will Errickson said...

Also, don't miss HEAVY METAL PARKING LOT for a more, er, "in-depth" look at metal fans....

Hal said...

Great post, as always!

I reviewed this one back in 2007 in the early days of the Section. I agree that the whole "grunge killed metal" argument has plenty of holes in it.

Gazzari died just 3 years later. Probably with a smile on his face, if what we see here is any indication. :)

venoms5 said...

@ Will: I wasn't allowed to indulge in my inner metaller when I was a kid, Will, so I had to wait till I was out of school, and by then the genre was pretty much dead. I've not seen either DECLINE 1 or 3. I'll be on the lookout for the one you mentioned, thanks for that recommendation!

@ Hal: Thanks for the kind remarks. I do hope the film ends up on DVD with extras. Preferably with updates on those interviewed, and extended interviews.

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