The Film: The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years
The Principles: Steve Tyler, Joe Perry, Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Alice Cooper, Lemmy, Ozzy Osbourne, Chris Holmes, Faster Pussycat, Poison, Megadeth. Director: Penelope Spheeris
The Premise: Penelope Spheeris follows up her 1981 doc about the blossoming L.A. punk scene, The Decline of Western Civilization with this scathing look at the hair-metal movement during its peak, which was followed almost immediately by its rapid fall and evolution into the grunge era. She interviews a number of famous rock gods and many up-and-comers that never made it. In the process she really exposes this particular genre of music for all the male machismo posturing and drug and alcohol fueled sadness that comes with being a legend of metal.
“Popes don’t get laid and I do.” - Gene Simmons of KISS
Is it good: Fuck yeah, dude! I remember first seeing this movie when I rented it as a teen from the local Blockbuster Video. I was definitely into metal at the time, but my preferences always leaned towards punk and alternative. Also, I had just started listening to something new called rap. The musical landscape was changing and so I can say that even back in the late eighties, the irony of The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years was not lost on me. I remember thinking then that the current state of glam metal was about to fade the fuck out and most of the bands featured in this doc that I had never heard of before were most likely never going to ink a record deal and their absolute blind faith in that they would all become stars someday made me kind of sad. Well, after revisiting it recently all I can say is, it’s even sadder now.
There have been a lot of rock docs about metal bands. It’s a fascinating topic. Rock stars are like beauty queens. Sometimes they don’t age well. Spheeris was able to capture the absolute desperation and increasing depression of trying to be something that was always meant to fade out into oblivion. Metal needs angst-ridden youth in order to survive. Growing old sucks. The most fascinating thing about this doc is how Spheeris intercuts interviews with many legendary metal stars basking in their glory along with a bunch of eager young wannabes that have failed to make it. We hear Joe Perry and Steve Tyler from Aerosmith go on about how great it is to be off drugs and making a successful comeback after years of debauchery, followed by the flash-in-the-pan band Faster Pussycat conducting a rambunctious interview where they advocate alcohol abuse. She talks to a smug Gene Simmons while he’s surrounded by babes in a lingerie store. Chats with Paul Stanley as three scantily clad groupies lie beside him in his bed. Discusses life and rock with a coherent and very domestic Ozzy Osbourne while he prepares breakfast. Lemmy from Motorhead offers a really candid and honest take on the subject, and Alice Cooper comes off as a bitter and arrogant douche. She also speaks to Poison whom all just seem happy to have been given the modest amount of success they were able to drain out of the Heavy Metal teat.
Then there are the interviews with bands that could have made it but did not. Groups with names like Lizzy Borden, London, Odin, Seduce and one band featured on the rise that actually made good on their promise, Megadeth. David Mustaine comes off as the sanest, most mature and most unpretentious of the lot, so it’s no doubt why they were one of the few that prevailed. The rest of the guys in these bands are clowns for the most part that are in it for the fame, money and girls. The lack of respect to women is prevalent throughout the entirety of the film. There’s also a funny interview with a probation officer who runs a de-metaling program for kids corrupted by the music. It all sounds so quaint now.
For me, the most devastating part of this documentary is the poolside chat with Chris Holmes, lead guitarist for the group W.A.S.P. We watch him down bottle after bottle of vodka, reveling in tales of forcing multiple groupies to have sex with him, while his enabling mother sits by quietly listening. He rambles on about how he enjoys demeaning women, how touring for one year will take four off your life, and how drinking makes him happy because he hates the person that he is. It’s absolutely fascinating to watch.
There’s another priceless moment where a ridiculous band called London opens their song “Russian Winter” by burning a Russian flag on stage as the lead singer conducts an asinine tirade on how tired he is of these “fucking Russians and all their shit.” Unfortunately the Berlin wall fell a little over a year after this performance was shot. I think that pretty much sums up the metal scene to a certain degree. It was kind of dated even back then, but it was fun.
Is it worth a look: If you’re into these kinds of docs, then this is the O.G. for all things Heavy Metal. It takes you back to the era like a time capsule and it’s very self-aware. Penelope Spheeris went on to write and direct some films for the Hollywood system like Wayne’s World, but I’ll always remember her for the incredible punk epic Suburbia (my favorite). Here, she really takes a kind of vicious stab at the obvious goofiness of this particular genre of music, fashion and attitude, while also seeming to have a good time with it. After all, Heavy Metal music is for two things only: banging your head and banging someone else.
Random anecdotes: This past weekend I watched a segment on 60 Minutes about the group Aerosmith. I was surprised to learn that the entire band is extremely upset with Steven Tyler’s ego and continuing battles with drugs. It’s ironic because in Decline II both Tyler and Joe Perry are shown together as good friends reveling in their comeback success and the fact that they’re both clean and sober. In the 60 Minutes piece Perry had a lot of unkind words for his band mate and in turn Tyler said the others were simply “riding his coattails.” There’s so much drama in Heavy Metal, man.
Cinematic soul mates: This is Spinal Tap, Heavy Metal Parking Lot, Anvil! The Story of Anvil, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Last Days Here