After a number of overtly commercial projects (THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, THE LITTLE RASCALS, and the 1998 release SENSELESS), director Penelope Spheeris returns to her roots as documentarian with this third entry in her series of films about LA youths' rock-and-roll lifestyles. Unlike the
previous two films, however, there's no ironic aspect to the title of this DECLINE; the downbeat film focuses not on the bands that produce the music, but the aimless lives of the homeless "gutterpunks" who reside on LA's streets. The film received a limited theatrical release in 1998.
Journeying into the nucleus of LA's punk scene, Spheeris discovers a new generation of young punks who live on the streets, and weren't even born when their spiked-hair musical heroes of the 1970s were at their peak of outrageousness (they in fact weren't even born when Spheeris's first DECLINE
came out, back in 1980). These self-described misfits (with names such as Squid, Spoon, Filth, and Why Me?) discuss their run-ins with racist skinheads, harassment by cops, their abusive families, and how to find a squat. Spheeris also includes interviews with survivors of the '70s scene, such as
Circle Jerks' Keith Morris, Rick Wilder of the Mau Maus, and Red Hot Chili Peppers' bassist Flea (costar of Spheeris's 1984 fiction film SUBURBIA), who articulately explains how the current LA punk scene is more physically violent and less grounded in art and music.
These portraits are interspersed with onstage performances by ragtag bands like Final Conflict, Litmus Green, Naked Aggression, and The Resistance. Interviewed at home, the members of Naked Aggression discuss their day jobs, as well as the way in which independent record labels are just as likely
to rip off a band as big-name companies. The Resistance also invites Spheeris's crew to visit the home of the lead singer's mom, which is a pack-rat paradise of clothes and junk.
The "gutterpunks" who are interviewed blithely admit to earning their cash by robbing, panhandling, and "photospanging" (posing for tourist photos). They're seen begging for loose change, swearing at people who ignore them, and (being self-confessed alcoholics) spending any money that they do
receive on beer. Most of the youths are homeless, with the exception of wheelchair-bound Darius who has enough cash (thanks to his disability checks) to rent an apartment, which he has turned into a party pad filled at all hours with unconscious, hungover kids who brag about the fact that they
won't be be alive in another five years. The film ends with a visit to a recently burnt-out squat, and an epilogue that informs us that one of Spheeris's main interviewees, Squid, was later knifed to death by girlfriend Spoon.
Filmed from July 1996 through August 1997, the third DECLINE starts out as a simple recycling of the themes found in her seminal 1980 documentary, but Spheeris soon takes a radical departure and abandons her interviews with musicians for a closer look at the streetwise fans and their reckless
lifestyle. Lacking the cutting-edge music of the first DECLINE, or the brash humor of the second film (which focused on the LA heavy-metal scene), DECLINE 3 relies on a far less interesting group of interview subjects. The gutterpunks have attitude to spare, but it becomes apparent as they speak
that they have only a minimum of functioning brain cells. Nevertheless, Spheeris succeeds in creating a touching portrait, although the depressing nature of their dead-end, emotionally numb lives offers little hope for a cheerful resolution. This becomes painfully apparent in one scene in which a
punk admits to selling his dog in order to get drunk for a night. As for the film's musical performance, the selected bands are a pale imitation of their late-1970s precursors.
Descending into the maudlin in the film's final moments, Spheeris truly does evidence a concern for her subjects (she promised that all profits will go toward homeless and abused children). One can easily assume that the very real nature of the subjects' lives also offered her a refreshing break
from her work as a major-studio gun-for-hire (as with the aptly titled SENSELESS). In the final analysis, Spheeris is able to dredge some brutal truths from these punks, while making an attempt to find a way to justify their largely inert lifestyle. Her effort to find glimmers of humanity in the
gutterpunk scene is clearly noble, but after seeing the film, one still comes away with the notion that if these kids were actually offered some charity, they'd spit in the good Samaritan's face, and happily return to their dumpster-diving lifestyle. (Violence, adult situations, substance abuse,profanity.)
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- Released: 1998
- Rating: R
- Review: After a number of overtly commercial projects (THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, THE LITTLE RASCALS, and the 1998 release SENSELESS), director Penelope Spheeris returns to her roots as documentarian with this third entry in her series of films about LA youths' rock… (more)