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The Decline of Western Civilization Reviews

Filmed from December 1979 to May 1980, this documentary chronicles the Los Angeles' punk-music scene when it was at its height. Focusing on seven different bands, their fans, managers, and venue owners, it captures this musical niche from the inside, with little of the moralizing which accompanies more mainstream punk portraits. It's a raw, honest portrait of their music, their attitude, and their style, featuring a range of bands, from those on the cusp of a breakthrough to others who'll never leave their garage, except to buy more beer. The film begins with Black Flag singing "White Minority," "Depression," and "Revenge." Afterward, they give a tour of their grungy, ex-Baptist Church crash-pad, and show off the cupboards and closets, where they sleep. Next, the Germs' manager, Nicole, discusses the problems with less-than-swift lead singer, Darby Crash, who's often so wasted that he forgets to sing into the microphone. While clips of Crash falling off the stage play, Nicole explains that the band originally couldn't play their instruments, but nowadays, can (though that's debatable when you hear "Manimal" and "Shutdown"). The film then visits the makeshift office of Slash, a magazine devoted to the punk world; followed by the ramblings of writer Claude Bessy, who fronts the band Catholic Disciple and performs "Underground Babylon" and "Barbie Doll Lust". The viewer then meets the band X, who spends much of the time giving a close-up demonstration of home tattooing in their junk-shop decorated home, full of toys and Christian propaganda pamphlets. It is noted that X is one of the few groups the club owners actually like-- the management of the Whiskey-a-Go-Go has even sent them flowers. Once on stage, they perform "Beyond & Back," "Johnny Hit and Run Paulene," and "We're Desperate". The Circle Jerks perform a record-breaking five songs in six minutes, with "Red Tape," "Back Against the Wall," "I Just Want Some Skank," "Beverly Hills," and "Wasted." After that, Alice Bag Band sings "Prowlers in the Night" and "Gluttony." The band Fear caps off the film, with lead singer Lee Ving verbally abusing the crowd until he's met with a hail of spit; before launching into a set including "I Don't Care About You," "Beef Bologna," "I Love Livin' In the City," and "Let's Have a War." When the film isn't focusing on the bands, b&w interviews with various punk youths are interspersed. They explain (often in mono-syllables) what drew them to the scene and how they get off on violence. Security guards discuss the thin line between pogo-ing and real violence, while older club owners seem untroubled by the phenomenon. This often-fascinating slice of rock history wisely avoids high-profile punk groups, and instead opts for bands who are still struggling to pay their rent. Producer-turned-director Spheeris conducts the interviews, and gets the musicians to really open up in a very unself-conscious way. Some are actually rather quick-witted, while others seem totally without a clue. There's also plenty of local color, from graffitied crash pads and self-chopped haircuts, to dank little clubs, full of slamdancing patrons. In a wise move, many of the most incomprehensible songs are accompanied with subtitles. X provides the most charismatic moments, and they're the only band with a truly distinctive sound and off-stage personality. It was no surprise that nearly two decades later, despite their break-up, they were still in the music business, with John Doe turning to acting with roles in ROADSIDE PROPHETS (1992) and GEORGIA (1994). Another high point is Fear's on-stage footage, since their songs are fueled by an obviously twisted sense of humor. As the film progresses, the often (unintentionally) humorous interviews trail off, and it relies almost totally on the music---which can fluctuate as radically as the musicians' IQ's. Unfortunately, this route risks alienating viewers not already attuned to the high-decibel subject matter. Creatively edited and as insightful as any film can be about the lowest rungs of the music scene, this overview expertly captures the time and place. Still, the movie lacks the crossover potential to appeal to non-punk viewers. (Violence, substance abuse, extreme profanity.)