The Films (5/5 5/5, 3.5/5)
All year long I watch new releases day in, day out, and I keep a list of my favorites of the year for ECAV's annual best of list. This year has been particularly excellent in the realm of cult film releasing, but into the crowded cult Blu-ray environment comes one release that may at year's end stand above them all for both the restoration, and extras, but also the significance of the films being released. That set would be Shout Factory's Blu-ray release of the Decline of Western Civilization trilogy. The series which documents the underground music scene in the Los Angeles area over a span of roughly 20 years has only ever been released on VHS(the third felt didn’t even get that), never being granted a DVD release. Considering how significant the first 2 films are to the various music scenes they are documenting getting to 2015 without an honest physical digital release of the trio was quite a surprise, but they have finally arrived, and in style.
The first film in the series simply "The Decline of Western Civilization" documents the west coast punk scene that was brewing in the late 70's, and early 80's. In the film Spheeris brings together the participants in that scene from late Germs singer Darby Crash, to X, Fear, Alice Bag Band, and more. The film does not just simply document the music, and musicians, but also the lifestyles of the participants. Spheeris takes queues seemingly from the earlier work of Errol Morris in these interview segments, and just allows the camera to roll on the subjects, and allow them to express themselves fully. This creates some quite interesting moments, that I'd rather not spoil for viewers who maybe going into this for the first time. Aside from the great interviews, there is also a copious amount of live footage of the various bands in action, the performances across the board are excellent, and memorable, and manage to show the diversity and intensity of the west coast punk scene during that time.
The second film The Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years essentially picks up about a decade after the first film concludes. The punk scene that had marked Los Angeles in the late 70's, has given away to glam inspired metal with bands like W.A.S.P., Faster Pussycat, London and more taking center stage. The first film documented the less than glamorous existence of the punks at the time, the second film never really feels the same, and more or less shows the decadence of the current scene. Most band members seen throughout the Decline II’s runtime are drunk, high, or talking about getting laid. The live footage here is of similarly quality to the first film, with the band's offering excellent performances, and Spheeris capturing them in a way that seems natural, and allows the music to take unfold naturally.
The third film goes back to the punk rock themes of the first film, even going so far as to include an updated version of the "legal disclaimer" scene from the beginning of the first. However, this one is much different from the prior two films in the sequence. Though there was some social subtext in the earlier films, Decline of Western Civilization 3 appears to be less about the music, and bands (though we do see them, and get their participation), and more about the participants, and their lives. In this case the film focuses on homeless gutterpunks in late 1990's L.A.. The film documents these kids, how they ended up on the street, and how they're getting by day in, and day out. In a way the film feels like the punk rock documentary flip-side to Larry Clark's debut feature film Kids, but because it's real and the participants are living on the fringes, things do not end happy for everyone. The film does bring back people like Keith Morris of Black Flag and the Circle Jerks, and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who played the bass in FEAR for a time. However, in this film the music feels like a background character, that helps set the environment that these kids dwell in.
I will admit, having not seen 3 before this Blu-ray box, as this is the films home video debut with not even a VHS release to it's credit. The trilogy when taken as a whole seems to show the rise and fall of the L.A. music scene from the 70's to the 90's, and offers a wonderful, diverse, and sometimes hard to watch portrait of those periods.
The 3 films in the Decline of Western Civilization trilogy are brought to Blu-ray in a 1080p AVC encoded transfer in their respective OAR's. In the case of the first film that 1:33:1, for the latter 2 we receive 1:78:1 transfer. All 3 films were restored under the supervision of director Penelope Spheeris, and she allows the natural quality of the footage shine through. That means that while their is increased detail all around, the films appear as they are occasionally grainy, lo-fi documentaries, and honestly this works. If you've been watching bootlegs for decades prepare to be taken back by the upgrade,.
Just having these films on Blu-ray was amazing enough, however ,Shout! Factory have included an immense slate of extras for the film. We get multiple commentary tracks on the first 2 films, one each with Spheeris. The second commentary on the first film is by Dave Grohl, and plays off like a fan commentary (think the Roger Avery commentary on Day of the Dead). We also get extended interviews, more live footage, and various other clips, and featurettes. There is extras on each disc, and a fourth discs of extras which included over an hour of interview segments form the participants in the second film.
A great document of L.A. life and music culture in the late 20th century. The Decline of Western Trilogy sees it's digital debut in this fantasic box from Shout! Factory. The A/V is excellent, and is a severe upgrade from what was there before. The extras are totally comprehensive, and interesting. The Decline of Western Civilization trilogy comes highly recommended.